For a school-leaver, going on to third-level is an exciting, formative experience that brings with it hope and self-discovery.
However, for some this change can be daunting. It brings challenges, such as lack of financial certainty, poor employment prospects, work overload and a lack of coping skills.
This year, the Covid pandemic and the associated public health restrictions will test resilience levels further.
We work with students in UCC and we are also members of Student Affairs Ireland, (SAI) the representative body of student affairs and student services professionals in colleges across the country.
Student counsellors, medical health professionals and many other student support professionals, such as staff working in disability support services and in career services, are working harder and faster than ever before in order to meet the demands of a diverse and ever-increasing student population.
Students experience higher education in different ways, with varying levels of success. They are encouraged to engage in clubs and societies which help them to develop skills and to make friends. While the majority will adapt well to their new environment, for some the challenge can be too great and result in subsequent stress.
The adverse impact of stress and anxiety on student health, well-being, and academic performance were important issues even before Covid-19. Now, institutions may face many students facing tough decisions about their academic future due to the societal and economic impact of the pandemic.
Student support professionals have been working hard to implement a cohesive plan to support any rise in demand for all student health and student support services.
Approximately 55,000 first years will participate in virtual communities this autumn and will receive wraparound support from academic staff, student affairs professionals and peer support leaders.
In UCC, for example, staff will follow up personally with students who fail to attend or participate in orientation and connection activities. Students will also have the opportunity to take virtual tours of campus and the library and meet their academic mentors online.
At Student Affairs Ireland, we see great opportunities in developing pro-active virtual communities to support new students in their transition. Almost 200 Student Affairs professionals participated in a workshop collaborate on how best to plan for a blend of online and on campus orientation programmes.
SAI have also held webinars with a clinical psychologist and a higher education consultant with a view to equipping student services professionals with the skills required to support students as best as possible in what are unprecedented times.
We are determined to ensure orientation programmes will be engaging and will deliver content 'just in time' and on a 'need-to-know basis' using a blend of videos, text, quizzes, checklists and rewards to engage and entice students to learn more continually by revisiting content when they need a refresher.
We are hopeful that higher education institutions will see more student engagement with support services than ever before, especially from those who will find it easier to reach out for support and guidance because it will be more convenient for them to engage virtually.
No two students are the same and so the network of services provided reflect this.
In UCC, we visualise the support network - the kind of services found on campuses across the country - as a 'support tree'.
At the roots are the immediate sources of assistance such as family and friends, and the programme supports for each course availed of by all students are the central trunk.
From there branches emerge to represent services relied on by individuals such as student counselling and development, peer support, career services, the student budgeting advice service and other assists.
From acorn to mighty oak, students across the country taking their first steps this autumn can be sure the entire higher education community is ready to engage.
Paul Moriarty is Director of Student Experience at University College Cork and Chair of Student Affairs Ireland. Noirin Deady is Vice Chair of Student Affairs Ireland, and First Year Experience Coordinator, UCC