Maura McAndrew with one of her pigs from her Carroll County 4-H/FFA Fair Project

Written By Donna Engle, Photos by: Phil Grout

The path to higher education always leads upward, which can be scary for students in transition. Moving to middle or high school or college means facing unfamiliar buildings, campuses, teachers and classmates. Common worries: forgetting locker combinations, getting lost, tougher workloads.

But there’s an upside. “It’s a big step to being an adult; more freedom,” said Autumn Lippy, 14, of Union Bridge, a sophomore at Francis Scott Key (FSK) High School, whose freshman year went better than she feared. She came in worried about finding classrooms, keeping her grades up so she could play soccer and upperclassmen looking down on her. She learned her way around, maintained her academic eligibility, and was not hazed as a freshman.

“I’m excited to meet new people and be treated like I’m a little older,” said Maggie Myers, 11, of Westminster, who is entering sixth grade at East Middle School. The teachers she met on orientation tour seemed nice, but the building loomed large and confusing, with floor levels assigned by grade. What if she gets lost? How does a combination lock work? What if she inadvertently violates the dress code?

Maura McAndrew, 19, of Westminster had a challenging 2012-13 freshman year at McDaniel College. A relative died. Another was seriously injured. McAndrew had to adjust to sharing a room after having her own room since age 10. In addition to the academic workload, she held two part-time jobs and pledged a sorority. She stressed over an English term paper, fearing she would fail the course. And she had to take care of her pigs.

The pigs were a Carroll County 4-H/FFA Fair project. McAndrew had to feed and walk them because in the show ring, judges are favorably impressed if you have been working with your pigs.

McAndrew, worried about the term paper, talked with her English professor. The professor asked if she was all right, and the whole stressed-out-freshman story tumbled out. After discussion with the professor, McAndrew finished the paper on time. She got an A.

Her advice to new students experiencing problems: “Talk to your professor.”

From elementary school to college, educators work hard to ease transitions from childhood to adulthood. Middle schools show “getting to know sixth grade” videos, introduce teachers, explain combination locks for school lockers and help students identify resources.

High schools invite eighth-graders and their parents for sessions to review scheduling, meet faculty advisors and begin thinking about future career paths. At FSK, eighth-graders spend a transition day in June that includes school tours, information about school clubs and athletic activities, classroom visits and student panels.

High school student panels give incoming freshmen the chance to ask questions such as, “I heard you can chew gum in high school, right?”

Colleges typically bring entering students on campus for a week before classes to introduce them to everything from dorm life to peer mentors to academic expectations. The week is a plunge into campus tours and placement tests, floor meetings in the dorms, introductions to campus activities and college traditions, and decisions on which roommate gets which bed and dresser.

McDaniel College welcomes new students with pep rallies, a president’s reception, karaoke night, information about community service options, free fitness assessments and academic department receptions. Incoming international students discuss cultural transitions. Commuter students learn about the Commuter Student Association.

Parents of new McDaniel students get introductions to campus life at the school’s two-day summer Parent Preview program. Parents meet professors and deans, eat in the dining hall, sleep in dorms and learn about academics, residence life, athletics and activities at the place their sons and daughters will call home for four years.

Why all the effort at transitioning? “You never want a student to fail because of something you didn’t do,” said John Baugher, FSK principal.

“It’s the whole social, emotional transition we work on,” said Sherri Bream, director of high schools for Carroll County Public Schools. “We want them as they grow to advocate for themselves, to find resources, be successful.”

Middle school students may need counseling for reasons ranging from academic to social. Cathlin McCormick, an East Middle School counselor, sees “a bit of everything” – students who need accelerated courses, students struggling academically or facing special challenges such as ADHD. She may help students overwhelmed with large school projects break them into manageable parts.

Some students face outside issues such as family financial pressures. “More students last year were either homeless or about to be, or they see other kids wearing the Ôright’ clothes and they’re not able [financially] to do that,” McCormick said.

Social media issues may arise when a student texts something she thinks is private, and within minutes, 30 students know about it and take sides. School counselors distinguish community-based and school issues. If an issue does not impact a student in his role as student, McCormick may refer parents to outside mediation. She will involve students and their parents in issues that impact the school.

“We may do peer mediation. The students sometimes become friends again, or may agree to take their differences and separate. They also may learn not to post things on Facebook,” said McCormick.

Students and parents come to Westminster High School counselor Shawn Minnier with academic, career and social issues.

“Some are really struggling to find a healthy balance between all the activities. They really have to have time management skills,” Minnier said. He focuses ninth-graders on four-year planning and career paths.

At McDaniel College, much of Karen Violanti’s job as associate dean for first-year students is to provide academic support for students adjusting to the expectations of college-level work. Her tools include a closed Facebook group for new students, one-on-one meetings with struggling students, and faculty involvement.

Required seminars introduce first-year students to the liberal arts and teach critical thinking and effective writing.

“They’ll sit in my office and say, ÔI never studied in high school. I don’t know how to study,’” said Violanti. She will help them learn.