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EDUCATION | FROM THE FRONT OF THE CLASSROOM

Last Year's Seniors Finding Themselves at Home in College

November 05, 2000|CHRISTINE BARON | Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at OCEeducate@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550

After graduating from high school only months ago, many of our former seniors are now attending the schools they worked so hard to get into. Thanks to the wonders of e-mail, I have been able to track many of those students during the tumultuous first months of college. From UCLA and Long Beach State to Johns Hopkins and Reed, their experiences have thus far been varied and interesting.

For one thing, these students feel well prepared by their public school experiences, especially those who took a healthy dose of Advanced Placement classes. They are now taking Greek philosophy and concert choir, fencing and microeconomics and seminars on Godel's theorem. They are reading Proust, Virginia Woolfe, the Tao te Ching, Arundahti Roy, James Joyce and James Fenimore Cooper. One even enrolled in a class titled "Morpho-Syntactic Typology," which would give anyone pause.

I was curious about the biggest difference between high school and college. Of course students who went to such schools as UC Berkeley and Brigham Young said the sheer size of the college campus was a shock.

Other changes were subtle. One boy loved his newfound permission to write in all his textbooks, but still hasn't been able to bring himself to make marks in ink. Quite a few students commented on the level of competition they now face. As one girl at UC San Diego put it, "We are no longer the academic elite. So many people here are at least on my level, if not above. It seems like just about everybody got a 4.0 in high school."

Another difference cited was the respect accorded to faculty. "People here worship their teachers," said a student at Stanford. "Despite having won impressive awards, professors are amazingly approachable!" Students were blown away by the resources available on a typical college campus. "Just walking into the library was a humbling experience. I actually got lost there my first visit," said a freshman at Yale.

I also wanted to know what they liked best about being in college, and the answers were surprisingly similar. Far and away the No. 1 plus was the new feeling of independence. The boy at Brigham Young said it best: "I like making my own decisions--deciding when and how much I want to study and how late I want out be out. I realize I'll be the one to deal with the consequences, but I like that too."

Closely allied to this was the increased freedom to determine their own education. A girl at Bryn Mawr captured this: "I love being able to choose my own classes (no more math!), to take something I'm interested in and know I will need later in life." The freshman at Stanford also made sure he scheduled no class before 11 a.m. "Sheer heaven," he insisted.

A young pre-veterinary medicine major at UC Davis said she couldn't get over the diversity on her campus--so many different ways of "being." She went on to say that college "encourages one to open up and find out what it is one has to share. In high school I felt self-conscious about who I was, but now I'm starting to feel confident in myself and my abilities." These college freshmen love the more relaxed environment in terms of rules and regulations.

I also asked these students if they had any new insights about college or even about their high school experiences in retrospect.

All the students were very pleased they had taken and passed as many AP tests as they had. It gave them a lot more freedom to choose classes.

Conversely, the ones who had not taken many tests expressed regret. They had to take introductory classes that they felt were too easy. All of these students noted how much harder it is to get the same grades in college that they were able to knock off in high school. Twenty pages of reading a week can easily become 400 pages at a university.

A boy from the local community college dropped by to see me and had his own words of wisdom on this issue. "In college, no one makes you do the reading, but it shows up on the test." I'm sure his Ivy League cohorts would heartily agree.

All in all, the reports I've gotten from the college front are remarkably positive. These freshmen have made a smooth transition to some very demanding schools. As our last year's valedictorian said about Harvard: "You can do anything you want here, but you have to seek it out and make it happen for yourself."

Many of our students are indeed making things happen. Obviously there are many reasons for their performances, such as home environment, involved parents and their own hard work over the years. But dare I say there may have been some teachers along the way, from kindergarten through 12th grade, who also had a hand in this preparation. If kids mess up, we surely hear about it, so why not revel when they succeed?

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