Gail Radley is the author of twenty-two books for young people ranging from preschoolers to young adults as well as various articles and short stories--online and print-- for adults, including Grown and Flown . She teaches English to first year students at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
You’ve helped arrange the dorm room and struggled through the tearful goodbyes. Now your first year college student is happily settling into campus life.
You can relax, confident that her professors are helping her mold her dreams into a successful future—or so you hope. While you’re entertaining pleasant dreams of the new vistas higher ed is opening before her, your child may be dissolving into tears in a professor’s office. Why? Seven predictable problems, singly or—frequently--in combination, often rise up for first year college students, undermining the great experience they imagined college to be. And after the rosy glow of acceptance letters and campus tours have worn off, they can hit students like a tsunami.
Homesickness can take first year students by surprise, especially when they imagined a joy-filled college experience. The reality of changing nearly everything in their lives can be unsettling. No one asks how their day went or offers a treat when they’re feeling down. Their support systems are gone and the environment alien.
If your child calls in tears, begging to come home, remind her that you’re only a phone call away, and that, though the shift is hard, homesickness will subside as she invests in her new life there.
Loneliness is often a part of homesickness; resolving one may take care of the other. Moving from senior year in high school to anonymity at the bottom rung of college is a shock.
Many first year students feel as if they’re standing on the outside, watching everyone else bond and have fun. The truth is, most first year college students feel disconnected; rather than admit it, many try to appear self-contained. Suggest that your student strike up a conversation while waiting for class to start, join a club, or sit down with a stranger or two in the cafeteria. Most students will reciprocate as they are also looking for friends.
Feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of challenges is also common. Even if newbies slide past homesickness and loneliness, other challenges emerge. No one will get them off to class if they hit the snooze button. They must do their own laundry. Some have greater sums of money than they are used to being responsible for in order to manage more financial obligations. Courses are more demanding, with difficult, long-term assignments. Despite the difficulties that come with college classes, they are, for the most part, left to determine their own study schedules. When parties come up, they must decide for themselves if they can afford the time. Teaching your kids to manage money and take care of chores like laundry in advance can prepare them for independence.
Give them a day planner and show them how to build in incremental steps for their projects. Many colleges offer time management and other helpful workshops.
Lower grades are to be expected, particularly at the start of college. Most students arrive thinking they’ll perform as they did in high school and reap the same rewards. Instead, if they do what they always did, they usually will not get what they always got. It may take a floundering semester or two for many students to grasp that and respond effectively. If your student is attending classes, keeping up with assignments, and avoiding academic probation, don’t be too alarmed at declining grades. Ask him what he thinks caused the drop and what he plans to do differently next semester. Help him come up with concrete strategies—something more than simply “study harder.” Students often form study groups to help each other and free tutoring is likely available in many subjects.
Academic support departments may offer workshops on test and note-taking as well.
Succumbing to the latest illness in the dorm is a major downside to group living. Illnesses sweep through campuses like the black plague. While some students struggle to classes, armed with tissues and throat lozenges, others languish in their rooms, dependent on roommates to deliver carry out cartons of chicken soup. It’s tough being sick away from home. A strong immune system is the best defense; care packages from home might include vitamins, cold supplies, and healthy snacks. Perhaps more important is remembering the lessons you taught them about staying healthy: get adequate sleep, wash hands frequently, don’t share cups, toothbrushes, or bites of a cookie, and eat your vegetables. Reminders may elicit an eye roll, but may ultimately help.
The "freshman fifteen"—that unwanted weight gain born of after-dinner pizza parties and midnight snacks—attaches itself to the abdomens of many students. University of Oxford researchers Claudia Vadeboncoeur, Nicholas Townsend, and Charlie Foster confirmed what many others have noted, that the first year is a prime time for weight gain. According to their analysis, nearly 61 % of freshmen gained on average 7½ pounds. Remind your students that keeping their current size requires keeping their current eating and exercise habits. If they increase the first, they’ll need to increase the second. Googling some before and after pictures of college students may be caution enough.
Temptations to go against their values abound in college. What might seem fine at midnight can leave a young person embarrassed and ashamed when the morning alarm rings. The greater freedom of college adds to the likelihood of missteps. Encourage your student to keep a journal so he can reflect upon his thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Let him know that it’s natural to experiment and to make mistakes. While it’s important that he avoid the mistakes with permanent results, most mistakes can be overcome.
Trust that you’ve taught him well—it’s his time to take the controls. But let him know that he can always talk with you, that you’re still there for him. And when he does, set judgement on the shelf, remember your own youthful mistakes, and respond with empathy.
Few cruise through college perfectly. It’s meant to be a time of growth and trying on independence. Students who remember who they are and why they’re there are most likely to push through the roadblocks and get the most out of the experience.