Survival Story

How the Freshman Survival Guide came to be


On the eve of the publication of their book, co-authors Nora Bradbury-Haehl and Bill McGarvey discuss how, over the course of six years, an evening of candid conversations between college students and high school seniors grew into The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing and Everything In Between.

Bill McGarvey: Do you remember when this all began to take root at Busted Halo?

Nora Bradbury-Haehl: There were two transition points. One summer six years ago we were talking about what stories we should do for fall and I said, “Well, I do this retreat with my high school seniors where we have them talk with college students — current college students — and get a chance to ask them questions and get some real life advice from people who are living the college life right now.” And so the Freshman Survival Guide started out as an article with, like, twelve points or eighteen bullet points — a “things you need to know for college” kind of thing. After we’d been doing that for a couple years it began expanding into a whole week of articles and we got to a point when you kind of said, “You know what? I think this is a book,” because we had amassed enough expertise between students and experts on campus, and just our own research, and input from all those different sources, that we realized this was stuff that more than just our Busted Halo audience was interested in. What are your memories of it?

BM: The turning point for me was a couple of years ago when we decided to do a whole week of content on going to college and we did the God On Campus article and talked to campus ministers from different faiths. I really thought that was something that I hadn’t seen before in the college guide market. Early on, the folks at CCMA [Catholic Campus Ministry Association], the ACCU [Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities] and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities helped a lot as well, but when a few big websites eventually picked up the story and it was passed along by over 30,000 people, I knew this was something people were interested in on a wider level.

NBH: Once we started talking to the experts in the field — campus ministers, RAs and professors I realized that a lot of what those experts were saying was echoing the conversation that we were already having. Definitely the God On Campus conversation where we had a priest, a minister, a rabbi and a Muslim professor was sort of that peak for me of, like, “Wow. This is even bigger than we had been thinking.” One other real exciting part of the journey for me was when we put together the downloadable one-page PDF that schools were downloading and handing out to graduating seniors and all those incoming freshman. There was one college student that I interviewed for the book who realized, “Oh, that Freshman Survival Guide. The one that I got from the campus minister when I was a freshman? I know that.” That was just one of those cool moments of, “Oh yeah, people have been using this and it’s been helpful to them.”

BM: The thing that the God On Campus feature helped me realize more than anything else was that these different spiritual traditions — whether it was Hillel, the Muslim Students’ Association, or the Christian, Buddhist or Catholic ministers — all harmonized incredibly well on what they wanted for the students. It became clear to me that we were dealing with the practical — intellectual and physical — aspects of college life as well as the emotional and spiritual stuff that has never been really dealt with in a college guide.

I think that people have realized that if we’re not including spirituality in the conversation about health and safety and sanity and balance, that there’s really a big important piece missing. We’re dealing with a generation that’s deeply spiritual and they want to talk about it but they don’t necessarily just want talk to the extremes about it. — Nora Bradbury-Haehl

NBH: It’s funny because the last couple of years I’ve gotten really involved locally in our interfaith movement and those two kinds of worlds converging has been really neat. Everybody is looking for their young people to have a healthy, safe and balanced college experience. I really feel like we’re hitting that right where people live right now, because I think that people have realized that if we’re not including spirituality in the conversation about health and safety and sanity and balance, that there’s really a big important piece missing. We’re dealing with a generation that’s deeply spiritual and they want to talk about it but they don’t necessarily just want talk to the extremes about it. There’s a real need for conversation about the legitimate differences, about the big questions that people have.

BM: Just before our book was published the Institute for Higher Education Research at UCLA published the results from a seven-year study of spirituality and higher education and it completely validated everything we’d been talking about. Finally somebody on a national level was saying, “Look, we have data that indicates that students are become less religious as they go through college, but they are becoming a lot more spiritual.” So I think it’s a conversation that’s just going to continue to grow.

NBH: I have those conversations with college students when they come back from break and the questions have gotten a lot bigger, and they run into some real periods of moral issues and spiritual issues, and so, many of them are not going to church on a weekly basis but their spirituality continues to grow.

BM: You said they come up with really bigger and bigger questions. Can you give me an example?

NBH: There are moral questions that you run into in college. Whether it’s being faithful to a boyfriend or girlfriend; how to forgive somebody who has really wronged you. Because, you know, in high school you’re dealing with people who can lie, cheat and steal, but when you get to college it kind of reaches a whole new level and people who are going to behave badly in some kind of really shocking ways. But then there are also the big questions about religion, where they’ve seen hypocrisy from people in their faith traditions or they see somebody else’s faith tradition that’s different and they start to say, “Well, if I believe this and they believe that, who’s right?” Maybe the question isn’t who’s right but why do each of us believe what we believe and where does that take us next?

BM: I think a virtue of the book is that it really reflects the reality — the plurality — of experiences for these students when they get out there. You can’t hide that from them. Over the years with the online version, you’ve always emphasized that the biggest single predictor for a kid’s success is whether they go to class. Is that still the sign you look for most?

NBH: Absolutely. According to research (and my own experience with lots of students) it’s the only predictor of success in college. Not what grades somebody got on the SAT or how well they did in their AP classes or even socioeconomic background. The clear consistent predictor if somebody is going to run into trouble at college is when they start missing class. There are lots of different reasons that come before, “and then I stopped going to class.” It can be, “I got really depressed,” or, “I got really overwhelmed,” but it always ends with, “Oh, and I stopped going to class.”

BM: For me, I hope the biggest takeaway from the book is that students need to know that they have options. We ended up using that as the first line of the introduction. I hope that the students who read the book understand that it offers tons of information from current students and recent graduates as well as professors, administrators, counselors, campus ministers and health professionals and it should help them see the immense number of options out there — even if it’s simply anonymously asking a question of our team of resident assistants from around the country at the Interactive RA feature online — rather than feeling like they’re cornered into crashing and burning.

NBH: When we were doing research for the book it really struck me that there are so many people who want students to succeed. There are all kinds of help available and some campuses are better at it than others but the people that work on college campuses are there for a reason. So many of them are ready to throw you a lifeline. They’re ready to help you find the help that you need.

The Freshman Survival Guide is now available. Further information and online resources can be found at