College 101

Whether you're starting college for the first time or returning to college after many years, the decision to go to school represents a giant step forward in your professional and personal development. Over the years, I have taught hundreds of first-time students and I have accumulated some tips for success that seem to help many new fire and emergency services students stay out of the "sand traps" and get their get their feet firmly on the ground.

Congratulations on embarking on the higher education journey! Whether you will be attending a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom or attending a virtual classroom online, here are some keys to success:

  • Be realistic about the time school involves — Many students underestimate the amount of time that a college course takes. A three- or four-credit college course normally requires about 10 to 12 hours a week dedicated to studying and classwork. The amount of time individuals will need varies, but understand that the expectation is 10 to12 hours of work for each course. One benefit of an online course is often more flexibility in terms of days and hours spent in class, but taking a class online does not mean you will be able to miss class activity deadlines.
  • Keep your balance — If you have a baby at home and another on the way, two jobs and an ailing parent, enrolling in four courses for your first semester may not be a great idea. Unless you are a traditional-age student just leaving high school and headed straight to full-time college studies, you will have many other pre-existing demands of life to manage while you are attending school. It is far better to start out taking one or two courses and get a feel for how it affects the balance of your life than it is to enroll in four courses and then discover that you do not have 40 or 50 hours a week that you can take from the rest of your life right now.
  • Organize your resources — Resources to help you succeed in college are ample. Most colleges offer tutoring; many even offer online tutoring. There are advisors to help as well as networks of people and resources to offer assistance. Before the semester starts, identify those resources and understand what help they can provide so that you can use the resources when you need them.

    Understand, however, that it is not your fire science or paramedic professor's job to "catch you up" on academic basics. If you are enrolled in fire administration and getting bad marks on papers because you have weak writing skills, don't expect the teacher to excuse your poor writing or divert from the material he or she is trying to teach so that you can be given writing help. Make use of the writing center at the school and other resources to catch up. Don't forget that there are many people in your day-to-day life who can help you as well.

  • Be self directed — Most college professors will go out of their way to help a student who has initiative and is trying to do the work. However, a major difference between college and other learning experiences is that college is student centered and self directed. You must take responsibility for your own learning. Unlike many situations you may have been in where someone hands you all the parts of something and gives step-by-step directions for assembling the item, the college professor or teacher's job is to facilitate learning and to guide you.

    For example, if you are assigned a project that includes an interview and you call the person to set up the interview, but he or she doesn't call back promptly, don't just sit and wait forever. After a few days, call again or try another way to reach the person. Likewise, if the teacher assigns you a task that involves looking something up from a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard, you are expected find the code, access it and look up the information. Don't come back to the teacher and claim that you could not do your homework because he or she did not provide the book in which you could look up the information. If you are having trouble navigating the library or other sources of reference material, speak up right away so that the librarians, either live or cyber, can help you learn the system.

  • Read the syllabus and any other class rules — Waiting until you are halfway through the class or failing to find out what you are supposed to be doing is a bad idea. Read the syllabus carefully and find out exactly how you will be evaluated. If you are going to be late with an assignment or miss a class, contact the professor before the assignment is due or before you miss the class. Most professors are flexible and understanding when good students run into trouble, particularly in the unpredictable field of emergency services. Keep in mind, however, that if you are going to miss eight weeks of a 15-week semester, that may not be acceptable under school policies.
  • Understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it — The ease of cut-and-paste technology that word processors provide can get uninformed students in hot water. Many students don't realize that if you use another's words, you must indicate that with quotation marks or a setoff; just citing it or footnoting it is not enough. To be sure you are doing the right thing, invest in a writing guide that details the citation format your professor requires.
  • Keep an open mind — As you enter the academic world, you may find many of your habits and beliefs are challenged. This is part of what higher education is about. A main goal of many college courses is to teach you critical-thinking skills. When a professor pushes you to support or explain your belief or opinion, his or her goal is to help you gain the skills you need to present and defend your ideas, as well as the ability to see problems from multiple perspectives and examine new solutions. Work at not taking criticism personally, but instead try to be open to examining yourself and your abilities and weaknesses.

    Often, folks in emergency services prefer black-and-white answers and find shades of gray frustrating, but the issues and ideas that are presented at the college level are often not ones with "right" answers. Try to remain open to challenge and you will benefit from interactions with your classmates and your professors.

  • Communicate with your professor — Don't let your professor be the last one to know when you are having trouble understanding something or having a problem that is interfering with class. Don't wait until the day before an assignment is due to tell the professor that you don't understand something. The other side of that is that you need to try to figure things out before you call for help so that you can clearly explain what you are having trouble with.

    If you are taking an online course and you have not heard from the professor after repeated postings or e-mails, call that person on the telephone or call the school. It is highly likely that there is some technological glitch that needs to be straightened out. Make sure you know the professor's name and contact information before the class starts and be sure that any passwords or online access work as well.

  • Congratulate yourself — The decision to start or return to college is big one, but the rewards are gigantic at both the professional and personal levels. Whether you are taking one class a semester for the next 10 years or embarking on full-time study, remember to periodically pat yourself on the back for undertaking such a worthwhile project.

KELLI SCARLETT is an adjunct associate professor at University of Maryland University College and has over 22 years of firefighting and emergency services experience. A Pennsylvania State Fire Academy certified live-burn instructor, she also serves on the NFPA 1041 Standard for Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications Committee and has been teaching fire emergency services training and education classes for 15 years. Scarlett also teaches for Empire State College and develops public safety curricula and courses for online and classroom programs at several colleges and schools. Recently, she developed a course in fire and emergency services training and education for the National Fire Academy's Degrees at a Distance Program (DDP). Scarlett holds a bachelor of science degree in public safety administration, a bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice and a juris doctor degree.