A Freshman’s Guide to ORHS

Freshman year at Oyster River: we seniors remember it as a time occupied by wandering around the building trying to find our classes, trying to adjust to the academic rigor, and tiptoeing gingerly around the senior core. 

But this year looks very different for you, the class of ‘24. Instead of walking through the doors each morning, textbooks in hand, your morning routine involves logging into a computer, barred from exploring Oyster River’s hallways of classrooms and offices due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. While in-person learning has begun to gradually phase back in, you are suddenly finding yourself with a little under a semester to become acquainted with ORHS, not to mention the significant changes that have been made to the school day in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Students are expected to wear masks, stay six feet apart, and follow specific traffic patterns along the hallways, which hardly makes for a “normal” freshman experience. 

This is why a handful of ORHS seniors gave me their best advice to share with you. I hope this can serve as a guide for not only your class, but for future freshmen at Oyster River who are looking for some good, old-fashioned senior advice. 

Getting Involved

Being in a new school is awkward. Trust me, I get it. It might seem like the hardest thing in the world to jump right into all of the extracurriculars that ORHS has to offer, but it’s arguably one of the best things you can do as an underclassman. Libby Cavanaugh (‘21) emphasized this as one of the most important steps in getting to know ORHS. 

“Get involved!” encouraged Cavanaugh, who plays varsity field hockey and manages the boys’ lacrosse team. “Do sports or clubs that you are interested in. It helps you make friends!” 

There are simply so many options for extracurriculars at ORHS that it’s impossible not to find one that piques your interest. Some strong programs include Best Buddies, SALT (Student Athlete Leadership Team), the spring musical, Sustainability Club, and the Diverse Student Union. Plus, if you’re like me and find yourself lacking in the areas of singing and dancing but would still like to support the program, make sure to go to the musicals and any other spectator event that you find interesting. Nothing quite matches the energy of being in the stands of a playoff hockey game or chanting at a soccer match. Whatever you choose to participate in, it’s definitely better to try lots of things your freshman and sophomore years than make it to your senior year feeling like you missed out. 

“I didn’t get involved in clubs or athletics until pretty recently, which I regret,” admitted Michael Szymanski (‘21). However, Szymanski joined the boys’ varsity hockey team for his senior season and had a great run, making it to the semifinal match. “I think that joining a high school sports team gives you the ability to connect socially with your peers outside of the classroom,” Szymanski said. “Although I’ve never played sports with the high school hockey team before this year, I have grown up with all these kids so it’s been an amazing experience teaming up with them.”

I personally know the impact that being on a sports team can have on your assimilation to high school life. As a freshman on the soccer team, it was a fantastic (albeit stressful!) experience to train and play with upperclassmen. We have even established a buddy system of sorts on the team, wherein seniors can partner with incoming freshmen to be a resource throughout the school day. Sports teams and clubs alike can provide a supportive family that you can rely on for any questions you may have. Luckily, ORHS has a wide range of clubs and activities to choose from, which you can read all about in the Bobcat Corner group on Schoology, under the Resources tab. 

Classes to Take

One of the most fun parts of high school academics is choosing your electives. And, luckily for you, Oyster River has a unique menu available, with everything from Bake Shop, to Yoga and Mindfulness, to World Drumming.

“Take a lot of art classes,” recommended Szymanski. “I think the art room has been one of the best experiences I’ve had at ORHS, and I never thought I’d say that… I think that [art classes] are something really fun that everyone should experience.”

Other classes that seniors emphasized as highlights of their time at ORHS are African American History and Women’s Literature.

“I really liked African American History and I think that’s a super important class, and Women’s Lit, too,” said Mia Hricz (‘21). “Those were two of the most impactful classes I’ve taken. I just think they give unique perspectives. Even if you’re not a woman, I think it’s great to take Women’s Lit. And African American History: I feel like I’ve learned so much in that class that has stuck with me… whenever I see things on TV or on social media, I think back to that class and start making those connections again.”

For me, that impactful class was AP US History. That class showed me that my love for history ran deeper than I thought, and even though I was initially intimidated by the advanced status of the class, it quickly became the highlight of my day (plus Mrs. VanDyke is the best, so make sure to swing by at some point and introduce yourself!). 

The bottom line, however, is making sure you’re taking classes that you’re excited about and could benefit from, even if they seem out of your comfort zone. 

“I kind of regret not taking certain classes because I thought they would be too hard, like AP Bio, but looking back, I really wanted to take it,” said Hricz. 

Hricz is right, but it’s important to differentiate between classes that are challenging in a positive, growth-oriented way, and classes that are going to cause you an unhealthy amount of stress. 

“I think that some students feel the need to take every single class that is the quote-unquote accelerated class, they’re so focused on taking all the APs they can take… and that’s good, if you can handle that,” said Szymanski. “But I think some students feel pressure to take on that course load when they can’t handle it, especially if they have a lot going on outside of their school day. I think that everyone’s under the impression that they need to take these classes to get to a higher education, when in reality that’s not even close to true. When some students go down that path, they stretch themselves really thin, and by the end of their high school career it becomes way too much, emotionally and mentally.”

The goal here is to find a balance between Hricz’s and Syzmanski’s points. Make sure that you’re not avoiding classes because you’re intimidated by them, but also take stock of what you can handle. Burnout is real and it’s better to pull a good grade in a more basic class than to tank in an AP that’s out of your league academically. Trust me, I know what it’s like to constantly feel panic rising in your chest when you don’t understand any of your assignments, or getting yet another subpar test grade despite spending hours poring over your notes. But I also know the happiness of thriving in a course I love, when I feel empowered to dive deeper into the material and go beyond the assignment rubrics. 

Taking classes that push the limits of your ability and encourage your curiosity are not only great for your mental growth but for setting you up for life post-high school. Colleges like to see a challenging course load on your transcript, but only if you can keep up with it. Try not to get too caught up in what you think colleges want to see, however. High school is a great time to test your limits and find your passions, so be sure to challenge yourself but also recognize when you’re in over your head. Try fun electives and explore lots of different subject areas, because you never know where your next passion could be hiding! Your counselor can be a great resource for this, so don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or to schedule a meeting!

The Lowdown on Grades

“Looking back, the one thing I would tell myself to do differently is that your freshman grades are really important,” said Lydia Kurtiak (‘21). “I think that’s not really drilled into our heads, just because we’re new high schoolers and they don’t want to stress us out too bad, but [freshman grades] are really the foundation of your GPA. Come junior year, you’re applying to colleges and you realize that you should’ve tried harder, because it’s really hard to change your GPA once it’s established.”

This is true. Especially if your goal is to attend a four-year college (which I know is weird to think about your freshman year), your grades are an important component of your student profile that admission reps look at. Of course, this all depends on what your plans are post-graduation — every college emphasizes GPA differently  —  but it’s a safe bet to make sure you’re doing well, grade-wise. Extracurricular involvement, community service, and other things are still important to your applications come senior year, but you definitely don’t want to ignore those numbers you see in PowerSchool. At the end of the day, make sure you’re keeping up with and doing well on your coursework. Grades certainly aren’t everything but you want to be proud of what you’re turning in!

“Really make sure that you understand what’s going on in your classes,” Kurtiak summarized. “I know it’s new and it’s sometimes scary to ask teachers that you don’t know [for help] in a new environment, but don’t be afraid to ask for help and just really focus on your classes.”

Cavanaugh agreed. “Get to know your teachers,” she recommended. “It’s harder to fail if you feel comfortable asking your teacher for help.” 

Asking for help is an essential part of getting good grades and getting to know your teachers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class. The reality is that most likely, you’ll understand the material better and your teacher and classmates will admire your desire to succeed. Also, some of your classmates could have the same question as you but be too scared to ask… by asking questions you could be inadvertently helping those around you!

One thing that ORHS offers that you should take full advantage of is FLEX time. Scheduled out as a block after Advisory, FLEX time is an opportunity to see your teachers, make up work, or just quietly do homework. 

“I would definitely recommend that freshmen use FLEX time to their advantage,” said Ellis Tonkin (‘21). “I feel like I often didn’t use my time well enough throughout high school, just because I’d rather have been relaxing than scheduling time with teachers.”

Don’t Take it For Granted

If there’s anything the class of ‘21 understands, it’s the fact that everything you take for granted could be gone in an instant. We grew up imagining having proms and graduations of our own, thinking that we knew what to expect. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We never imagined that there would be a time when we would not be allowed to learn in the building, that we would start to miss those long days of walking from classroom to classroom instead of logging onto Teams calls. 

“Don’t take for granted any of the small moments with friends or peers or teachers,” said Yoder. “I think I definitely learned, with school being remote for such a long time, that it’s important to cherish the moments with your friends and teachers in-person.”

It’s definitely a strange phenomenon, to look back on moments that may have seemed inconsequential then, that seem so special now. For me, it’s remembering those boisterous, whole-class activities such as Carnaval in Spanish class or Kahoot in math. It’s wishing I could still meet up with friends while walking through the hallways, or even feeling nostalgic about waiting awkwardly in the cafeteria line. The best advice we can give you as the senior class is to recognize those moments and live them to the fullest, without any regrets or reservations. 

Final Words of Encouragement

Entering high school can be a nerve-wracking experience. Some kids jump in like they were born for it, while others take a little longer to adjust. Whichever boat you may be in, remember that everyone acclimates in their own way and finds a foothold somewhere. 

“High school is tough for everyone in their own ways,” said Cavanaugh. “Try to look at this portion of your life as a learning experience. This is your time to learn about yourself.”

Take advantage of the wide range of electives to try something new and to explore your interests. With every new curriculum and teacher comes a fresh perspective, and you never know when you’ll find something that makes a lasting impact on you. 

“Not being afraid to put yourself out there is really important,” said Yoder, “because it’s how you make some of your best memories.”

Be bold. Boldness reaps rewards that may not be immediately obvious to you, but by the time you’re a wizened elder like us, you’ll look back and feel so proud of your maturity and for taking charge of your education. You’ll be able to walk across the stage at a graduation of your own, and truly feel you’ve crushed this thing called high school… and that’s the best feeling in the world. 

Pictures by Madla Walsh