Pitt professors offer advice to first-year students

By Erica Guthrie, Senior Staff Writer

As incoming first-years prepare to descend on Oakland, there is not much to worry about before the first day of classes arrives besides settling into dorms, making new friends and learning the bus system.

But before the class of 2023 shows up in lecture halls, Pitt professors who work with first-year students want to offer their best advice to the newest members of the student body on how to succeed in their first year of college.

Inside the classroom, Karen Bursic, an associate professor and undergraduate program director of the Swanson School of Engineering, said students should expect the college curriculum to be more demanding than that of their high school classes.

“For first-year students, they need to recognize the differences between high school curriculum and classes and college,” Bursic said. “Differences in terms of how independent you need to be, getting your work done and how intellectually challenging the courses often are.”

The approach to testing, and more generally how students express their knowledge of material, also changes between high school and college. John Gareis, a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate advising in the communication department, said new students are frequently stumped by having to apply the concepts they learn, rather than just memorizing definitions.

“Often times I’ll hear students say in my [communication process] class, ‘Gee, we had objective tests in high school and something doesn’t seem to be the same,’” Gareis said. “I think a lot of times students are trained to think of objective exams entirely in terms of concept and definition … When you start getting application kinds of things, like ‘Here’s a scenario, which of these does this best illustrate?’ That’s something that they often don’t think through. So, rather than just memorizing terms and definitions, think in terms of application.”

Besides for just studying in class, Bursic said students should be aware that the University is a professional environment.

“Staff and faculty need to be treated with respect. In our society, we’ve tended to become so much more casual in our communications,” Bursic said. “But professionals expect to be treated as professionals and so when students address emails or phone calls, or even in person, they need to keep that in mind.”

Since Pitt’s campus is intertwined with the streets of Pittsburgh, there are many neighborhoods, organizations and sites for students to familiarize themselves with. Mark Kramer, a lecturer in the English department, said he encouraged students to take advantage of the many academic opportunities and learning experiences the City has to offer.

“There’s just so much happening in Pittsburgh; if you only stick to learning within a classroom, you’re only getting half the education that’s available to you,” Kramer wrote in an email. “Personally, when I was an undergraduate, some of my most formative moments of learning happened away from campus where I could apply theory and book learning to real world relationships and challenges.”

Data from researcher Petrie J. A. C. van der Zanden suggests that a successful first-year experience is not only determined by strong academic performance, but also significantly correlates with a successful social and emotional transition.

Some students may feel a need to make many new friends as soon as they get to campus and not form many deep bonds. But Kramer stressed the importance of being patient while finding your place socially in the University environment.

“Of course you want to make friends and have a good time, but sometimes I see students jump into scenes right away that aren’t very life-giving, or they get frustrated when they don’t quickly make deep connections,” Kramer said. “Keep at it and be true to your own self and interests. And, keep taking risks to step out of your comfort zone to find your people.”

With students hailing from all over the United States and the globe, Gareis said it is a good idea to keep it simple and stay open-minded when it comes to potential friendships.

“The University is a big place, and [new students] have probably not had the experience on this scale with potentially being in touch with people from such a diverse variety of backgrounds,” Gareis said. “Don’t just seek out people [you] already know or assume to be a lot like them. Sit beside someone different in class and get to know them.”