Are you getting ready for college or maybe you're getting ready to get ready for college? Either way, you can learn from someone who's been in the trenches, like my friend and colleague Ali O'Leary, a recent college graduate and aspiring author, who I interviewed for this post. You can read her blog at https://alioleary.wordpress.com/.
Me: Your introduction to college was a bit atypical. Can you tell me about how you decided which college to go to and when you started your college planning?
Ali: Ok, that’s a funny story. I got to April of my senior year and thought, “Hmmm, I should go to college.” I hadn’t applied anywhere. I thought I would start out with a community college, but my parents wanted me to apply to other schools as well. My dad had been supporting this college, Patrick Henry College, for a couple of years and since it was more of a Government degree type school, he didn’t think it would interest me. But he saw that it had a Literature major and, since I’ve always been interested in writing, he thought it would be a good fit. So I applied with one week to spare before the deadline and got in.
If you’re not a math person, don’t do online math classes.
Me: That is a crazy, crazy story! I’ve never heard of anyone going about the college decision making process this way. (not to be insulting, I’m just really impressed.) So were you stressing out about college before you decided what to do?
Ali: Not really, I knew I should go to college, but I wasn’t in any particular rush. I figured if I didn’t get into the fall semester, I could work until it was time to apply for the spring semester.
Me: And did you have a pretty good idea what you wanted to major in before you applied? I mean, did you know it would be English/writing/literature related?
Ali: Yes, I’ve never really been interested in anything else, so it made sense to study something I loved.
Me: So it looks like your dad had a huge influence on your college decision.
Ali: Very much so. I am the quintessential “daddy’s girl” and he’s always been a key voice in most of my major decisions. He knows what I like and don’t like very well, so I can usually count on him being a reliable source of information.
Me: And what was it about Patrick Henry College that attracted you both?
Ali: We saw that it was a classic liberal arts school that focused on a very traditional way of learning: grammar, logic, rhetoric, all that jazz. It also didn’t just focus on the major you went into, but really wanted all of its students to have a well-rounded education so that they’re prepared for any sort of discussion in the real world. We would know at least the foundations of subjects like philosophy, physics, and biology. I’m also a Christian and it is a Christian school, so that appealed to us as well.
I had three months to have a mental breakdown at leaving my family for the first time and to get my stuff ready for dorm life. :)
Me: So what happened after you were accepted?
Ali: They had a distance learning program that I started out with, so I ended up taking 12 credits my first semester to sort of ease into the whole college/distance learning thing.
Me: So you basically did online classes for the first semester, is that right?
Ali: Yes, really for the first two years. We could get our basics pretty much done online. It was a good way to save on costs.
Me: What was online learning like for you as a student?
Ali: I am an introvert, so I really loved being able to have my own schedule and have online discussions, as opposed to a classroom discussion. I do much better when I can write out my thoughts rather than speak them, so I enjoyed that aspect of it. But it was challenging when I had questions, because I could ask the professors, but it was often hard to get across the particular problem I was having, if that makes sense.
Me: Yes, because there are nonverbal clues we give when speaking that don’t come across online. Also, when you’re speaking to someone, you can kind of tell if they’re getting it or not.
Me: Do you have any advice for college students taking online classes?
Ali: Definitely. You get out of it what you put into it. I made an effort to make friends and have “study groups” online and that really helped me learn. I still have some of those friends today. Also, it really helps to have a planner to write down all of the assignments, because oftentimes online classes have more work for you to do to make up for not having class discussions/assignments.
I was extremely homesick for pretty much the whole first semester on campus.
Me: College was the first time I ever used a planner, and I made GREAT use of it! I planned exactly what work I would do every night and divided up long sections of text (like 100 pages or more) so that I would read just a section each night. I actually ended up planning how many pages and what pages I would read in my planner ahead of time. I personally am not very good at being last minute--too stressful.
So anything else you want to add about taking online class? Did you feel like you were missing out on the “real” college experience?
Ali: Maybe sometimes. Especially once I made friends, I wished we could hang out together, but I never felt like I was gaining a lesser education by doing it online. But again, it depends on how much effort you put into it. And also, if you’re not a math person, don’t do online math classes.
Me: So you did two years of online classes, and then what happened?
Ali: I had three months to have a mental breakdown at leaving my family for the first time and to get my stuff ready for dorm life. :)
I ended up praying a lot and that really helped.
Me: How far away was the school from where your family lived?
Ali: I think it was about 1600 miles?
Me: Ouch!!! And it was your first time away from home?
Ali: Yep! Go big or go home.
Me: What thoughts were running through your mind as you made your preparations?
Ali: They weren’t all bad, I was excited about meeting new people, but mostly I was super concerned about how I was going to handle having classes as well as homework. Which sounds funny, but online learning is basically all homework. Throw in class time and it’s like, freak out!
Me: What was it like when you actually made it to campus?
Ali: The campus itself was beautiful - it’s out in Virginia - and everyone was really friendly. But it was a lot of people and I am really bad at meeting large groups of people. I also didn’t have a roommate because mine called me the day I was leaving and told me she wasn’t going anymore, so it was hard to not have someone to immediately connect with.
Me: Were you homesick, and if so, how did you deal with it?
The more I started talking to people and accepting invitations to hang out, the easier it got.
Ali: I was extremely homesick for pretty much the whole first semester on campus. It was my first time away from home and we had just finished going through some pretty difficult situations in my family, so it was hard to leave right when we were starting to patch things up. I ended up having a lot of panic attacks and I called my parents pretty much every other day. My dad even offered to come and get me, but I really felt like the Lord wanted me to stay there. So I ended up praying a lot and that really helped, plus I also started making friends with my suitemates and they made sure I saw the light of day every now and then. The more I started talking to people and accepting invitations to hang out, the easier it got.
Me: I think homesickness is something a lot of college students struggle with and something they don’t even anticipate. What is your advice to students who move away from home for college?
Ali: I think the first step is realizing that the time is going to pass faster than you think it is. Which is not super helpful at the start, but honestly, I wish I had spent less time wishing I was somewhere else and more time enjoying where I was at. It was hard, but it’s important to enjoy the season that you are in. And your family is an excellent support system, but sometimes the only way you learn more about yourself and who you are is by getting out from under their wings. So, I guess, don’t cut your family out of your life, but don’t panic if you’re suddenly discovering parts about yourself that you didn’t know existed before when they’re not around. It’s okay to do a little self-discovery.
Me: I had a similar experience. I stayed home for my undergraduate degree and commuted to a nearby college, and then I went 800 miles away for graduate school. It was okay at first because my sister moved with me, but then she left and I was all alone. It was scary at first, but I learned that I was stronger than I thought I was and that I had the capacity to become self sufficient. Do you have any other advice for college students?
Ali: Enjoy the college experience! I know that people say that all the time, but honestly, it is a great time of life to be able to dedicate time to learning what you love and hanging out with people your age all the time. It can be super crazy, but you’ll make some of the best memories during college. Also, it’s important to find balance between social life and academic life….I was one that was always erring on the side of too much academia and not enough fun, but I know it works both ways.
Me: Thanks for letting me interview you! I think the college years were the best years of my life, but it’s a sharp learning curve, and I think it’s good to go in kinda sorta having an idea of what to expect.
Ali: For sure. Thanks for having me!
Don't forget to check out Ali's blog at https://alioleary.wordpress.com/!
Word and Book Lover.