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Opinion: Shouldn't we give freshers more time to make life-changing decisions?

In a two to three week period we expect our young people to make massive life decisions – we could make the whole process much easier.

Vivian Rath

THE SOUND OF wasps buzzing, brightly coloured T-shirts and the autumnal chill brings back memories of starting in UCD. I was the only person from my secondary school starting and I was nervous. I remember the embarrassment of having my mother escort me around the campus, yet I was glad of having someone for support. I remember the panic and anxiety associated with checking I had all my academic matters prepared. Oh, how I had wished I had more time.

Only three weeks ago students across the country received their Leaving Cert results, and starting from this week thousands will begin their journey of discovery in third level. Parents are scratching their heads asking themselves how they will pay the student contribution of €2,750 and other expenses. Their ‘fresher’ is panicking about where they are going to live, how they should register, and how to get to college.

In a two to three week period we expect our young people to make massive life decisions. In fact I made decisions in that period the scale of which I wasn’t required to make again for another ten years.

The recent ESRI Report Leaving School in Ireland has thrown a necessary spotlight on the difficulties new students face transitioning to higher education. However, these results are not surprising to those working in the industry. The HEA had earlier this year reported that 9% to 16% of students fail to progress. The loss of these students from colleges results in a loss to the Exchequer but even more so it acts to demoralise our young people.

Both of these reports highlight the importance of third level transition policies. Transitioning takes time, so one has to ask how these policies can be practically implemented in such a narrow timeline. Many would question why it takes so long for students to receive their Leaving Cert results; why cant they receive their results mid-July? A fair question and the response might be that we must ensure that we protect the integrity of the marking system of our state exams. I am certainly in favour of this but third level institutions across the world grade thousands of final year papers annually in a much shorter time frame.

Why does it take over two months to provide 57,000 students with their exam results? Then we only give them three weeks to make the greatest decisions of their lives. In order to assist the transition to third level and improve retention rates, it might be wise to consider giving students more time.

I have visited third level institutions such as Princeton, Pace and Rutgers Universities in the US and they begin their orientation programmes from early summer. Connecting with their students and forming a relationship, giving students adequate amounts of time to make decisions. Surely this would make sense? Shouldn’t we aim to relieve some of the pressure on our young people and their parents? We could do this by providing the Leaving Cert results in mid-July.

Research has shown that all new students must adjust intellectually and socially to their new college and this adjustment generally requires a degree of physical separation and emotional detachment. Students are separated from significant others who were important during school, such as family members, and are required to make new connections. During my time as Orientation Project Manager in UCD, I was lucky to be in a position to help students and parents through that stressful transition.

The benefits of providing students with their exam results earlier will allow time to make decisions, plan financially and prepare for one of the biggest steps of their adult lives. It will allow more supports to be provided for students who have successful exam appeals – and who currently end up starting mid-term, in some cases.

I am still in university – an eternal student one might say – so perhaps those first few weeks didn’t go too badly. So, for all those beginning third level in the coming weeks can I offer the following advice: I cannot overstate the value of making friends. Orientation week is an excellent opportunity to do this, so make sure you go and go to all of it.

I would ask you to remember three key messages:

Don’t panic – everybody around you is starting too.

Ask for help – ‘a stitch in time, saves nine’ and colleges have teams of students and staff to help you get settled in. If you are worried about something seek help. Don’t worry they have heard all the questions before.

However, the most important piece of advice I can give is to say hello, to the person sitting beside you, in front of you and behind you. Who knows, those people could be your best friends for life and all because you said ‘hello’.

There is a range of supports available to students starting college. Some to consider are mabs.ie, pleasetalk.ie, headstrong.ie, ahead.ie, studentfinance.ie and, of course, your third level institution support service should be your first port of call.

Vivian Rath is a PhD student researching the experience of students with disabilities at third level. He worked as UCD Orientation Project Manager from 2009-2012. He has been involved in the promotion of equal opportunity for people with disabilities for many years and sits as a Director on the Board of AHEAD (Association of Higher Education Access and Disability); is a member of the Kanchi sounding Board; established the first third level wheelchair basketball team in UCD, and founding member of the national third level mental health campaign Pleasetalk.ie

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Vivian Rath

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