“My biggest concern was that idea of being away from home and having to become really independent in making good and bad choices with my studies and my social life,” Murray said in a recent interview.
Obviously, the Anniston High alum was able to overcome those post-graduation, pre-college anxieties. Murray, now 23, just successfully earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Jacksonville State University. Looking back on his years at JSU, he understands he worried a lot for nothing.
“The campus was pretty friendly,” he said. “There was a lot to do.”
If hindsight is 20-20, students about to graduate from high schools around Calhoun County would do well to look through the lenses of others who’ve been in those caps and gowns before.
Several alumni of area high schools recently talked to The Star about what they worried about as they looked forward to their first years in college, how their expectations were met or broken, and what they did to make it out with bachelor’s degrees in hand.
“You have all of these suggestions coming from your family and friends,” said Lindy Baird, another recent JSU grad and former Alexandria High student. “I learned that you kind of need to listen to yourself and what you want to do.”
OK to be clueless
Baird, 24, figured that out for herself when she started her first semester at Gadsden State Community College. She graduated from Alexandria High in 2006 as a hardworking student who wasn’t sure what she wanted to study in college. At first, she listened to family members and friends who were urging her to pursue a career in the medical field.
She took radiology classes at Gadsden State and did an internship at Regional Medical Center. She worked hard, studied hard. She was miserable.
“It was just not me,” she said. “Always in the back of my head I was thinking, ‘Oh I would be so much happier with education and helping kids.’”
Finally, she transferred to JSU in 2009 and switched her major to education studies. A year-and-a-half later, Baird graduated with a degree in secondary education. Now, she enjoys substitute teaching at Weaver High while she looks for a more permanent position.
“You have to be happy in what you do; I finally realized you need to listen to what your heart says,” Baird said.
Evan Kennedy recently graduated from the University of Alabama; the 24-year-old said he changed focus several times before discovering he loved his psychology classes.
“If you don’t know what you want, you can takexa classes and keep an eye on what you like,” said Kennedy, a Donoho alumnus. “Having a plan isn’t necessarily the most important thing; you can always change what you want — that’s what college is about.”
Making new friends
College is also about making new friends, meeting people with different backgrounds and experiences from you, Kennedy said. Shy by nature, he was daunted by the prospect of make those connections at a big university like Alabama after he graduated from the much-smaller Donoho.
“That was tough for me; I don’t make new friends too easily,” he said.
Kennedy had to make a conscious effort to step outside of his comfort zone and attend a worship group on campus that appealed to him. He also forced himself to join up with a group of people from his dorm who often played “Capture the Flag” games together.
His decision to push through his shyness paid off: Kennedy now has a variety of close friends in Tuscaloosa, where he attends grad school to earn his masters and PhD in experimental psychology.
Paige Anderson, a former basketball star for Spring Garden High School, said she was shy in college, too. She used her basketball team at Samford University as a way to make new friends.
“I didn’t do a lot of social stuff,” 22-year-old Anderson said. “Pretty much for me, it’s finding the people you can connect with most on the team, and then finding friends through them.”
At Samford, Anderson played guard on the basketball team, meaning she spent hours at practice and sometimes missed class for away games. It was difficult, the Spring Garden alum said, to figure out how to balance schoolwork with her sport.
“It took a lot of effort,” she said. It also took figuring out what kind of studier she was.
Anderson, an accounting major, quickly learned she was not the kind of person who could cram all night for a test. She remembers “almost” pulling an all-nighter for “the hardest accounting class ever” a couple of years ago.
“I was so nervous, I was afraid to go to sleep,” she said. She stayed up and studied until 4 a.m., went to sleep, and then woke up at 6 a.m. to study some more. By the time the test rolled around at 3 that afternoon, she was exhausted.
“That was a huge mistake for me,” she admitted. Anderson figured out that she did better by going to sleep only “kind of” late, getting a full night’s rest and getting up early to study. On May 18, she will graduate from Samford and then head to JSU to pursue a master’s in accounting.
“You’ve got to know what kind of person you are and focus on that,” she said. “You have to know what it takes to get you jump-started every day, and know your studying habits.”
That’s also part of Chase Cotton’s key advice for high school graduates. Cotton graduated seventh in his class from White Plains High School four years ago. But even he had trouble with his first calculus class at Auburn University.
“I got in my first semester of college, and I realized just how much I’d have to study,” said Cotton, 22.
College also requires a certain amount of flexibility, an open mind — especially in that first semester, Cotton said. He started off with too heavy of a course load and as a result initially had difficulty balancing classes that he needed for his math education major. He took that tricky calculus class and an equally tough chemistry seminar during the same grading period. Although the recent Auburn graduate managed to buckle down and do the work, he said he wouldn’t do it that way again.
“That chemistry class had the only textbook I’ve really read cover to cover,” he said. “I really had to do some soul-searching.”
Living away from home for the first time, away from teachers and parents who checked to see that he kept up with his work made a heavy course-load that much worse, he said.
Kennedy also warned against a killer workload in the first semester or year — with all of that new independence and responsibility that goes with it.
He had to drop an organic chemistry class because he pushed himself too hard too fast, he said.
“I studied hard, I tried hard; I got the first back and got a 63 on it,” Kennedy said. But dropping that class turned out to be the push he needed to take another psychology course in its place and find his career path.
That’s yet another reason why it’s important to be open-minded when you start college, he said, to give yourself some space to figure things out.
“Don’t kill yourself that first semester, because the last thing you want to do is get in there and fail a class and mess up a scholarship,” Cotton said. “But if you think you’ve studied enough, study more. Because that’s what it requires in college.”
Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.
Five pre-college worries … and how to get over them
Tips from alumni of area high schools who survived four years of college.
1. Harder Classes – Make lists to keep up with day’s activities, figure out what study habits work for you and don’t be afraid to change your course load or type if it’s too hard in the beginning
2. Homesickness – Stay in touch with your family and high school friends via phone and email. Don’t go home right away. Try new groups – athletic clubs, churches, fraternities and sororities – and don’t be afraid to accept invitations to do new things with people you meet.
3. Not knowing what you want to do – It’s OK to not have a plan or a major mapped out right away. Take a variety of classes in your first couple of years to find out what you like and what you’re good at.
4. Managing money – Having a part-time job is a good way to shore up your finances. It’s also important to create a weekly or monthly budget for yourself and get in the habit early of sticking to it.
5. The first semester – This is the time when you figure everything out. It’s OK to be a little unsure of yourself. Get used to the campus, dorm life and your new class schedule. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Eat right and get enough sleep.