25 May 2023
My experience of transitioning to university
Gianna De Salvo
Get Ahead Transition Programme Project Officer, Queen Mary University of London
The transition from school to university can be a daunting experience for many. It can feel like stepping into a completely new world with its own language, unfamiliar faces, and different environments to navigate. This can be particularly challenging when trying to adjust to living independently for the first time. It's no surprise that many people experience feelings of anxiety and uncertainty during this period.
When I was preparing to start my first year of university in the United States, my friend and I visited the campus a week prior to the start of classes. As first-generation university students, we had no idea what to expect. During our visit, we met two students from the UK who had just met each other that day in international halls. They both seemed like they were struggling to adjust to university life and expressed regret about studying abroad. Even though I was more familiar with the area and had my friend with me, I also felt overwhelmed and unsure about what to expect.
Thankfully, with time, we all adjusted to university life, no doubt in part by the support we all gave to each other, and the inductions organised by the University. Reflecting on my experience, I was reminded of the importance of support programmes for new students. This inspired me to take on a role as a Transition Programme Project Officer at Queen Mary University, where I hope to use my experience to help other students during their transition to university life.
The Get Ahead Book Club
As one of my first responsibilities in my new position, I continued the tradition of the Get Ahead Book Club which was set up the previous year as part of the Stepping Stones programme in the School of Medicine and Dentistry by Dr. Nandini Hayes and Dr. Jennifer Randall. The idea was to extend support to prearrival students who were transitioning from school to university across all disciplines and create an opportunity for them to get to know each other prior to arriving at Queen Mary. The aim was to assist them in feeling more confident when they set foot on campus.
The book that was selected was one about study skills that was written from an evidence-based psychological perspective. Our rationale was that by bringing students together to read and discuss a book on a topic related to university life, we could help them connect with each other, establish supportive networks, and introduce them to new ideas and concepts such as independent learning, academic reading and writing, and avoiding procrastination.
In addition to providing practical advice, the book club discussions, led by current Queen Mary students, also encouraged students to reflect on their own experiences and share their thoughts and feelings with others, without university staff being present. This created a safe and supportive space for students to explore their own perspectives and expectations, helping them to build self-awareness and develop a sense of identity and belonging on their own terms.
Furthermore, the book club provided a platform for students to learn about university policies, services and resources, as well as gain insights into the values and culture of the institution. This can be particularly beneficial for international students and those who were first-generation university students, as I was.
We were delighted to receive positive feedback from students, indicating that we were achieving some of our objectives. One student mentioned that they liked the book club because they got to know how other students planned their studies and received feedback to improve their studies. Another stated that they felt reassured to learn that help was available for essay writing and that they were not alone in finding it difficult. Finally, another student expressed that they joined the book club to meet new people and found the section in the book on academic reading to be very helpful.
We decided to extend the invitation to join the book club to all new students at Queen Mary, even though we initially aimed it at foundation and first-year students. A few postgraduate students expressed their interest in participating, so we formed a separate group for them, which was led by two postgraduate book club leaders. In future, we plan to collaborate with other groups of students, such as those entering through international or widening participation pathways.
If you're considering starting a book club for new university students, the frequency of the meetings can depend on the size and level of interest of the group. You may choose to organise weekly or biweekly meetings to discuss the book, or hold a one-time event, such as a panel discussion or an author talk. For our book club, we arranged four weekly evening meetings, along with workshops on study skills, an author talk, and a session on wellbeing and neurodiversity in the week before Welcome Week.
I recommend hiring and training current students to act as book club leaders. We worked closely with our leaders and held weekly debriefing meetings to monitor their progress throughout the project. At the end of the initiative, we conducted a feedback and evaluation session, during which the leaders reflected individually and as a group on the skills they gained from the experience, including communication, leadership and community building.
I believe that a book club initiative can be a beneficial tool in helping new university students transition to university life. By offering practical advice, fostering a supportive community, and encouraging self-reflection and engagement with the university, book clubs can boost students' confidence and empower them as they embark on this new chapter in their lives. I wish there had been such a programme in place when I started my own university journey years ago.
QAA Members can explore our collection of toolkits, short papers and case studies designed to address various challenges linked to supporting successful student transitions on our Membership Resources site.