Eighteen years flies by in the wink of an eye. It seems like yesterday that my wife and I were dropping off our daughter at her first day of kindergarten. I can still remember the look in my daughter’s eyes when she realized her mom and I were going to leave her in this strange new place with all these people she didn’t know. I can also remember the feelings of fear and uncertainty I felt as my wife and I walked back to the car, each of us silently calculating how many hours it would be before we could return to pick up our daughter.
Now, here it is, twelve years later and we’re about to relive the experience described above. This time, however, my daughter is graduating from high school and is about to embark on a new life journey – college. We hope, as do the other 2.4 million parents of the 1.2 million full-time, first year college students, for a smooth transition for our child as she prepares for, and begins, her freshman year.
For most of those 1.2 million entering freshmen, entering college will mean leaving the friendly confides of their hometown, complete with family, friends, and routines – everything familiar – for a new life full of challenge and change. The old formula for most high school students has been pretty simple: class, homework, work, and friends. With a few minor changes here and there, this formula remains relatively constant year after year.
Now, with the start of college, the formula will become much more complicated. The constants such as home, friends, and routines disappear, replaced by a set of variables yet to be determined. In essence, the first-year college freshman has to do a virtual “makeover” of their lives; they will be re-defining who they are and how they are supposed to interact with the world.
As parents we have many concerns for our kids, like whether or not they’ll keep up with their work? Whether they’ll be safe on campus? Will they get enough sleep? Will they eat right? Will they party too much? All valid questions, but probably very different from the concerns our students have, such as, “Will I fit in? Will I make new friends? Will I like living in a dorm? Will I have to study a lot? Will I have enough money?” These, too, are very legitimate questions.
Overall, the nature of the questions is less important than simply understanding that changes — and the inevitable discomforts that accompany them — are going to occur. Beyond accepting that change will occur, parents and their graduating seniors need to communicate their concerns to one another and work then together to prepare for the challenges. What follows are some tips, for parents and students, to help make the difficult transition to the first year of college more manageable:
1. Set standards, both academic and social, and then stand back. Because college is both unstructured and academically challenging, first year students easily get in over their heads. These challenges, however, offer an opportunity to learn. Before you intervene in your child’s college problems, ask yourself whether you need to get involved.
2. Reassure your child that it’s going to be o.k. As the summer following graduation comes to a close and the first semester of college draws near, you’ll very likely notice that your child is more anxious and insecure. Make yourself available to them. Reassure them. Answer their questions.
3. Maintain contact. With all of the advances in technology, such as cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, voice mail, text messaging, digital pictures, etc., it’s now possible for parents and their student to make contact on a regular basis; do so. Also, don’t forget the value of good old hand written letters. A thoughtful note written in your own handwriting is a real treat for first year students.
4. Send care packages. You can either put together your own packages of treats, healthy snacks, magazines, etc., or use one of the many on-line vendors who market college care packages. This is today’s version of getting cookies from home.
5. Pay special attention to weeks 5 through 7 of the first semester. Studies show that these weeks, especially week 6, of the first semester are the most crucial and troubling for entering college freshman. Mark this period on your calendar and be sure to be more involved and available…just in case.
6. Make sure your child’s immunizations are up to date. Getting immunized for the flu and for Meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection of the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, is especially important. Although fewer than 100 college students contract meningitis each year, each case has the potential to become a campus-wide epidemic.
1. Don’t be surprised when you get homesick…most college freshmen do. Demanding classes, small dorm rooms, living in close quarters with a roommate, struggling to make new friends, learning the routines and rules of the university, and finding your niche are all extremely stressful. At some point you’ll find yourself questioning your abilities as well as your decision about going to the college you chose. Realize that this is normal. Most of the other students will be feeling the same way, even if they don’t look it. The single best thing you can do to combat homesickness is to get involved on campus. Clubs, organizations, and sponsored campus activities are all good options. Also, talk about your feelings with friends and family. If necessary, don’t hesitate to make use of the counseling center on campus. The professionals in college counseling centers are exceptional at helping students though difficult transitions.
2. Maintain good habits. It’s common for first year college students to eat poorly, forgo exercise, sleep only when exhausted, and attend as many parties as possible. This is a recipe for disaster. Poor health habits lead to fatigue, poor concentration, weight gain, and depression. Maintain a reasonable sleep schedule, eat a balanced diet, and get physical – walk, run, bike, swim, play tennis, etc.
3. Learn to say “No”. The new found freedom you have as a college student is deceptive. With so many options available to you, and no parents around to set limits for you, the tendency will be for you to try and do it all. Ask yourself, “Do I really want or need to do this?” Learn as quickly as possible to set appropriate limits and healthy boundaries for yourself.
4. Use time efficiently and keep procrastination to a minimum. Good time management helps to reduce stress. Use an appointment book/day timer to keep track of things you need to do…like study. It’s also helpful to have a chalkboard or marker broad hung in your dorm room to keep track of important things.
5. DO NOT look for comfort in bad habits or addictions! Partying more or hiding behind alcohol, drugs, or sex will not make your responsibilities or bad feelings go away. They will only make things worse.
There are few jobs more difficult than that of raising a child. Likewise, there are very few challenges greater than having to hand over the reins after we’ve steered our children for 18 years. The time inevitably comes, however, when we must turn over the reins and trust that all the love, guidance and support we’ve provided through the years have prepared our children for this next step in life.
If you happen to know of a family who is preparing to launch their child into the collegiate world, please pass on to them a copy of this article. If the student and/or their parents make use of even one or two of the pointers mentioned, and it helps to make the transition go more smoothly, it will have been worth your effort.