On campus, a student has to interact maturely with faculty, staff and fellow learners to ask for help, guidance or support. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: So, your child is headed to university for the first time. It’s an exciting reality for parents and students but in its pale lurks the sobering thought: How well-prepared is your ward for this new chapter of life?

It’s not just about studies and grades. The curve balls are many and they test students’ self-determination, emotional maturity, time management skills, health habits, peer interaction and social adaptability.

According to studies, the two important ‘soft skills’ that all high school students must possess before they set out to university are: The ability to communication directly and confidently with others, particularly professors and faculty, and handle new-found independence (see box).

How soon must the preparation begin?

Dr Neil Hopkin

“Schools and parents must prepare their children from the earliest days for this transition. This is not a project that can be completed successfully in the last couple of years of their schooling,” says Dr Neil Hopkin, Principal at Sunmarke School, Dubai. “[Children] are not ‘born ready’ for university life, but we certainly can teach them the skills to be ready.”

University life, he says, is full of ups and downs, opportunities and pressures, community and a sense of dislocation, and “they will have to face much of this for the first time without their parents.”

“Parents should prepare their children for university from the ‘get go’.

“Their role is to prepare their children to become autonomous, independent learners and problem-solvers, who exercise wisdom through careful contemplation of the consequences associated with the potential choices they may make.”

Dr Rami El Khatib

Dr Rami El Khatib, Dean of Student Affairs and Associate Professor at Canadian University Dubai, says: “This is an important question that should be in parents’ minds ideally a couple of years before the time comes for their child to start university. University life is different to school education as the onus of studying and being prepared shifts directly to the student. There are no homework checks or everyday tests, no parent-teacher meetings.

“In addition, the ability to get along with other university students and, in the case of international students, living without family, cooking and managing a living space and of course, a budget, are all skills that need to be learnt before leaving home for university.

“Outside of the academic challenges of higher education, children need to develop the life skills that will help them to interact more effectively with their university peers and faculty.

“In a practical sense, preparing them for the basic day-to-day tasks of independent living is vital, such as teaching them to manage a budget by giving them a monthly allowance; enabling them to cook simple meals, clean their rooms ... and encouraging socialising, and independent travel, if possible.

“Managing independence responsibly is where good parenting plays a role. A child that has been raised with strong human values and given opportunities for independence during their formative years has a good foundation to work upon.”

School vs university: the changes and how to adapt

Dr Hopkin: “Study skills are not vastly dissimilar. Time management and personal accountability are significantly more demanding at university. Nothing is spoon-fed, and responsibility for deadlines, etc., falls squarely on the student.

“Mature decision-making is key, followed by self-motivation and self-determination. It is a time to recognise that your core values must now be exercised and put into practice, all in the spotlight of scrutiny.

“Universities rightly expect a higher degree of independence and personal accountability. Students can no longer behave like children. They are now in an adult world and must assume adult responsibilities.”

Dr El Khatib: “The fundamental change is the way the two types of institutions engage with students — at school, there are daily checks and balances; tests are taken, classroom participation is practised, homework is given and checked, there is regular monitoring of students inside and outside classrooms. There are uniforms and rules and regulations.

“A university student is no longer a child and is treated like an adult. They are responsible for their study schedules and academic performance. No parental intervention is called upon by the university in the case of underachievement. This is where personal responsibility comes in; a student has to interact maturely with faculty and staff to ask for help, guidance or support.”

What must schools do to prepare students?

Dr Hopkin: “Our school prepares students extremely well for a life on university campus. However, more can always be done and we are already offering new learning pathways about financial management and problem-solving that new university students would find invaluable.”

Dr El Khatib: “Once first year students arrive on campus, they benefit from a full orientation process that not only introduces them to all the important aspects of university life — from academic resources and key faculty and staff, to student services and extracurricular activities — it also offers the opportunity for meaningful peer interaction, to make friends early on.

“From here, the formal academic orientation process reinforces an understanding of the expectations at programme level and sets out a clear pathway and milestones against which students can establish and evaluate their personal goals.”

Two important soft skills that most high school students lack, according to studies, are: 1) Direct communication with others and 2) how to handle their new-found independence.

Dr El Khatib: “We could also add managing academic responsibilities as the third. Communication skills are crucial throughout life and the confidence of holding your own within a group of other students from different backgrounds and cultures, as well the ability to communicate your ideas and concerns to professors or the relevant university staff, is extremely important.”

Dr Hopkin: “Without a doubt, learning how to communicate with university staff to get the most out of their education is a skill that needs to be learnt. Getting regular, detailed feedback, coaching and mentoring from university tutors and professors is simply a smart way to get the best return on [parents’] investment in a university education. Added to which, it encourages the tutors [to know] that their students are so invested in their learning.

“Handling new-found independence is important too. Study deadlines vs social diaries can be a difficult terrain to navigate at 18, and sometimes students’ choices show their naivety in some of the choices that they make. Parents can help considerably ... by talking and coaching their child, whilst they are still at home, around the options and choices that they face in any given situation. Rather than laying down the law, a discussion about choices and consequences will support a child’s growing wisdom and independence.”