Lowdown on making the grade in CEGEP:
Planning, discipline keys to success, students say
by Irwin Block
Originally published February 17, 2001 in the Montreal Gazette
Reprinted here with kind permission of the author.

Anthony Di Carlo learned the hard way what student success is all about. He started CEGEP three years ago as an academic superstar, flush with great marks in high school and acceptance into the prestigious international baccalaureate program at Champlain College in Saint-Lambert. Di Carlo, now 20, soon learned that what works in high school can lead to hard knocks at the college level. "I was persuaded to follow the crowd and ended up partying every weekend," Di Carlo recounted. "I waited until the last minute to study, just looked over my notes." The result was a tale of burnout and dropout until Di Carlo, now president of the Vanier College students' union, learned how to cope and succeed. He's not alone.

Government bureaucrats and college administrators are grappling with the problem of high failure rates among CEGEP students. At the government's request, all CEGEPs are drafting so-called success plans to try to boost the graduation rate to 85 per cent in 10 years. In 1997-1998 - the last year for which the Education Department has complete statistics -- only 69.2 per cent of pre-university students and 52.9 per cent of those enrolled in three-year professional programs graduated. (Students not registered for more than two years are considered to have failed to graduate.)

School administrators interviewed all said that whatever the colleges might do, the drive and commitment of students remain at the heart of the problem. With about 45,000 Grade 11 students now choosing a CEGEP and course of study before the March 1 application deadline, Di Carlo and other students offered their own stories to those future CEGEP students, along with some advice on how to come out a winner. After dropping out "to try to find myself," Di Carlo found a job as a busboy and decided he had to choose: "I told myself there are two alternatives - you either continue in school or you don't." He then enrolled in commerce at Vanier College, switched to social science, with math and a concentration in economics, and is now thriving. He continues to work part time and is involved in student politics.

Remi Bourget is in charge of student affairs at CEGEP du Vieux Montreal, located just off the lower St. Denis St. strip of bars and cafes, and so he, too, knows about the temptation to party. Now studying history and civilization, Bourget's advice is: "Don't let yourself be influenced by what's around your CEGEP, because they are not always the most instructive activities." Bourget, who came to Montreal from small-town Lavaltrie, warns, "If you have a beer before classes, that can lead to three or four and it could be disastrous. "Set limits," he suggests, and that can be done by using an agenda. Planning should include "time for a good time." "One of my teachers said that should be the first thing you plan in your agenda.

"You have to be organized, so you have the time to get everything done. I flunked two courses last term because after I took over the students' association I didn't manage to get everything done." New students should take the time to get to know the school's buildings, he also suggests. "When I first arrived here, I would come 25 minutes late because I couldn't find the classroom. There are 11 storeys here and I came from a high school with 700 students." Vieux Montreal has always been an activist school, and that can extend to academic life - including taking action when students perceive a serious problem with a teacher. "I once had an English course, and the entire class had a meeting where everybody said, `This can't go on.' If there's a problem, talk to fellow students, and if they also feel there is a problem, then you can do something about it." The students formed a committee and one by one filed written complaints. The department is studying the case, Bourget said. Similar formal complaint systems exist in most CEGEPs.

Study problems are a big obstacle for many new students, says Kyle Gervais, 19, in his third year of health sciences at Vanier College. "It took me four semesters to get my act together. I was a prolific student at Royal Vale high school. I didn't even have to study. I got very cocky and I never got into a studying habit." Gervais did so poorly that he was directed into night classes, designed for those in continuing education. Holding down two jobs as he studied at night, Gervais says, he learned the hard way. "I had to teach myself to concentrate on one thing at a time. My advice to high-school students: even though the material might be incredibly easy, apply yourself to it. When you get to CEGEP, you have to work hard."

Another tip Gervais offers: Find your school's learning centre and use it - whether you think you need it or not. The centres are designed to help students through peer tutoring after class. They also provide advice on studying problems, writing an essay or coaching for those with language difficulties. Ironically, students say that it's often high-performing students you meet there, not those having difficulties. "Most of the people who go there are getting 95s, anyway," Gervais said. "People who don't go there are people who get 60s. To be a good student, go see them the first day, go talk to your teachers, get to know them. Most of them are more than happy to help you."

Antoine Theoret-Poupart, 19, a strong student from the International School in Saint-Hubert, says CEGEP came as a shock to him, too, and he had problems in pure and applied science in his first semester at Vieux Montreal. "You're 17 and you think you know about life and then you make this huge jump and find you just were not prepared," he said. He's now taking an administration specialty in a social science "just to get it over with and go on to university." He says his best learning experiences have come from extracurricular activities: at the college radio station, its newspaper and as a student activist. "I learned more about law here than in my course," he said in the student-association offices, plastered with political slogans.

Deciding what to study was also a problem for Brahm Solomon, 18, now in his fourth semester studying commerce at Dawson College. He had no idea what course to follow and says his high school's shadow program helped. "I went to see a stockbroker and I found that the most boring thing I have ever seen in my life." Once in commerce, he discovered that he enjoyed courses in management and human resources more than economics and analysis. If you find you're in a program you really don't like, don't worry, he says. "I know a lot of people who have switched programs, not just in CEGEP. You should be willing to try different things, but it has to interest you. The CEGEP system was originally intended to allow you to explore before you get to university."

Solomon agrees that having strong extracurricular interests helps him have a successful academic career - as long as he stays focused. He is involved in student politics, in his synagogue and sings in a choir. "The more involved I get, the less time I have to work on things, so it forces me to manage my time better and, as a result, I do better in school. If you're not busy, you end up procrastinating."

Being busy is also part of Maryse Bouchard's secret. Now 18, in health sciences at Dawson, Bouchard became so fascinated by politics she almost transferred into liberal arts. "But being involved in student government was also like taking four classes in poli sci, except it was just extracurricular. Much more exciting than going to (a political science) class." She says students who aren't sure what they want to study should try a variety of courses but not to get discouraged if they don't work out right away. Initially, she had her doubts about health sciences. "I would curse as I did my homework and I went into those labs. Now, having stuck it out, I actually realize this is what I want to do."

The key to success, Bouchard says, is to "get yourself some good study habits. Try to avoid procrastination. Take notes in class, try to be attentive. Sitting in the back of class won't help. Even if a teacher puts the course online, go to classes. You really need to hear someone explain it, who can answer your questions." Be open to seeking help, she says, and get to know your teachers. "When they know who you are, they are more open to helping you out on their own time, even if it's not office hours. They're more willing to give you an extension if things get hectic, if they know who you are, know you work and know you try."

Copyright The Gazette (Montreal) 2001 All Rights Reserved.