How I Overcame My Fears of My First Year at U-M

Advice from a current junior

By Sarika Waikar January 9, 2024
How I Overcame My Fears of My First Year at U-M

Before I even applied to U-M, I was already envisioning myself as a Wolverine. When I was a sophomore in high school, my brother was a first-year at U-M, which meant I by default was a Michigan fan and eager to apply here. Driving to Ann Arbor to move him in solidified my interest in U-M, and I started gathering all the intel I could on the school. From YouTube creators who showcased their U-M experiences online to DMing people from my high school who also attended, I was hoping to learn everything I needed to know. Application season rolled around quickly, and before I knew it U-M became the frontrunner as well as the school I had researched and dreamt of the most. 

But, of course, research and other people’s experiences can only go so far, and the majority of it will not be the exact blueprint for your own experience. With my senior year of high school being nearly entirely virtual, minus a few hybrid days for which only about a quarter of my classmates came in person, I was both extremely ready and nervous to get back into the groove of academic life again — let alone at an entirely new school, hours from home. It’s important to know you are absolutely, 100 percent not alone in having fears, doubts, and worries about attending university, though it may feel that way a lot of the time. My largest fears before attending U-M ultimately fell into three categories: academic, social, and the overall adjustment and newness of it all. In this article I’ll delve into each of these three fears as well as the tools I used to overcome them, highlighting that a school as big as U-M can truly become home and smaller than you think.

Academic Fears

Entering the academic world at U-M often brings forth a wave of academic apprehensions, especially with such a prestigious reputation. The fear of grappling with the potential rigor of coursework, adapting to new instructional styles, or even feeling inadequate compared to peers can be overwhelming. With so many intelligent people concentrated in one place, it’s easy to get caught up in others’ academic lives and neglect to prioritize your own.

To overcome these concerns, it's crucial to approach them with proactive strategies, even when you may not necessarily feel like doing so. Utilizing on-campus resources such as academic advisors, free tutoring services, or study groups can provide invaluable support. I personally have met with my advisor a plethora of times beyond those first initial meetings, because I’ve found it extremely helpful to talk one-on-one through scheduling, choosing my major, and the infamous U-M “backpacking” method of registering for classes. Wolverine Access, the gateway where all your academic tools are essentially stored, allows you to easily access a variety of resources all in one site.

Developing strong time management skills, staying organized, and breaking down assignments into manageable chunks can help relieve the stress of academic workload. I personally didn’t use Google Calendar until the start of my sophomore year, and it has single-handedly become my most-used organization tool now as a junior. I recommend putting your class schedule, extracurriculars, meetings, and reminders in either Google Calendar or another time management tool because it has kept me on track for all my deadlines and activities. Plus, you get to color code your calendar, perfectly tailored to your liking!

I also highly recommend the free app, Todoist, for organizing your assignments and due dates. The app can be used on your mobile device or your computer, and it allows you to create tabs for each of your classes and/or clubs, as well as subcategories within those. For example, I have a “personal” tab with subcategories like “job prep,” and “research,” as well as tabs for each of my classes. Todoist reminds you of due dates, lets you choose priority labels for items, and of course, lets you color code!

Overall, embracing a growth mindset, understanding that it's completely normal to face challenges, and seeking help when needed fosters a resilient attitude toward academic hardships. Moreover, engaging actively in classes, asking questions, and forming study bonds with peers can create a collaborative, lively learning environment, easing the transition into the academic culture of university life at U-M.

Social Fears

Social fears can loom large before stepping foot onto a large university like U-M as a new student. There may be concerns about making friends, feeling lost in the (very blue) crowd, or struggling to find one's place within such a diverse community. When I watched YouTube videos of vloggers at U-M, they shared how as their time went on at U-M, the more community they found and the stronger their social ties felt. It truly does feel like starting from scratch when first coming to university, especially if you’re like me and only came with a few peers from high school or none at all. Give it time and seek out new things and experiences; you’ll never know until you try.

To tackle these fears, it's vital to start by embracing the diversity and multitude of opportunities available. Engaging actively in orientation activities, joining clubs or groups of interest, or just opting in to social events proves to be immensely helpful in connecting with like-minded individuals. Initiating conversations with classmates or roommates, stepping out of comfort zones to attend social gatherings, and being open to new experiences can foster meaningful connections. A great tool for finding organizations on campus is Maize Pages, the comprehensive guide to all things extracurricular. It’s how I found the South Asian Awareness Network, an amazing club that aligns with my social justice interests and South Asian background.

Understanding that many, many others (more than you think) share similar social worries can ease the pressure and encourage a supportive environment. Building relationships takes time, especially since you’re thrown into so many new ones right off the bat, so being patient and authentic in interactions while actively seeking common ground often leads to lasting friendships. Lastly, seeking support from campus counseling services or mentorship programs can provide guidance in navigating the social landscape of a big university. Feeling overwhelmed by the large flocks of people — especially on game days — can instill a sense of loneliness at times. Self-care and making time for yourself amid the chaos is critical, even if it’s just going on a walk or making yourself a meal, to make sure you prioritize your needs alongside making new social connections.

Adjustment Fears

Starting out at U-M marks an exhilarating yet nerve-wracking chapter, especially when it means leaving the familiarity of home and friends. The excitement for the future usually collides with the concern of stepping into an entirely new world, independent and away from the comfort of your support system. This newfound independence, while liberating, can be daunting. Suddenly, the responsibility of taking care of yourself, managing personal health, and navigating decision-making can weigh heavily on your shoulders. The first semester at U-M is the hardest to adjust to, but it’s also when I first began to learn more about myself through an autonomous lens.

Amid this transition, the fear of missing the familiar patterns of home and the reassuring presence of childhood friends can feel overwhelming. However, embracing this fear as a natural part of growth can pave the way for adaptation and novel experiences. Staying connected with loved ones through video calls (it’s helpful to see each other “face-to-face”), messages, or visits, while simultaneously forging new bonds at the beginning of the college experience, helps bridge the emotional gap. Building new friendships and support networks within the on-campus community, exploring campus resources for health and wellness, and gradually acclimating to your freshly acquired autonomy through small steps can ease the fear of missing home and friends while navigating the exciting journey of being a student again, this time out of high school.

Whether you’re living in a residence hall or off-campus, one tip that helped me adjust to the new environment is filling your room with meaningful reminders of home. In my first-year room, I hung my mom’s maize and blue crochet “M” over my headboard, printed pictures of hometown memories with friends and family, and stocked my snack bin with some of my childhood favorites. Little actions like sprucing up a room or incorporating bits of home into your daily lifestyle can help close the emotional distance between school and home, no matter the actual distance. Everyone adjusts in their own way and at their own pace, so let this process run its course and soon enough, you’ll feel a sense of belonging and coziness while at U-M.

In Closing

Embarking on the journey to U-M was a dream I had cultivated long before I stepped foot on campus as a student. Yet dreams and research, though useful, only serve as a guide, not the exact roadmap for your unique experience. As I navigated through the whirlwind of academic challenges, social endeavors, and the adjustment of brand-new independence, I realized the importance of not just facing fears, but actively overcoming them. From utilizing resources and tools for academic success to immersing myself in the vibrant social scene of U-M and finding solace in the balance between old and new, each step was a testament to resilience and growth. University life is not just about adapting; it's about learning to thrive in the midst of uncertainty, turning a big institution into a place you can call home away from home, and discovering the strength within yourself to fully embrace the unfamiliar. As I reflect on my journey so far, I see that U-M isn't solely a school; it's a community that has become smaller, cozier, and more welcoming than I could have ever imagined (or researched about)!

S. Waikar
Sarika Waikar

Sarika Waikar is a current junior pursuing a major in communication and media with minors in entrepreneurship and environment. She is from Evanston, IL (just north of Chicago!) and interned this past summer at 1871, a startup incubator in the city. At U-M, she's the logistics co-coordinator for the South Asian Awareness Network, a research assistant for the Department of Communication and Media, a teacher's assistant at Towsley Children House, and heavily involved in her entrepreneurship fraternity, SEPi. She loves travel adventures, exploring Ann Arbor, cooking new dishes, and hanging out with friends!