Students reflect on transition to NU, discuss finding academic and social support


Illustration by Lily Ogburn

From handling the academic rigor of NU classes to dealing with class differences at NU, McCormick sophomore Camilla Solis said the transition to college can be “overwhelming.”

Kristen Axtman, Assistant Campus Editor

When McCormick sophomore Camila Solis arrived at Northwestern from a large public school outside of Fort Worth, Texas where “almost no” students attend Top 50-ranked universities, she found college to be intimidating. 

For first-generation and/or low-income students, like Solis, the transition to college and adjustment to NU courses can prove especially difficult. Many FGLI students say courses at the University can be both demanding and overwhelming.

“When you get here, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you belong here. You made it. You deserve being here,’” Solis said. “I was like, ‘But I’m gonna fail my classes actually, and everyone else seems to understand what they’re doing,’ so it’s just really terrifying.”

Though she found success in Advanced Placement classes in high school, she said she felt defeated by fast-paced academics at NU. Solis added she had to “catch up” on subjects like linear algebra, which her peers may have been taught in high school. 

Solis said the time and effort she puts into her NU classes is not always reflected in letter grades. Between work-study jobs and the demand of NU classes, especially given the quarter system, she feels like a “human output machine.”

Solis said she “lived in office hours” her freshman year at NU and enrolled in Peer-Guided Study Groups, which were both helpful in her studies. McCormick students helped support her through the difficult coursework, she added. 

“I was talking with another friend and we were just sitting there crying with each other and (asking), ‘Why do we feel like we work 20 times as hard as these other kids and then get none of the results?’ she said. “But, even having each other there together, feeling the exact same way was so much better than going through that alone.”

Weinberg sophomore Vivian Bui, a FGLI student who attended a large New Jersey suburban public school, said many students who share her academic and financial background learn to be more self-sufficient.

She said encountering class differences at the University also made the social transition to NU difficult. 

For Bui, the Arch Scholars programs — a series of programs for incoming students from high schools with little or no AP/IB preparation, those with financial need or first-generation college students — helped her with the transition process. As an Arch Scholar, Bui took a month of NU courses the summer before freshman year, introducing her to the style of the University’s classes.

“There’s a lot of gaps to be filled, but it definitely was a start,” Bui said. “It’s something that I don’t think a lot of other universities have.”

She said the BIPOC and FGLI advisors in the Office of Fellowships and the Office of Career Advancement were also helpful in her transition to NU. These advisors helped her realize her identity does not need to put her at a disadvantage for job applications and other academic and career opportunities, she said. 

Weinberg sophomore Jeanette Nguyen, who is a first-generation college student, attended a highly selective college prep school in San Francisco. She said found her transition to high school from a Catholic K-8 school was more difficult than her academic transition to NU. Many of the white, affluent students in her high school were “out of touch with reality,” which can also happen at NU, she said.  

“They thought a lot of their success had to do with their merit and not because of privileges they grew up around,” she said. 

Nguyen described her high school as a feeder institution that marketed itself as one of the most rigorous schools in the area. But she said she felt some of the classes were not as difficult as the school said they were. Nguyen added she had strong support from teachers. However, at NU, she said she doesn’t always take advantage of the resources offered. 

“When you’re really coddled and someone’s holding your hand the whole way through high school, you’re not really used to seeing that out for yourself,” Nguyen said. 

Solis said she “never imagined” how difficult the transition to college would be. She added even hearing about her peer’s extracurricular activities and knowing they do need to do work study jobs makes her not feel like a part of the NU community. 

Now, Solis is a Peer-Guided Study Group leader and she advises students facing similar struggles to find a mentor. She joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, which she said made her feel less alone. 

“When I’m struggling here, I have to remember, ‘You from 10 years ago would be like, ‘you’re in college, and just that is amazing,’” Solis said. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @KristenAxtman1

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