University life is certainly exciting, but it may also bring challenges for first-year university students. Acculturating to university life is fairly demanding, both for international students as well as domestic students, who also have to make a transition from high school to university. A recent study examining mental health and academic performance in first-year students, both domestic Canadian and international, indicates that while international students may benefit more from targeted academic and social supports, mental health needs seem to be the same for both groups (King et al., 2021). This makes the need for support in students’ acculturation to a new academic milieu a necessity.
Indeed, the importance of such acculturation was highlighted to me during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when, without classroom interactions, social isolation became one of the biggest challenges with which my students and I were faced. My students were first-year at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in (Applied) Sciences, Engineering, and Commerce. They were taking a Writing and Research in the Disciplines course with me that met three times per week over 13 weeks. Thirty students were in the class. As an instructor teaching courses where many of my students were reluctant to have their cameras on in our synchronous sessions, I struggled to support my students with their acculturation. Before even supporting my students, I had questions to which I needed answers, such as, Who are my students? How are they coping with the pandemic-related news on top of their heavy workload? How are they adjusting to university life without peers’ orientation/initiation tips?
As I thought about these questions, I also kept thinking about two concepts, community building and storytelling. Community building should be understood in McMillan and Chavis’s (1986) conceptualization adopted by Matsu (2020, p. 38), which retains four core elements: “membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs, and shared emotional connection.” Part of Becker and Freberg’s (2014) definition of storytelling—sharing weekly highlights to support students’ psychological wellbeing—is adopted. Community building and storytelling appear to be two related concepts as it has been shown that intentionally sharing stories increases a sense of belonging to a community (Matsu, 2020). Storytelling has also proven to help students handle their heavy workload and stressful campus life (Pollard & Bamford, 2022). I thought stories could potentially support acculturation.
‘My week at a glance’ activity
To foster an online community, I set up a discussion forum in our Learning Management System. Students were then invited to post their weekly highlights in the form of stories under what came to be known as ‘My week at a glance.’ I hoped these stories would connect students with one another and allow them to share tips that could contribute to making a smooth transition to a university life. We adopted a structure similar to the one in Figure 1 below, a structure I use for teaching vocabulary (Nizonkiza, 2017). It is known in the literature as a ‘collocation web-model.’ It helps establish connections between naturally co-occurring word combinations, such as ‘powerful computer’ (but not strong computer), heavy rain (but not strong rain). I adapted it to offer a visual representation of connections among student experiences. Below is an example with the homework instructions in week three of classes.
Figure 1. My Week at a Glance: Week three homework Instructions
As can be seen from Figure 1, I wanted students to intentionally share their stories—to foster membership—and especially describe the most striking highlight of the week, and comment on at least two peers’ posts—to foster emotional connection. It was hoped sharing stories and tips, and establishing emotional connections could ease students’ transition into their university life.
Students’ story highlights from the first two weeks of classes
Convinced that what students shared could be a crucial step in their academic acculturation, especially in their first term at university, asking students to list highlights of their week and describe them in the form of a story has become a core component of the course since Fall 2020. What is shared here comes from one of my Fall 2021 writing sections. Students’ posts reflected their weekly activities, class related or otherwise. In their first week of classes, what stood out for students included:
|Students’ highlights from week 1||% of posts*|
|UBC campus size and its beauty |
number of students on campus
university life different than high school
UBC, diverse community
clubs on campus
size of lecture halls
getting lost on campus
return to in-person classes
Based on these shared stories, it appears that academic life is just one aspect of a student’s life, a tendency that continued in week two of classes:
|Students’ highlights from week 2||% of posts*|
balancing workload and leisure
meeting new people
lots of homework
visiting new places
time flying already
Owing to the idea of community, it is not surprising to see the weather topping the list of what stood out for students in week two as it rained heavily all week! This alone is a good indication that students remain social agents that live in a community and want to talk about their social lives. Furthermore, talking about striking the balance between workload and leisure activities, and sharing tips such as good study spots, managing time—deciding on how much goes to friends and socializing and how much goes to assignments—are especially integral components of students’ new social life.
Based on the acculturation stories my students shared, I believe academic acculturation comes down to community building. Students’ ‘weekly highlight’ stories revealed that they are indeed members of a community in which many important acculturation activities happen, and students want to talk about those things as they happen. Academic life is certainly a new chapter in students’ lives, perhaps rendered especially challenging in the midst of a pandemic. Talking about this life alongside balancing its requirements with other aspects of their social life appears to be critically important for students. This means that belonging to a student community along with talking about all aspects of life in this community empowers students, making it a crucial step in their academic acculturation. Giving students a platform to share their stories, such as the web of weekly highlights, could therefore form an important part of their academic acculturation.
*Part of this data set was presented at the WRDS Department 2021 Annual conference. I thank my Writing and Research in the Disciplines (WRDS 150B 731) students for allowing me to use their data.
Becker, K.A., & Freberg, K. (2014). Medical student storytelling on an institutional blog: A case study analysis. Medical Teacher, 36, 415–421. DOI: 10.3109/0142159X.2014.891007
King, N., Rivera, D., Cunningham, S., Pickett, W., Harkness, K., McNevin, S.H., Milanovic, M., Byun, J., Khanna, A., Atkinson, J., Saunders, K.E.A., & Duffy, A. (2021). Mental health and academic outcomes over the first year at university in international compared to domestic Canadian students. Journal of American College Health. 1–10. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2021.1982950
Matsu, K. (2020). The possibility of storytelling: Building a sense of community within a Hawaiian culture-based school. Educational Perspectives, 52(1), 37–41.
Nizonkiza, D. (2017). Improving academic literacy by teaching collocations. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics, 47, 153–180. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5774/47-0-267
Pollard, L., & Bamford, J. (2022). Lost in transition: Student journeys and becoming— Deliberations for a post-COVID era. The Curriculum Journal, 33, 346–361. DOI: 10.1002/curj.132
Image credit: Keira Burton