DOWNTOWN — Jenny Saldana has a long to-do list for the next four years — join the crew team, drama club, engineering society and fight for social justice causes.
And of course, finish college.
Saldana is among the hundreds of high school graduates from Santa Monica who will begin college in the next few weeks, some going to far-away universities to leave the familiar comfort of Southern California, others attending schools closer to home.
For all, it’s a momentous step into adulthood.
“I just want to do things I have never really done before like being on the crew team and go to Europe to study abroad,” Saldana, who will attend Santa Clara University, said. “There are so many things I want to do in that school.”
She will begin school next month with some idea of what to expect in college, like the heavy courseload and sea of unfamiliar faces. But like most college freshmen, Saldana knows to expect a year of adjustments.
Such was the case for Erin Nadel, a Santa Monica High School graduate who will become a sophomore at Vassar College in New York and described her first year as being bumpy, mostly due to issues staying healthy and problems with her roommate.
Nadel was one of many students in her dormitory who contracted mononucleosis, an illness she said is common in college because of the close living quarters.
“In general I always felt like I always had a cold,” she said. “It’s like going to preschool for the first time because suddenly you’re around people who have germs from the entire country and you’re living together and eating together.”
She learned that maintaining a routine schedule, going to sleep and waking up at regular hours, is not only good for staying physically healthy, but also staying mentally alert to keep on top of classes.
It was the courseload that made Nadel the most anxious in the months leading up to her first year in school.
“I was expecting it to be challenging but doable, which it was,” she said. “The professors at Vassar are so responsive and interested in teaching and are willing to meet with you outside of class, so that was helpful for the transition.”
Nadel said that freshmen should take advantage of what the college has to offer, contacting professors and using the services available, including tutoring, especially for writing.
“There is so much writing that I would suggest having some other pair of eyes look at your writing before turning it into a professor,” she said.
One of the areas that proved to be the most challenging for Nadel was the living arrangement.
She lived with a roommate who had a long-term boyfriend who lived three hours away and would visit at least once a month. When they were apart, the roommate would be on the phone late at night, which caused further complications in their friendship.
“I put a huge emphasis on communication,” she said. “Even though it’s awkward to bring up something, especially if it’s little, there is nothing wrong with it.
“It’s better for everyone to talk about the living situation than build up resentment.”
For Mary Echeverria, the first year was a bit smoother, choosing a school just 30 minutes away — California State University, Northridge.
“As long as you keep up with your classes and assignments, then it’s fine,” she said. “It’s not hard, it depends on how much time and dedication you put into your school work.”
Outside of the classroom, Echeverria said she was able to make new friends through students in her acting classes, which just by the nature of the curriculum helped her break out of her shell.
While she enjoys the social life, Echeverria is sure to balance that with academics, which can become challenging for freshmen who may all too easily embrace their newfound freedom.
Her advice is simple — stay focused.
“Being a freshman, there’s always a lot of parties and social events to go to and a lot of people can get lost in that and fall behind,” she said. “It’s important to stay on top of your school work.
“Keep the parties to a minimum.”
At the University of Southern California, students are advised during orientation week to get to know at least one faculty member every year and become involved with at least one outside classroom activity.
Amy Johnson, the associate dean of students at USC, which started classes on Monday, said the purpose of developing a healthy relationship with a professor is so that the student can have a mentor from whom they can seek advice.
The professor can also later play an important role — writing recommendation letters when it comes time to apply for graduate schools or jobs.
“We know from research that students who are connected to their college and have a healthy informal relationship with faculty and colleagues tend to do better academically,” Johnson said.
Students who are involved in a non-academic activity, be it clubs or intramural sports, will have a familiar home base and build a better connection to the school.
“You learn the campus inside out as opposed to having the experience as a student,” Johnson said. “It’s important for students to not only get the full college experience, but to leave an imprint at the place they’ll call home for the next few years.”
Lori Dinsmore, who will head to NYU this Friday to begin her freshman year, has been preparing for college by talking to some of her friends who were a few years ahead of her at Samohi.
But she’s looking forward to the experience rather than living vicariously through her friends.
Dinsmore will be heading nearly 3,000 miles away for school, but NYU, where she will major in film, will be filled with familiar faces. About seven of her classmates from Samohi will also enroll in the fall and five will be living in the same building.
Her roommates will be complete strangers from across the country.
“I’m kind of nervous about that because I’m generally very reserved,” she said. “I’ve heard that during Welcome Week you have to be as sociable as possible and that will be the basis for how the rest of the year plays out.”
Though she’s moving far from home to a city where the climate is different and the people are notoriously more brash, Dinsmore said she’s excited to see what the future holds.
“I’ve lived in Santa Monica my entire life and it’s a big change so I’m sort of anxiety ridden but I’m sure I’ll adjust once I get there,” she said.