With thousands of students across the UAE starting their first year at university recently, the move to virtual learning has created a unique set of challenges for them. Not only do they have to contend with the usual challenges encountered by first-year students, but they also have to navigate the virtual space, manage isolation and added distractions, learn in a new environment, and deal with resolving possible technical issues.
Although these students were already trailblazers for completing their high school amidst a global pandemic, they are now the first class to start their university education with remote learning in place, with many joining from their homes in other countries. According to Dr. Mehvash Ali, Director of the Academic Support Center and First Year Experience at American University of Sharjah (AUS), “The first year of university is a very critical year for students. Students grow and stretch outside their comfort zone in many ways in just a few short months and have to learn to function independently. Those who are most likely to succeed in their first year are the ones who are adaptable, resilient and receptive to receiving assistance.”
Dr. Ali, who is the first member of the Board of Directors of NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising selected from this region, believes that the quicker students learn to adapt their skills to what is required in university, the better they will perform. “They cannot expect to apply the same study habits and skills they used in high school to their university studies since university requires significant independent effort, critical thinking and resourcefulness. Students who regularly assess their own performance, recognize when they need help and are not afraid to seek out support are more likely to succeed,” she said.
Universities across the world are now recognizing the unique needs of first-year students and some are launching support programs aimed directly at facilitating the transition of students from high school to university. The First Year Experience (FYE) launched at AUS last year significantly helped improve the academic performance of first-year students after only one semester. FYE at AUS is a university-wide collaborative effort that aims to teach first-year students the study and self-care skills they need, educate them on how to balance their studies with other responsibilities, and help them make meaningful connections with the university community.
This fall, first-year students at AUS were welcomed with an innovative and exciting weeklong virtual orientation. Dr. Ali said that there are immense opportunities for engagement that have been created by the virtual space. She said that students are more regularly engaging in student success workshops since moving to a virtual platform, attending advising appointments more easily and that her staff are energized by having to explore nontraditional means of working with students.
Maria Sousa, a student at AUS, said: “FYE was my first taste of life at AUS... and it was how I knew that this university was the right choice.”
According to Dr. Ali, students should recognize that it’s fine to stumble as they transition from high school to university. “Students who learn from their mistakes and see them as opportunities to grow tend to perform better than students who get overwhelmed by them,” she said.