Tips to Successfully Navigate the First Year of University with Dr. Janet Miller

Dr. Janet Miller

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Jun 8, 2022

There was nothing available in Canada that quite hit the mark for Dr. Janet Miller, so, she took matters into her own hands.

“I wanted to make it person,” says the author of You @ the U: A Guided Tour through Your First Year of University.

“I wanted to make it their journey. So, thinking about you — what is it going to be like for you not just for the random human or for a generic person, but what do you need? What will your transition be like? What will your pathway feel like? I wanted it to be focused on the person.”

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a counseling psychologist, a university professor, speaker, author and mother of four. Dr. Janet Miller has spent more than two decades working with youth, young and older adults on issues including mental health and personal development. Her latest book is called you at the you a guide to the first year of university for students. Dr. Miller joins us today from Calgary. Thank you so much for being here.

Thanks, Lianne. I’m delighted to be here. I do want to say I am mothering of four, but two of them I inherited already pretty fantastically mothered by a lovely human. So I just want to honor her as well as my extended beautiful family. So thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

Absolutely. So let me start with the fact is, that’s a really clever title you’ve got for that book you at The U, what was your objective in writing it?

I wanted university students to think of themselves in this new space that transitioning from high school into university or through that gap year into post secondary studies, or coming back after working somewhere somehow, and coming back into a university environment. I wanted to make it personal, I wanted to make it their journey. So thinking about you, what is it going to be like for you not just for the random human or for a generic person? But what do you need? What will your transition be like? What will your your pathway feel like? So I wanted it to be focused on the person. And then the the title was kind of find that like a little Rhyming is kind of lovely. And then I worked with a really great editing team to make it look beautiful. And to make it free and accessible. It was really a pleasure to be part of it. And now you’re bringing it to parents, which makes me delighted. Well, and it’s such important information. I don’t think you can have enough information about this topic personally. But let’s go back a little bit to the fact that you’ve been in this space for well over two decades, as we mentioned off the top, certainly seen a lot in that time, a lot has changed. Can you tell us in terms of the research that you did that went into this book?

Sure. Well, some of it was formal studies that we did, we did interviews with different kinds of graduates from different programs, different demographic groups, we tried to understand what the student experience was like walking in their shoes. So you’ll hear stories from students in this book. Part of it was from my counseling practice, having sat here with students over the years in this office and in the old wing of the university long ago. So their students stories that are reflected here. In my counseling psychology background, some of my formal research has been this published on student success, working with student leaders, people living in residence, indigenous graduates and what their pathway look like, so that we can learn to remove some of the barriers and foster success, make this a more welcoming environment and post secondary. And I’m involved in the Canadian landscape of student services. So I learned a lot from my colleagues and writing this and it certainly wasn’t done alone. But it’s done with a lot of voices collectively together, including elder Roy bear chief who wrote the foreword for the book, he’s in a spoon ta which means helper in Blackfoot. He’s here on our campus and as a lovely, lovely soul. And he wanted to welcome students onto this, this land and into post secondary in a good way. So I’m grateful to him for the beginnings of the book as well.

So much knowledge to try to transfer on such an important topic with so many different sub themes. And you’re trying to get it done in you know, 230 odd pages. So how would you describe what your approach was and what makes this particular publication unique?

While the approach when I started, I wanted to write a stress management guide. I think for students originally, students are under a lot of stress university and college are supposed to be stressful experiences are meant to stretch you and to help you learn new things. But it’s also gonna be overwhelming for students. And there’s lots of conversation about mental health and well being in the post secondary context. We know that stress impacts students, and gets in the way of learning if we’re too stressed, then we start to shut down and go sideways. So I wanted to be I want to be helpful and write a book around stress management. And I couldn’t find something for the university context. From a Canadian vantage point, I found lots of American resources, but even then they were like, how to hack university or how to, I don’t know, they were they were not quite what I was looking for that I thought students needed. So I drafted a stress management book that I thought was brilliant, and I took it to a focus group of students who told me it was not brilliant that I was not on track. I’m so grateful to that team of students who said, they already know about drinking water and eating vegetables. And they didn’t need, they didn’t need me to Mother them, they needed some really good. They needed some stories, they needed a pathway, almost, they needed a guide book, they said not not to be told what they should do, but to help them navigate through some of the the landscape of university. So with their support and feedback, it got re, I don’t know why it evolved into this. This is a lovely publication, it is based in research, we tied it back with some of the studies that had been done, both in the literature and things that I’ve been working on over the last couple of decades. So that it was a guide that was informed by lived experience. And like you said, tied back to research, yes, but written in a way that was accessible. So it was meant to be supportive, encouraging, walk through of what it’s like to be in university, and how to imagine navigating these, these different times in our lives like this, this, this, this stages in our life.
You know, it’s so interesting to hear you describe the feedback that you got from these young people who are certainly the target audience for this book, anything in particular strike you that you said, Wow, I’m really glad I asked for and received this feedback.
Oh, my gosh, all of it that. Okay, that’s too big of an answer. I really am grateful to the team. They said, a stress management book is not going to help me by the time I’ve got time to read it, I’m going to be it’s going to be the holidays, and I won’t be so stressed anymore. They said that they wanted something that was tied to the university experience. So was it like to write final exams? When do I stay up all night? Or stay up late? What about drugs and alcohol? What about the social scene? What about registering for classes? How do you build a timetable to help you with your life? And how much support should I get from parents or academic advisors? And how much do I have to figure out on my own? And if I am figuring it out on my own? How can I get some really good direction? So I think I I’m, I’m just so grateful that these students spent their time with me over pizza and laughter. To say, here’s, here’s a better way to do it. I wish there was a book like this, this would have helped me and they said, a handbook, something they could flip to in different sections, a go to book that would help me at different stages in that lifecycle of a student. Less about what I should do and more about is such a tagline, but it’s true, more about what we should know, what do I need to know not? What should I do? Not the behaviors. But what do I need to understand to help guide me through this time?

Now? That’s a very interesting question when you put it to parents in that equation, right. And in many households, that is part of the equation is how a student is going away to university, how their parents are going to manage it. And what kind of advice if any, do you have for parents in there?

Well, in the registration chapters, it talks about helping our students to understand what the different language means, what’s a prerequisite? How do you do the online navigation to get your courses figured out? How do you construct a timetable, but it also says Don’t let your mom or dad do it for you, so are your guardian or your significant other, this is really knowledge that you need to develop yourself so. So I would hope that parents would see that as here’s some way to be a guide without doing it for my student, because the students really need to learn how to do these skills on their own so that they own their success so that they feel more competent and confident going forward. Same thing with moving if you’re moving into residence, or if you’re redoing your home, let’s say you’re living at home, as many of our students do when they go off to university. It’s still a major transition. So how do I renegotiate? My, whether I have a curfew with my parents, or who’s doing laundry, or how much I can do with chores, or when I can take the car, or what other kinds of tasks in the family I need to do or maybe redesign. There’s some hints about that for parents. Absolutely. And we encourage students to talk to their parents about how their life is going to change. Now that they’re in post secondary, because it’s very different than high school. It’s not as structured as high school. There’s a lot more out of class studying and textbook reading, we need a different kind of space setup, we probably need different kinds of technology. And parents need to understand this transition and support their students. It’s different than when we were in university, I think I think there is more pressure on students things are faster. So it gives some information to students to help talk to their parents. And if parents read it ahead of time, I mean, that would just be fantastic to have a sense of what their students going through what they might face. That’d be lovely.

Absolutely. And I think one of the things that really strikes me is the timing of the release of this Look, as we you know, in a pandemic, and I knew it came out a little bit ago, but still certainly pertinent information probably now more so than ever. What’s the feedback been like?

The feedback has been really positive, it did come out just at the well, I don’t know, the end of the pandemic, we’re still I think in transition. This is the first summer that’s been available. So it came out just as the fall 2021. Season was among us. The feedback I’ve had so far is really positive. I mean, one day, maybe there’ll be a second edition. So if there is feedback that your audience has, for me, I would love love to have critical feedback, what’s missing? What was useful? What do you want more of or less of that would help to guide your student through their journey. And maybe there’s someone out there who would like to write the book for the parents of our students, there are a few good guides from the United States, I think that talk about being a parent to a student. Now who’s heading off to post secondary, but we don’t have a lot of Canadian content. So I would be really enthusiastic. If someone out there would love to write the parental guide, the companion guide. And I would love to help out with that. That’d be great.
Along those lines, when would you say is the ideal time to read this book?
Oh, well, parents are probably if parents are going to read it are aunties and uncles and grandparents. I feel like we probably as as parents of those young people going off to university, we’re probably thinking about that now. So May June, sort of as high school ends. For our students, I think most of us are already thinking about what’s going to happen in the fall if they’re heading into university right away, or towards that end of the gap here. But I feel like students, from the feedback I’m getting about it, they’ll flip in and out of it as they need it. So I don’t think I don’t think it’s being read cover to cover like a story. Although it could be, I think that I’m hearing from students that they go to the chapter that they need when they need it. So if a student’s feeling like I’m not smart enough to be here, there’s a chapter on that, if a student is feeling overwhelmed looking at their first Final Exam set in December, I wrote a chapter just about getting ready for finals. If someone feels like things are going sideways, or they’re having a hard time with time management, they can go to that chapter. So I think it’s going to be picked up in pieces through the year, if it’s in someone’s hands in June as they graduate high school, fantastic. But I feel like it’s probably going to be the thing that it’s picked up in October, when things start to get really tough.

Interesting. Now, we talked about the amount of information and knowledge that you have to draw on from your experience as a university counselor, as well, as a psychologist in private practice. When you look back on it, you know, so much has happened in the time that you’ve been in this space, you know, it’s just been marked changes across the board. What, when there are students sitting in front of you that are you know, talking to you about going into first year university? What are some things that they tell you that might be sort of out of the ordinary in terms of, you know, yes, people are going to be nervous, and they’re going to be anxious, but there’s anything else that they’re saying to you that maybe parents need to be aware of?

Oh, my gosh, that’s a beautiful question. So you’re right. I’ve been out here doing this work for a long time. And I think I’m still learning and still evolving. So every individual in front of me teaches me probably something different if I’m willing to listen and be present. Oh, my gosh, it’s so many things have changed. Okay, so your questions, lovely. So it’s got me thinking about design decolonization of our institutions and about indigenisation in our campuses and being aware of where we are and the tradition that’s here. I am a white woman from mostly a colonial background settler background. I grew up in what’s now called Ontario, close maybe to where you are and I grew up in Oakville, I didn’t learn a lot about the first peoples of that, that land. When I came to, to here to Calgary, what’s more, Kingston is the place where these two rivers meet. Blackfoot territory, I feel like I’ve learned so much I am learning I continue to learn. And I feel like that’s true in our institutions across Canada that we are getting better at recognizing colonizations impact on learning on people. And that’s part of listening and understanding the truth is to ask questions and experience it and to decolonize our institutions. So I feel like parents probably could be well could be made aware that this is part of of post secondary education is there’s a an undoing as well as a learning and expanding so I feel pretty confident saying all of our institutions across Canada are have taken up that call. Yep, no, yeah, no, you go ahead.

No, I was just gonna say as somebody who also works with young adults and older adults, youth, certainly around mental health. We know and multiple organizations have confirmed that youth mental health is a global epidemic. You know, as it relates to this topic and the theme of this book, what can you say about how this book can, you know, provide support to a young person heading off to university?

Okay, that I love that. So I was I was gonna go to the mental health piece next, because I think that’s true around belonging and around, taking our whole selves into post secondary. There’s a really fantastic survey that’s used across Canada called the National College Health Assessment, the NC H A, it comes out, it’s an American tool that’s been adapted for Canada, there’s a positive psychology part put into the end of it for many institutions across Canada. So we get a little bit more about belonging, connectivity to community, feeling like I’ve got the resources that I need to respond to the stresses around me. And then part of this National College Health Assessment looks at health behaviors and attitudes of our students. And it gives us some framework to compare to each other to compare across time, they’re snapshots of different pop student populations, but it does give us some really good information. So we do know that mental health issues and concerns are on the rise, I think that’s on point for post secondary, that depression, anxiety, feeling, having thoughts of suicide, feeling hopeless, that we do see that those stats are, are on the rise among post secondary students. And I think that across populations in general, with the pandemic, we’ve seen more loneliness, and more of that angst and worry increasing. So in post secondary part of what’s in this book is a guide of all the different resources that are available on campuses, not just mine at Mount Royal University. So I’m a full professor here on campus at Mount Royal. I’m an adjunct with the University of Calgary. But these services are available across Canada. So student counseling, academic advisors, medical doctors, peer to peer programs, where students help each other on campuses, you’re going to see that might be labeled differently, but you’re going to see that on the campus that your student is going to in Canada. So this book has a appendix, it lists all the different students services that are typical across campus, there’s going to be some sort of fitness center, there’s going to be some nutritional support, there’s going to be places to buy decent food on campus, there’s going to be emergency finances, if students need that, there’s going to be all kinds of community resources that build connection with other students who are interested in similar things, whether that’s clubs or societies, living in residence, there’ll be activities that bring your student together. And that all adds into our mental health. If we feel supported, we are more likely to thrive. If we feel like there are resources that will help us in hard times, we’re more likely then to reach out for those resources and be persistent. There’s academic supports to and your instructors. So this book talks about how to reach encourages students to go to class, first of all, absolutely. And to get to know your professor that they also want you to thrive. Most most people who are teaching and post secondary do it because they love education, and they want to help students to learn their craft or their discipline. So there’s a lot of resources available.
Along those lines, let me ask you, what would you say your top tips are? For students to successfully navigate the first year of university?

I got to talk to him. So well. Go to class. Absolutely. So students who go to class are less likely to fail. It’s really hard to fail a class if you’re attending class. So being engaged with your academics is has to be top of the list. But being engaged with your campus is going to be up there. Oh my gosh, I wasn’t prepared with 10. But let me see if I can do that. Okay, so go to class two, I love it. I want to encourage students to get involved with their campus community. So to stay on campus in between classes linger after class, go to your students union or Students Association, they are going to have fun things. They’re going to have free food events, they’re going to have concerts and all kinds of societies to potentially be part of or clubs to be signed up with. You’re going to meet other students who are interested in things that you’re interested in. But I also am going to encourage students to do things out of their box. So sometimes in high school, we get really comfortable with the people we’ve known sometimes since kindergarten, or maybe with my group of people who believes what I believe or watches what I watch. And there’s a certain amount of wonderfulness that happens in our educational pathways and in our homes and in our communities that really helped to foster security. But in post secondary, we can expose to other people way of being in the world we get diversification, we get a conversation about beliefs that maybe we haven’t had before we get an opportunity for respectful debate, we get to understand difference by learning with and beside and building friendships across all kinds of lines. And that is both wonderful and challenging, exciting, sometimes confusing. But part of that post secondary experience, and I think it’s what broadens our education, and broadens our world. So I really do encourage students to get involved with other students outside of what they might usually have done with work or university or high school. That’s part of university life. So I think that’s part of it. And then sleep is a really important part of just general well being often is the first thing to go when we get busy. But we do talk about sleeping well, and eating well and exercising, trying to manage our time and understanding the waves of university, there are some real crunch times in the university lifecycle. And first year is all about learning about those cycles.

Without question, let me ask you very quickly, what would you want parents to take away from this book?

Oh, parents, oh, I first want to thank you for encouraging your student to go and study whether they are going far away or close to home. I would want parents to know that it is a journey that it’s not just like taking a class. As if it’s cut and dry, that there’s a whole piece of the young adult experience, this emergent adult they call it, there is a quarter life crisis that I think is a real thing, that students get overwhelmed about the future and about possibilities. And then as parents, we get to guide them through that there’s still a parenting that happens here. At this stage of life. They still need you, they’re gonna need they’re gonna need a care package. And in early October, I think in September, a lot of parents won’t hear from their kids at the beginning of September, the kids are too busy enjoying doing the things or they’re quite lonely right at the beginning and they need a lot of support. So the message hopefully will be get involved. Find your community there and access the supports on campus to help you be involved. In October, students feel homesick and that’s really common. And that’s a really good time to bolster your students resiliency that send them a little money, send them some cookies, answer their questions be available for late night phone calls, if they’re far away from you, or send unsolicited messages of support and encouragement. A lot of students feel lonely at the beginning of October. But again, we want them to work through that on campus with their their new people with their new community. Whether they live on campus or off campus, we want them to be engaged. And the more engaged they are on campus, the more likely they are to thrive and graduate and excel in their their career lives. So that transition support I guess I would want parents to know that it’s a little rocky and that’s okay. There is a developmental stage your student will go through and you have a real wonderful role in that. And others will also be available to help your student to thrive.

Wonderful tip came out. Dr. Janet Miller, author of you at the US she’s also a counseling psychologist at the University counselor as well. Thank you so much for your time and your insight today.

Thanks, Lianne. It was a pleasure.

Armed with a vast body of expertise, Dr. Miller brought together more than two decades of experience as a counselling psychologist, her work as a university counsellor, a psychologist in private practice, Professor at the University of Calgary and adjunct Professor at Mount Royal University — to support students to transition successfully to first-year university.  The finished product, published in the Fall of 2021, blends research with lived experience and anecdotes.

“Some of it was formal studies that we did,” Dr. Miller told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk, describing the approach taken for the book. “We did interviews with different kinds of graduates from different programs, different demographic groups. We tried to understand what the student experience was like walking in their shoes. So you’ll hear stories from students in this book. Part of it was from my counselling practice, having sat here with students over the years in this office and in the old wing of the university long ago. There are student stories that are reflected here. In my counselling psychology background, some of my formal research has been this published on student success, working with student leaders, people living in residence, indigenous graduates and what their pathway looks like, so that we can learn to remove some of the barriers and foster success, make this a more welcoming environment and post-secondary,” she says.

The result was a 233-page guide, that was drafted, then vetted by students.

“It was meant to be a supportive, encouraging, walk through of what it’s like to be in university, and how to imagine navigating these different times in our this stage in our life,” says Dr. Miller, who is mother of two and stepmom of two.

Book cover You @ the U

“I would hope that parents would see that as here’s some way to be a guide without doing it for my student, because the students really need to learn how to do these skills on their own so that they own their success, so that they feel more competent and confident going forward.”

The book is available in printed form and also available for download.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Janet Miller discusses:

  • Tips for students entering first-year university
  • Strategies for parents on supporting their child’s post-secondary experience
  • Key takeaways from ‘You @ The U’

Related links:

You @TheU (downloadable version)

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