Students find it difficult to open up in the initial days of college. But with some effort and initiative, they can break through the barriers.

It’s always exciting to face a new group of students and to watch a new set of dynamics unfold each year. The new class of 40 or so is a diverse group of young men and women, mostly strangers to each other. On the first day, they sit in tight, isolated bubbles, maybe one or two in a shy conversation with each other. By the afternoon perhaps, the ice is broken and the conversation extends in waves across the room. There are however, groups that have various kinds of barriers around them — linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural. But these will to some extent disappear as the semester progresses and as the demands of the course bring individuals from diverse backgrounds together.

Understanding campus life

The first few weeks — sometimes months — in a new place, and in a new programme, can be extremely disorientating and even scary for some. If you are starting an undergraduate degree programme, the sudden shift from school can be a big change. For those going into a master’s course, it may be an even bigger change, as the level of independence and the nature of expectations can be quite different. The only comfort during those first few days is that everyone else around you is in the same boat!

Last fortnight we had talked about the need to spend some time reading and assimilating the material that is given to new students. That helps us get an understanding of the formal structure of the programme and the individual course that we will be taking. It also provides information on the various supports that are available to students. However, there’s a lot of unwritten or what is called “tacit” knowledge that exists in the college or university community that never gets into these orientation packages. Details such as which parts of the administration work efficiently and which are less responsive, whom to go to if one needs papers moved quickly, which faculty member is approachable and helpful and whom to avoid, what the unspoken expectations are and what is considered acceptable behaviour…all this is learned by trial and error or through the grapevine. Usually, it is a helpful senior who volunteers such information. So, one of the important activities that one needs to put some energy into relates to getting to know the seniors.

But these initial days are also about understanding the physical and intellectual space within which your classes are going to take place. Many elements form a part of this environment, and they can enrich your experience considerably. If you are lucky enough to be on a large enclosed campus, maybe you have the chance to explore nature in a way you’ve never been able to before. Taking long walks, becoming part of nature or eco clubs, learning how to bicycle (if you haven’t had that opportunity so far), even climbing trees, can become part of enjoying campus life. The university or college may host visiting scholars from other parts of the country and abroad, and usually there are open talks given by such people. Keep an eye out for posters and bulletins announcing such events, and of course, with social media this becomes much easier. All you have to do is to sign up for Twitter and Facebook alerts.

Out of classroom learning

A university is perhaps the most intellectually charged space there can be. It is full of young minds keen to learn and question the way things are. While classrooms are definitely spaces where such engagement and questioning can and should happen, many of the best conversations take place over coffee and chai in the canteens and during late night sessions in crowded hostel room — and these are the stuff of our campus memories.

You don’t need a large campus to find out-of-the-classroom opportunities for learning, however. The lessons come in other, less obvious ways. As the new class of individuals becomes a group with a particular character, you see there is a sharing of perspectives and experiences, with new understanding emerging across people from different backgrounds. Arguments and misinterpretations still happen, but as time goes by, they are tempered by a growing realisation—and appreciation—that people are different. If you’re lucky enough to be at a large state or central university, you will meet people from many different backgrounds, each offering a unique worldview.

Often it is these spaces outside the classroom, among people who are not your teachers (in the conventional sense of the word) that a lot of this “tacit” knowledge is shared. Spend the first few weeks of this new academic year discovering them. It will go a long way in making you feel at home with the new environment. And where better to learn than a place in which you’re comfortable?

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus, www.teacherplus.org.

Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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