By Helen Felbek
Starting college can be overwhelming. For many, it means leaving their families for the first time or living in a new place surrounded by strangers (some of whom are going to become friends!). For others – like myself – it also means living in a different country completely and adjusting to culture differences. And of course, there are the ever-looming questions: Did I make the right choice? Do I belong here?
Am I really a Johnnie?
All of these questions are normal for all college freshmen (okay, maybe not the Johnnie one), but St. John’s poses unique challenges to those who are accepted. Students here commit to an all-required program, one major, and one of the most rigorous undergraduate programs in the United States. This can raise unique challenges for those brave enough to embark on this odyssey. From one student to another, here are some pieces of advice that I wished someone had told me during my freshman year at St. John’s.
Initially, some of your classes might be frustrating. The texts we read are often complex and difficult (if not impossible) to understand fully. Additionally, our dialogue-based classes mean that the people in your class (including the tutor) affect your learning. This kind of collaboration may feel different, but it is invaluable for your learning. Don’t be upset if classes don’t always go according to your expectations. Even if it seems like you are leaving class with more questions than you had in the beginning, this is a good thing. It means you have developed a more nuanced reading of the text. You might be able to address some of those questions in a future class, essay, or over coffee with your tutor! Additionally, through your time at St. John’s you’re going to become more comfortable with not having all the answers.
Do not be afraid of your tutors.
At St. Johns, most students have very different relationships with their tutors than students and professors at other institutions. While tutors offer formal office hours for any questions or concerns, you can also take them to lunch or coffee! This is the perfect way to address questions in a more casual setting and get to know your professor better. They are very passionate about the subjects we study, and often have advanced degrees in various academic areas. From homework to networking, they are an invaluable resource. Most of them are more than happy to talk with their students outside of class, so don’t be afraid to reach out. If you decide to go to the College’s coffee shop, you’ll also receive a free coffee. 😉
Go to your classes.
St. John’s has a very strict attendance policy. Unless you are ill or need to take care of your mental health, you should show up to classes (even if you are tired or have not done the reading perfectly). While reading books and writing essays is crucial to deepening your understanding, the most important parts of the curriculum are your classmates. In class, we interact with each other and engage with the text together. Understanding is a collaborative effort. To get the most out of your St. John’s experience, make use of the people around you and try to attend as many classes as possible.
Ask for help early and often.
It’s no secret that classes at St. John’s are challenging. Every year we are asked to engage with subjects that most of us have little or no previous experience with (for instance, ancient Greek). Additionally, we write a lot of essays clearly articulating our original thoughts, which can be especially challenging for students used to writing high school essays. It is natural that you will experience academic challenges and difficulties. But fear not, you are not alone! Because of the nature of the curriculum, everyone is studying the same things you are studying (and struggling with what you’re struggling with). It is easy to connect with your classmates or upperclassmen who can help you. Even a casual conversation over dinner can illuminate a new angle on a tricky problem! There are also academic assistants (who are being paid by the college) who are happy to help with translations, writing, math problems, or even just developing good study habits. But they can only help you if you ask. Therefore, it’s crucial that you admit you need help and seek it from the community!
There is not one ideal Johnnie.
There will probably be times when you will doubt yourself. Most people I know – including myself – have worried that they do not “belong” here. That they’re not smart enough or capable enough to succeed. But in these times, keep in mind that there is no one right way to be a Johnnie. If we were all the same, and thought the same way, our classes would be mere echo chambers. No true dialogue would be possible. So, while it is helpful to critically reflect on your shortcomings, it is just as important to remember that you are a valuable part of the community. Things you struggle with are excellent opportunities to grow!