Tips for Incoming New Students (or, Mistakes I’ve Made Over the Past Three Years)

By Cheryl Yau ’19

As one of the Head Mentors for the International Student Mentor Program (ISMP), I have had the opportunity to interact with many new students. Questions I’m often asked include: what would you have done differently? What do you wish you had known as a new student? Unsurprisingly, there are many things I wish someone had told me, and, with that, here is Cheryl’s non-exhaustive list of tangible, practical tips for how to make the best of your time at Pomona College.

  • Choose professors, not syllabi. The Wig Distinguished Professor awardee list is a great place to start. Class-shopping in the first two weeks is also a great window of opportunity—especially to give new or visiting professors, who may not have as many online or word-of-mouth reviews, a shot.
  • For professors who you really want to take a class with, watch out for their sabbatical schedule (snoop around on the internet or email said professors directly to get their course offerings for the next 2-4 semesters). Professors also always rotate to teach intro-level classes, so keep an eye on that rotation schedule.
  • When planning your class schedule, also note how your finals week will look. I took four writing-intensive classes in my first semester; while the semester was difficult, it was finals week that was really rough (I have since never done that again).
  • There is no shame at all in dropping or P/NC-ing a class (to P/NC, or Pass/No Credit a class is to not take it for a letter grade). Coming from a society where “quitting is for losers,” I saw dropping or P/NC-ing a class as a sign of weakness. However, ultimately, I realized that my experience at college is mine alone, and given the limited time and energy I have, I should invest in the things that I am growing most from, and de-prioritize those that may not be working out for me.
Thanksgiving dinner at a professor’s home: a relationship built over weekly office hours
  • Go to office hours as a normal, routine part of your schedule (not just when you have a problem set or an essay due…). One of the best things about being at Pomona College is the unparalleled access to the faculty across all 5Cs. I am still continually surprised by the level of dedication to teaching, and how accessible most of my professors are.
Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa provides the iconic backdrop
  • Start thinking about study abroad early. Start by considering what your purpose of study abroad is (academic, language, personal?), and then narrow the options by country and program. Also remember that programs by petition are very possible. My personal bias is to choose places that are unfamiliar, or where you would need that additional push (and institutional support) to go. Study abroad is one of the best college decisions I have made for myself, and I urge everyone to at least consider it. I have written about study abroad here.
  • $ hacks. Join the 5C For Sale/For Free Facebook group (things really get jazzy when it’s time for the senior sale at the end of spring semester). Do not rush to buy course readings, and know that there are many alternatives to buying (see Laurel Hilliker’s guide). Get discounted movie tickets at ASPC. Apply for a credit card, and start building credit history through college!
  • Get connected (Part II). I cannot emphasize how important it is to join relevant listservs (mailing lists) and Facebook groups. This is one of the main ways that information on interesting events, talks, and internship and job opportunities is disseminated. Besides clubs and organizations, most academic departments also manage their own mailing lists, so get on those!
  • Get connected (Part I). All new students have sponsors, and many of us are also in various mentor groups—ask them to connect you to people who are in spaces that you are interested in. I have always wanted to pick up theatre again in college, but never did. In retrospect, I should have connected with a student who was already active in the theatre scene. In the same vein, actively reach out and share concerns with third-years and fourth-years. This campus has many programs and resources, and they may just alert you or connect you to something you are looking for.

  • Have a go at ‘alternative’ academic learning opportunities. A relatively undiscovered gem is the CMC Athenaeum talk series. I would also encourage students to enroll in a Community Partnership class (where scholarship and learning is rooted in mutually beneficial partnerships with the surrounding community). There are also many research assistantship opportunities—actively enquire with your professors!
  • Last, I would recommend choosing classes that can help you build technical skills and give you a firm theoretical foundation. In my first two years, I was blown away by all the interesting-sounding electives, and I filled my schedule with these courses. Even when picking courses within my major, I actively tried to avoid theory-heavy, or methodology-focused classes which seemed comparatively boring. As I step into my senior year (with a thesis looming over me), I wish I’d better balanced my class schedule. Besides better preparing one for thesis, I have learned that the opportunity cost of skipping a theory-based, ethnography or statistics class is high, because these are comparatively difficult to learn outside of college, without guidance or externally-imposed discipline. In that same vein (and this can be controversial), I would advise to go light on language courses (unless that is the centerpiece of your major, or future profession)—languages are wildly important, and are also very interesting, but there are arguably many other (and better) places to learn languages than in the classroom. At the end of the day, we only have about 30-35 classes to explore at college, and there are trade-offs to be made!

And that is it! I hope this has been somewhat useful, and please feel free to email, or reach out to me if you want to learn more/chat.