Your student's first term at the University of Waterloo

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We often refer to the first six weeks as one of the most important times during your student’s transition to university. This is because it takes roughly six weeks to form new habits. Their first six weeks are when they experience a lot of their university career “firsts,” such as:

  • First time living on their own
  • First university test
  • First university mid-term exam
  • First success - like finding their classrooms or achieving their desired grade on an early assignment
  • First failure - like messing up their laundry or seeing their grades drop

This is also when students start to develop a sense of belonging in the community here - within their faculty, residence, and the University as a whole. As you read through the information on this page, think about how you might support your student as a coach in the first six weeks.

 

September

Move-in

If your student is living in Campus Housing or a University College Residence, they will receive a designated move-in date and instructions for unloading and parking. First-year students usually move-in over two days during the Labour Day weekend. If your student is coming to Waterloo from outside of Ontario, they can submit an Early Arrival Form to move-in ahead of the regular move-in days. As you can probably imagine, it’s a busy time on campus!

This is what you can expect on your students move-in day:

  1. When you arrive on campus, volunteers will direct you as you drive up to your student’s residence building. You will most likely enter a queue of cars leading to your student’s building.
  2. Once you pull-up in front of the building, volunteers will help you unload your student’s belongings from your car and bring everything into their assigned room. Plan to have someone stay in the car until it is emptied.  
  3. Once your student and the volunteers have gotten all of their belongings out of the car, you will be directed to a free parking lot. Make sure to arrange ahead of time where you and your student will meet again after you park.
  4. After your student moves their belongings into their room, they’ll have an opportunity to get their room key and student card.

Parent perspectiveWe understand you may want to help your student feel settled before you leave. Here are some ways you can help on move-in day:

  • Ask your student what they would like your help with on their move-in day. Let them take the lead unpacking and deciding where things should go.
  • Encourage your student to introduce themselves to their roommate, if they have one, and to other new students moving in on their floor.
  • Make a list together of extra things that your student may need to pick up to feel comfortable and help their new room feel like a second home. You may have time to make a trip to nearby stores together to pick-up anything they still need.
  • Students have a meeting with their floor community on their move-in day. This meeting is for students only and marks the beginning of their Orientation activities, so plan to leave ahead of time.

Once your student has officially departed, you and the rest of the family may take some time to find your new normal. It’s okay to grieve the changes at home. Ensure everyone has time to digest, and then find your own ways to stay connected to your student, regardless of how far away you are.


Orientation

When your student arrives at the University of Waterloo in September, they will have the opportunity to attend Waterloo Orientation. Orientation is not like what you or your student may have seen on television or in movies. If you attended an orientation program in university yourself, this event is likely different from what you remember as well.

Waterloo Orientation is your student’s official welcome to the University of Waterloo. It takes place over a week at the end of August or beginning of September, starting on your student’s move-in day if they’re living in Residence. At Waterloo, there are some key outcomes we want students to get out of the week. We hope that Orientation helps your student to:

  • Start to feel comfortable on campus. There are many events and sessions across campus to help them get used to navigating the area, including an evening in Uptown Waterloo.
  • Understand the expectations of their program. There are academic sessions with advisors where your student will also get to meet some of their professors, and upper-year students will share first-hand knowledge of the academic experience.
  • Learn about campus resources. There are many resources available to support students on campus, and opportunities to get involved with clubs or student services that interest them.
  • Get a feel for their class schedule. Classes will start during Orientation after students have had a few days to get settled, but events and activities continue for the full week.
  • Begin making new connections. One of the biggest parts of Orientation is the chance to meet new friends and be welcomed into the Waterloo community.

Encourage your student to attend Waterloo Orientation to meet new people and learn how to navigate their home away from home.


First day of class

Professors will typically get right into course material on day one, which could be different from what your student is familiar with from high school. This is one of many differences between high school and university that they may notice early on. Your student will likely recognize that the strategies they use to prepare for class, take notes, and study will need to adjust for these differences.

If your student is nervous about starting class, remind them that Waterloo chose them for a reason. They’ve earned their place here with all their hard work and perseverance, not just because of the grades they achieved in high school.

Your student’s classes, labs, and tutorials will pick-up quickly. Sometimes as a student adjusts to their new classes and workload, they might compare themselves to how they perceive others. For example, your student might express that they seem to have more free time than others, or that nobody else seems to have to study as much as they do. These are typical feelings for first-year students.

As they learn what works for them now, your student may need to evolve some of their habits. Strong time management and different study strategies are important to academic success in university. Developing new skills to manage their time will help students in university now, but also in their future careers. As you probably know, a healthy work-life balance is important in the long term. Their professors may mention these skills at the beginning of the term, and the Student Success Office offers many resources to support the development of these and other academic skills.

Next steps

  • It can take some time to adjust to a new learning environment. If your student finds after a few classes that they’re still struggling with the pace, suggest that they look into campus resources for studying and academic support.
  • Your student is one of the best, but now they are among others who are also the best. Everyone is trying to figure out what works for them in this new environment. If your student is struggling with comparison, try to validate their feelings but encourage them to focus on understanding and meeting the expectations for their program instead. If they’re concerned that they won’t meet their program requirements, you can refer them to their academic advisor or Peer Success Coaching at the Student Success Office.
  • How is your student adjusting to their new home? Have they introduced themselves to their roommates or floormates? Have they begun to set ground rules for shared living areas? Your student’s Residence Don can help your student navigate roommate conflicts.
  • You can encourage your student to develop time management skills by asking how they feel about their classes and workload. If they feel overwhelmed, share in a non-judgemental way what works for you when you feel overwhelmed. Suggestions might include taking time for self-care, breaking large tasks down into smaller chunks, or getting a change of scenery.
  • Encourage your student to reflect on how they’re balancing schoolwork with social life and leisure activities. Sleeping well, eating healthily, taking breaks to spend time with friends, and getting physical exercise at the campus gyms or local parks are all good habits to start building now.

There are many ways for students to get involved at Waterloo. Have they explored opportunities in their residence or faculty? The Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association offers a variety of clubs and student services.


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October

First midterm season

The actual date of midterms varies from program to program, but they often begin towards the end of September or early October. The first round of midterms can feel like a time management test for your student.

Your student may experience their “first failure” during the first six weeks of the term, which is often when their first midterm test or assignment will fall.  “First failure” refers to a variety of common first-year student experiences. These could include things like:

  • receiving a low grade
  • missing a deadline
  • trying to cook a new recipe
  • shrinking a favourite shirt in the laundry
  • getting lost on local transit

Your student will still be getting used to a new normal during their first six weeks, so the first failure can be academic or daily life related.

An academic failure may not seem like a failure to you, but your student might not have experienced receiving a lower grade than expected in the past, and could be nervous to tell you about it. Student’s grades, including midterms, exams, assignments, and final course grades, are only shared with students by the University. It’s up to your student to decide if and how they share their grades with you.

If your student does choose to share their grades with you, it’s important to support them while allowing them to navigate any problems they may face independently. It’s very common for grades to drop in a student’s first year as they adjust to university. It’s understandable if you feel disappointed, but remember that your student is likely disappointed too. You may also experience some feelings of helplessness. In the past, you were likely able to help your student overcome challenges more directly. But there are still some ways you can support them from your new role as a coach.

If your student expresses that they’re unhappy with their grades, you can listen to their frustrations, and then help them think about how to move forward. Many new Waterloo students didn’t need extra help in high school. In fact, they may have been the ones that other students asked for help. It might be challenging for them to know how to ask for help. Try to normalize the idea that there is nothing wrong with asking for help. You can even share some of your own experiences of asking for or receiving help in challenging times.

Next steps

  • If your student tells you about their “first failure,” you can support them by acknowledging their feelings about the experience.
    • Try paraphrasing to help them feel heard and understood. For example, you can say “it sounds like you are disappointed,” and then listen to their concerns about the issue.
    • Use open-ended questions to show you’re listening. You can ask “What are you most worried about?” or “What are you feeling the most confident about?”
  • If your student is disappointed with a grade, listen to their frustrations and ask what they think they can do differently to succeed going forward. Let them think it out.
    • Remember that university is often an academic reset for first-year students. They’ll likely need to learn how to use different strategies than they’re used to for managing their time and meeting course deadlines.
    • Try to express your empathy and unconditional love for your student. It can be very difficult for them to share this challenge with you.
    • There are many resources on campus to help your student work through any academic difficulty they may face.
  • At this time, your student may still be getting used to their new environment, new people, and new cultures. This may be challenging for them, but whether your student is navigating sharing a living space with their roommate or trying to figure out where to get their favourite food from home, you can support them by listening and helping them brainstorm solutions.
  • Try to avoid jumping in with a solution for your student when they mention a new challenge or obstacle from their life at school. Try to ask, “how can you approach this effectively?”
  • Remember, your student may not be looking for advice. They might just want to talk something out with you. Follow their lead, and if they do ask for advice, you can suggest resources like the Student Success Office.

Check out the parent toolbox for campus services and resources you can suggest to your student if they ask for your advice.


First visit home

If your student is living away from home in Campus Housing, they may experience homesickness throughout their first six weeks at Waterloo. This can include missing their friends from home, your family’s cooking, their siblings, their own space, or you. This is a very common reaction to experiencing a big life transition.

When you chat with your student, share updates about what is going on at home so they aren’t surprised by big changes when they visit. When you’re sharing updates, try to follow-up by asking about what they’re enjoying about campus life.

If your student lives on campus and can easily travel home, encourage them to spend time on campus in the first month to help ease their transition and become more comfortable with their new home.

Next stepsHow often should your student visit home?

  • Think about their commitments – there is not a lot of free time for students. It may be not be realistic, or most effective for your student, to come home every weekend. Encourage them to stay at school sometimes, especially at the beginning of the year, so they have opportunities to connect with other students.
  • If your student lives at home with you, remember that homework is like a part-time job, in addition to their full-time job of attending classes, labs, tutorials, study groups and any other commitments.
  • Students often have study groups or attend help sessions in the evenings or on weekends. Encourage your student to facilitate this or seek one out if they are not part of this culture.
  • Some students find that being at home is not the best study environment due to the opportunities for distraction and distance from campus resources and supports.

Reading Week

Fall Reading Week takes place in mid-October. This is a good chance for students to take a break from their studies to recharge, focus on personal wellness, and prepare for the rest of the term. It takes place around Canadian Thanksgiving, which can provide a perfect opportunity for your student’s first visit home, depending on how easy it is for them to travel.

If your student isn’t able to come home during this break, you can still connect with them. Plan to chat on the phone, or arrange a video chat with several family members. Though classes don’t take place and assignments will not be due during this week, many student social clubs organize “Friends-giving” dinners or activities for students who stay on-campus. Encourage your student to stay engaged with their communities, as well as to take time to recharge and reflect on their personal wellness.

If they are able to come home, your student will likely be excited to be back in a familiar place. You may feel deeply appreciated by how eager they are to eat a home cooked meal or to use your washer and dryer. Your student may have very specific plans for how they’d like to spend the week at home. You may also have certain expectations about how this time will go.

While they’ll be very happy to see you, they’ll probably make plans with some of their friends from home too. A large chunk of their plans might just be reserved for catching up on sleep! Of course, you will want to spend time with them too, but try not to schedule too much for the week.

Next steps

  • Try to connect with your student before the break to confirm whether or not they will come home during Reading Week, and about how you both hope to use the time.
  • If your student has been living away from home, they may be used to their independence and doing things their own way. Before they arrive home, it can be helpful to talk about how your newly independent university student will adjust back into family life.
    • What expectations do you and your student have? For example, can they use the family car?
    • Will your student be expected to adhere to a curfew? To contribute to household chores?
    • How much time will they spend with the family? When? For example, do you expect them to join the family for dinner every night?
  • Don’t be surprised if your student comes home with a new way of dressing, styling their hair, or sharing new ideas and beliefs. Try to take these differences in stride and respect your student’s independence as they explore their individuality. Forming a sense of identity is an important part of your student’s development in university. Try to listen with an open mind if they share new aspects of their identity with you, and let them know you value their opinion.
  • Your student may be more emotional than usual during this visit. They may be reconnecting with high school friends for the first time and readjusting to home from university life.
  • You can set aside some time to revisit your communication plan with your student during this week. Now that they have a feel for daily life at Waterloo, they may want to adjust how often or when you check-in on each other.
  • Co-op tip! Some students may be applying for their first co-op job around this time. Encourage them to review Co-operative Education’s resources for help preparing their résumés and getting ready for interviews.

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November - December

First exam season

Final exam schedules are usually posted for students halfway through the term. Try not to create any travel plans for December until after your student receives their exam dates. Professors will not accommodate a student for travel or vacation. Even after the exam schedule is available, snow days can extend the exam period.

The final week of classes in your student’s term will include reviews and deadlines for final assignments. Exam schedules can be very different, but first-year students will typically have an exam every two or three days throughout the exam period.

Students are often tempted to forgo personal care during this time to focus on studying. They may be worried about what grades they will get, the timing of their exams, and how to study for exams across different courses.

Next steps

  • Encourage your student to use their favourite campus study spot to prepare for their exams.
  • Ask your student how they are managing any exam-related stress. Gently remind your student that taking care of themselves is an important factor in their exam success.
  • Encourage your student to make an exam study schedule for themselves that includes eating, sleeping, studying, and taking breaks for leisure activities.
  • If you are concerned at any point about your student’s mental health, Campus Wellness has resources to help parents and supporters identify signs of mental health concerns and how to offer support.
  • If your student becomes ill during the exam period, they must submit a Verification of Illness form. They can refer to their course syllabus for policies regarding late or missed work due to illness.
  • If your student lives in residence, they will be required to move out of their room within 24 hours after their final exam. If your student is staying in their room for the following term, they do not need to move their things out when they leave. However, they will not have access to their room, or its contents, over the break. Students who live outside Ontario can request an extension if they need to stay longer.
  • Waterloo Residences offers an International Student Stay Program over the winter break for eligible students.

"Congratulations! Your student has completed their first term at UWaterloo. Don't forget to celebrate this success."


Winter break

If your student is not visiting home over the break…

  • Consider sending your student a care package with their favourite holiday foods, winter hats and scarves, warm pajamas, and notes from friends and family.
  • To help your student feel included in family festivities, plan to talk on the phone or video chat, play games online together, or watch a movie “together” while connecting by video or online chat.

If your student commutes to campus…

Talk about both of your expectations for the break and family activities. Even though they live at home, many of their friends may be returning from other schools for the break. Your student may want to spend time with these friends while they have the opportunity. Try to find a balance that works for them and the family.

If your student will be visiting home for the break…

Similar to Fall Reading Week, there will be an adjustment as your student comes home for the break from campus.

  • You’re probably excited to have your student home with you again. Remember that they’ve been living independently as an adult for the last four months. They will have created their own routines and be developing new or different habits.
  • Try to have an open conversation about both of your expectations for curfews, housework, and participation in family events.
  • Your student may have just completed several weeks of their first university exams. Talk to them about what they want or need for the break, and how to manage conflicting expectations. They may want to focus on catching up on sleep, relaxing, or catching up with friends from home.

Preparing for second term

Second term can be a fresh start for your student to start or continue building positive habits. Over the winter break, they may start to look ahead or consider new challenges they may need to overcome when they return to class.

Next steps

  • Ask your student how they feel about their first term. Is there anything they would like to focus on in the upcoming term? If they have specific goals in mind, encourage them to create SMART goals.
  • Perhaps your student didn’t choose to get involved in campus activities during their first term. Starting university can feel quite overwhelming, so many new students try to prioritize academics in the beginning. Now that they have some university experience, encourage them to explore different clubs, student societies, or perhaps a part-time job.
  • Students who live in residence may want to start looking for second-year housing options at this time as well. It’s okay to wait until after winter break and to take more time to consider who they’d like to live with. On-campus residence options are available for upper-year students, and the Off-Campus Housing Office has advisors who can support their search for off-campus housing with lease reviews, search strategies, and consultations.
  • Plan to continue to check-in with your student when they go back to class in January. You might hear from them less often this term, but there will still be opportunities to remind them to manage their physical and mental health by getting enough sleep and finding a work-life balance that works for them.