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August 2019

College Transition Day: Practical Questions and Psychological Insights 


Text and photographs by Michael J. Leahy

The experts knew what they were talking about, and at the annual College Transition Day they commanded the engagement of a classroom full of scholars about to head off to campuses for the first time. Some experts were Scholarship Plus staff members, some were Scholarship Plus upperclassmen, some were new friends brought in to share hard-won experiences and insights. Advice included the necessarily practical – time management skills, the mysteries and opportunities of the syllabus document – but extended to the deep insights of a psychologist whose specialty is helping people of color recognize – and blunt – microaggressions rooted in racism.  

The classroom was in the City University Graduate School of Journalism, and the staff experts were Executive Director Kate Fenneman Stokes and Senior Director Anna Antoniak. Upper-class scholars lending their real-life expertise came from Columbia, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, George Washington University and the Oneonta campus of the State University of New York. Outside experts were Mikasa Famorca-Benjamin, a higher education nonprofit executive, and Mariel Buquè, Ph.D., a Counseling Psychologist who teaches at Columbia’s Teachers College. 

Mikasa began the day’s series of classes with a question: What should you expect in coming from a small and diverse school to a large P.W.I. campus? Anna interjected a definition of the acronym: Predominantly White Institution. What will it be like, the students were asked, to change from living with your family to sharing a communal environment?

Among the subjects covered were dealing with health insurance, the importance of budgeting – “Every dollar has a job,” said Anna – and paying for books in an era in which it is not unknown for a textbook to cost $300. Among the suggestions: Consider renting, check to see if libraries might have the books available, and if the course syllabus says that only a chapter of the book will actually be read, consider making a photocopy of that chapter (with the added virtue of making it possible to write in the margins).  

As the day went on, other practical subjects were examined: The term “office hours” does not mean that professors have reserved the time for their own work and don’t wish to be disturbed – quite the opposite, it’s a time to meet with them, and an opportunity to be embraced. Getting along with roommates, stressing the importance of communication on both sides. The importance of really studying the course syllabus, using it as a guide for setting your own deadlines and allocating study time. Checklists of basic clothing and dorm-room equipment.  

The crucial importance of time management was a recurring theme. Sino, a Vassar graduate who, after working at a Washington foundation for several years is about to enter a master’s program on human trafficking in Amsterdam on a Fulbright, recalled working with a time management coach on a weekly basis. 

Kate led a segment devoted to a slim book called “The Four Agreements,” whose tenets have proved helpful to many scholars, and others, who have been exposed to it.  The four:

“Be impeccable with your word. Tell the truth and honor your word.

        “Don’t take anything personally. It’s mostly not about you.

         “Don’t make assumptions. It’s mostly not about you.

         “Do your best. You don’t have to be perfect.”

When Mariel stepped to the front of the classroom, the screen behind her lit up with the overall title of her workshop: “Imposter Syndrome in Higher Education.” But this was not to be an academic exercise, or lecture. She grew up and still lives in Newark, part of a family with roots in the Dominican Republic, and right through the awarding of her doctorate at Columbia, she said, “I have been in many places the only person who looks like me.” Through the insights of psychological research, she was there to give our students tools to navigate through the shoals of unwitting or deliberate microaggressions.  

An example of a microaggression, she said, would be a class discussion on slavery when the rest of the class turns to you – the only person of color present – and asks for your thoughts. Two members of our group volunteered that exactly this had happened to them.

The definition of microaggression, Mariel said, was “Brief, commonplace verbal and nonverbal slights that communicate denigrating or demeaning messages to people of color based on their racial group membership.” The various forms of microaggression are inescapable, she said, and “We need to be prepared for the experiences we will have.”

Another example she gave was of an authority figure – or a casual acquaintance – who says, “When I look at you, I don’t see color.” “If you’re telling me you can’t see color,” Mariel said, “you’re telling me you can’t see the fullness of me.”

The accumulation of such experiences, she said, can lead to imposter syndrome. It comes, she said, in three flavors: “I am a fake.” “I just got lucky.” And, “You’re too kind.” 

“When you understand imposter syndrome,” Mariel said, “you disempower it.” In combatting imposter syndrome, she stressed, “The only thing that’s fraudulent in you is your imposter syndrome.”

The day’s last chapter began with an exercise on intention-setting led by Kate, in which the scholars were asked to stand and list two or three practical, realistic and specific goals. Prefaced by the words, “I intend to …,” these were some of them: “Go to office hours once a week.” “Make at least three good friends.” “Sleep at least six hours a night.” “Make a budget by the end of the month” and review it regularly.

Next up came another set of experts: Three scholars giving the benefit of their experience so far at Columbia, Oneonta and R.P.I. The soon-to-be first-years had submitted anonymous written questions, and members of the panel responded. Questions included keeping in touch with one’s faith community, and with friends and family. Mikasa joined in responding to both, drawing on her experiences as a student and as a resident assistant as well as her work in higher-education leadership and diversity development. She stressed something that might be overlooked in the bustle and pressures of campus life: not forgetting to keep in touch with parents. Whether by internet or phone, she said, “Bring something light and bright and fiery back into their lives.”

Then it was time to straighten up the classroom and prepare to go on to the Summer Gathering, but not before two final gifts from Kate and Anna: A slim volume of “The Four Agreements” and a printed message, suitable for keeping handy:  

“You have free unlimited calls or texts to Kate and Anna. You can always reach out to us or ask us to call you. We are here!”

Senior Director Anna Antoniak kicks off the day by introducing a full room of scholars to facilitator Mikasa Famorca-Benjamin.


Scholars and college experts smile on during an early session.


Mikasa Famorca-Benjamin digs into the Myers-Briggs personality types and why it can be helpful to know certain things about ourselves going into college.


Mikasa chats with Safi, a rising first-year student at NYU, during a break.


Dr. Mariel Buquè of Columbia University (and her own Cultural Therapy practice) introduces Imposter Syndrome as the product of carefully defined microaggressions.


Dr. Buquè led us in discussion on a difficult topic with thoughtful support.

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