Thriving During Freshman Year: Advice from Current APU Students

by Peter Cooley

Whether you’re coming to Azusa Pacific University from high school, a gap year, or the workforce, the transition to college can be simultaneously thrilling and stressful. Meeting new friends, moving onto campus, and building routines are exciting adventures in this transitory time. However you may be feeling, you are not alone in the journey. Many other students have been in the same place you are, and have wisdom to offer for how to approach your freshman year in the right way. Here are a few tips, featuring insights from current APU students, to help you thrive as you begin your collegiate journey at APU.

Make New Connections

It is important to realize that college is not like high school. For the most part, everyone is starting from scratch. If you’re feeling nervous about reaching out to complete strangers, rest assured. Others likely feel the same trepidation, so don’t hesitate to be the one to break the ice. Whether on the trolley, in class, or at the dining hall, a smile and simple “hello” can go a long way. Junior Business Management and Honors Humanities major Brady Compaan ’24 noted the importance of reaching out to others.

“Put yourself out there,” said Compaan. “More than anything—if you’re genuine yourself, you’ll form genuine relationships. You will find your people.”

According to senior Applied Mathematics and Spanish major Nannette Steenstra ’23, the key to making new friends on campus is patience. “There are lots of people to meet, and sometimes it might take a while to find the people who you can totally be yourself around,” she said. “Be patient. It may seem overwhelming at first, but everyone is searching, so there’s no reason to be nervous about it.”

Get to Know Your Professors

Connecting with your professors is another way to help yourself thrive in your first year of college. With a 11.5:1 student to faculty ratio, professors are able to connect meaningfully with their students. APU professors are widely known for their willingness to build impactful relationships with students inside and outside the classroom. Sophomore Music Education and Honors Humanities student Liz Ornelas ’25 emphasized the importance of finding guidance from faculty.

“I entered college with a do-it-yourself mindset, and was hesitant to ask professors for help,” said Ornelas. “However, APU faculty and staff take the time to truly get to know you, and are always open to discussion—whether it be about faith, classwork, or life. They are willing to take time outside their class to help you. Many institutions don’t offer this personal connection, so for that I’ll always be grateful.”

Explore Campus and the Community

Another way to make connections is by going to events and experiencing all that APU’s campus has to offer. The Office of Campus Life puts on lots of events every year, and there are numerous clubs and organizations on campus to join and get involved in. Even just heading to Cougar Walk to meet friends or grab food can be a great way to take breaks from studying. “Go to every campus event that you can,” Steenstra recommended. “They are always a highlight of my year and are a great way to meet people.”

Getting involved on campus is absolutely essential in making the most out of your first year. But it is also enjoyable to get off campus and experience the local area. As a commuting student, Ornelas described her great opportunities to experience the Azusa area in between classes. “I discovered my favorite local thrift store in between classes, and even found some local trails to walk to when I needed some space. It’s important to find little things to take yourself away from the stresses of school and take care of yourself.”

Leave Time for Rest

With the ever present buzz of campus going on around you, it will be more important than ever to take time to rest. Between classes, socializing, homework, meals, routines, events, and more, there is a constant barrage of things happening at all times. Learning to say “no” is an essential skill to develop in college, and prioritizing time for rest and relaxation is extremely important. “Honoring the Sabbath is extremely important,” Compaan noted. “Schedule buffer time between activities, and figure out your limits before you hit them. Have grace with yourself when you’re figuring it out. Allowing extra time and spontaneity allows God to work.”

It’s also essential to make time to rest and recharge.

“School can get crazy busy,” said Steenstra. “My freshman year, I was constantly surrounded by people and didn’t leave myself enough alone time. It is extremely important to make time for reading, journaling, or whatever ways you connect with God in solitude. Find out what works best for you.”

Take Care of Your Mental and Physical Health

Considering the rigor of school, it can be difficult to make time to stay healthy. The “Freshman 15” is a real phenomenon for many students, so it’s important to take steps to prioritize taking care of your mind and body. Eating nutritiously, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep (the hardest one for college students) are all essential in putting your best foot forward every day.

In addition, keeping your life organized helps calm your mind and handle the stresses of college. “Without prioritizing a self care routine and organization, you are sure to burn out fast,” Ornelas said. “I recommend using a to-do list journal, planner, or Google Calendar to schedule your classes and make sure you're keeping on track of your school work throughout the day.”

Think Ahead

College is an incredible time in your life, so make sure to enjoy every minute of it. However, there is also more life ahead of you after graduation. The connections that you make in college can lead to lifelong friendships, career networking, and future opportunities. Make sure to set goals for yourself, and envision what you want your life to look like years down the road. Having a central vision in mind helps direct your life, and overcome adversity. “It’s up to you and you alone how you want to take advantage of the college experience,” Ornelas said. “In mine I’ve used it to begin networking, setting myself up for a lifelong career in my field of work.” Compaan noted the significance of focusing on the future. “College is not high school. You’re not learning the material just for the grade,” he said. “I struggled with this at first. I’m not just here to get an A, but rather to learn and equip myself for a career. The final goal is to prepare yourself for life, not tests.”

Even with this future-based mindset, it is important to enjoy your time at APU. College can be one of the most meaningful and memorable periods of life, so make sure to enjoy the ride. Remember to give yourself grace—you will figure it out. Finally, you are not alone, so don’t be scared of asking for help from others along the way.

Peter Cooley is a public relations intern in the Division of Strategic Communications and Engagement. He is a music education and honors humanities major, and performs in multiple ensembles at APU. Outside of work, Peter enjoys reading, hiking, and playing music.