Stepping into Academia: First-Year Students' Experiences of Writing at Mount Holyoke



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



It is Mountain Day, and Claire is alone in her dorm room gazing at her laptop. She has been assigned to write an essay in the inductive style, a far cry from the five-paragraph model prevalent in her high school. I don’t want to turn in something that isn’t a good reflection on me, she thinks, but this is due tomorrow! Wishing she were on the mountaintop, she watches the cursor blink at her, waiting. Only a month later, she feels she has transformed into a better writer, much more comfortable with the expectations of college writing. When new students pass through the gates of Mount Holyoke, entering the distinct world of our campus, they are also stepping into academia. A key facet of their transition into academia is their experience with writing, which is the subject of my research. Motivated by a desire to place student voices at the forefront, I utilized a case study approach, conducting interviews with six focal students who were enrolled in first-year seminars. My study includes the dimension of second language writing because half of these students were native Chinese speakers and half were native English speakers. I analyzed the results of my interviews in terms of my participants’ conceptualizations of their secondary school writing instruction; their negotiations of professor expectations and reception of feedback from professors, writing mentors, and peers; the role of struggle and personal expression in their evolving identities; and their views of their own development, particularly in relation to how they envisioned good writing. The existing scholarship in the field of composition studies forms the basis of my study. While there is no consensus on what defines college writing, there is widespread agreement on the importance of college students adopting the identity of producers of knowledge who contribute to the conversation within their academic field. I was especially interested in the perceptible transformations of students like Claire and the role that struggle played in their developing identities as writers. I argue that getting lost—realizing that old ways of orienteering aren’t working—is a crucial way that first-year students develop as writers and thinkers.



composition, writing, first year experience, transition to college, feedback, student development, student identity, multilingual writers, academic discourse, college writing