The first year at college can be a challenge for even the most studious teen – and parents! Whether going down the road or across the country, a little preparation will ease the way.
Being the parent of a first-year college student can be tough. The schedule that was once the weekly routine no longer exists, disrupting the family structure. Family attendance at school functions and extracurricular activities comes to a screeching halt. Parents engaged as volunteers within the school district sever those ties, and personal relationships with families of your child's friends soon evaporate.
While the weekly grocery bill may drop precipitously and the house may be quieter with less phone calls and young people dashing in and out, there will likely be a little less laughter filling your home and heart. And if that's not enough, the relationships you have with your spouse and children who remain at home will change.
College Changes Kids
The first year of college can be tough for students. They typically look forward to the experience with mixed emotions: excitement and anticipation on one hand and fear and trepidation on the other. Most students eagerly anticipate increased independence, no curfews, greater variety in academic course selections, flexibility in scheduling class and the opportunity to meet new people, see new places and learn new things.
At the same time, the following questions are on the minds of nearly all new students as they prepare to enter college: Will I make friends? Will I be able to compete academically? Will I like my roommate? Will my roommate like me? Will my relationships with my family and high school friends change?
Most college freshmen are exposed to a more academically rigorous curriculum, a more diverse student body and a more distant relationship with those who have traditionally met their emotional needs. Some students may find they need extra help with specific subjects. Others may require assistance in learning how to study. Students who have never had academic difficulties may find themselves overwhelmed as they encounter other gifted students. As students adjust to these changes, they are expected to accept increased responsibility and independence.
College requires teens to become adept at balancing the requirements of everyday life – classes, sleep, study time, meals, extracurricular activities, money matters, social activities, part-time jobs, laundry, etc. – while making new friends and developing new support systems. Students can become physically and emotionally exhausted before classes even begin!
Preparation Begins Before the First Day of Class
There are some things new students and their parents can do to prepare before the first day of class. First, it is important to understand that, like any journey, there will be good days and not-so-good days. Students (and their parents) will feel joy and sorrow, success and failure, disappointment and elation. It's all part of growing up.
Secondly, parents must understand that college is a time for students to experiment with their identity, to choose different trails than they might have traveled in high school, to reach out to different people and to explore new interests and activities.
Parents need to step back and allow their child to become acquainted with the new environment, its people and culture. It is only natural to want to call and keep in close touch, but resist the urge and let your child take the lead in calling home. Your student may call you in the middle of the night concerned about a friend or with an academic problem. Your role is to listen, comfort and then refer him to the appropriate campus resource.
If you or your student is unsure about who to contact, devise him to check with a resident adviser, community assistant or hall director, who are upperclass students trained as friends, mentors and peer counselors. If they don't have the answers, they know who does. Students who commute should seek assistance from staff in the Dean of Students office.
The Challenges of College Life
While students will have many opportunities to spread their wings and define and refine themselves as young adults, they must understand that with this newfound freedom comes increased responsibility and accountability. A college or university is a community that demands civility and respect for individual differences. Students will be expected to be sensitive to issues such as ethnicity, gender-equity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, geographic differences and religious preferences.
Honesty and integrity are fundamental to the code of conduct on all campuses. They are an integral part of campus life, inside the classroom, on the playing field or in the library. Student behavior must be guided by sound judgment and an obligation to act as a responsible community member. Related to this are issues ranging from academic integrity to respect for common area property in the residence halls. Most violations of community standards are committed by good students who make poor choices.
Using Campus Resources
New students are expected to learn a great deal in a relatively short period of time. Fortunately, there are many resources available on campus to help them succeed.
Faculty advisors, academic deans, staff in Student Affairs and student staff in residence life and orientation will be among the first people new students meet. These people work diligently to help new students learn about college policies, procedures and traditions, to help them feel more comfortable and confident in their new surroundings.
Students and their families can acquaint themselves with their institutions prior to the start of the academic year. Here are some tips for surviving those first few months of college:
- Increase your familiarity with the campus by visiting the institution's website. There is a plethora of information available online that is easily accessible and up-to-date.
- Most institutions offer a variety of orientation programs. Students will be more comfortable starting school in the fall if they have already met some other kids who plan on attending. These programs are well worth the time and money.
- Take a campus tour conducted by well-trained, knowledgeable upperclass tour guides, who generally are eager to share their experiences.
- While on campus, stop by the student center and pick up some recent publications such as the student newspaper, a student handbook, a parent handbook, lists of student organizations, an academic calendar, programs and services available on campus and, of course, a campus map.
- If time permits, drive around the perimeter of campus and get a feel for the surrounding neighborhood. Locate the nearest grocery, drug store, bank, dry cleaners and shopping mall.
- Parents should seek out the latest parents' newsletter and list of members of the Parents Council.
- Students with roommates should contact them prior to the start of classes. Decide who will bring items that can be shared. Room space is limited, and there's no need for two refrigerators, microwaves or televisions.
- Start a filing system at home for all the material received from the institution. Include newsletters, parent handbooks, letters of welcome, announcements of special events for parents, contact names and numbers, etc.
- Students should be fully aware of what monetary contributions they are expected to make. If a student has a credit card, it is prudent to discuss credit card use and payment obligations, making sure they have a solid understanding of the card's terms and conditions.
Students and parents alike should understand that a campus is not immune to the problems found in the community-at-large. Thefts and burglaries occur on all campuses. The Clery Act, named in memory of freshman Jeanne Ann Clery who was raped and killed in her residence hall room in 1986, is a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. Reports on campus crime are usually available through the campus security office and some institutions may post their statistics online.
As a member of the campus community, students play an important role in keeping the campus safe. Exterior doors in residence halls should remain locked at all times, and students should be advised to travel in groups, especially after dark. Those who commute should park in well-traveled areas that are well-lit at night. Sharing class schedules and building locations with family members can also be helpful in emergencies.
Balancing Home and Campus Life
Although a commuting student's experience is different in many ways, it is important that parents make a conscious shift in their thinking as their child moves into adulthood. Parents must accept the fact that household obligations and family activities will be replaced by increased academic and social obligations. It is important that expectations of family involvement be modified. If Uncle Ernie's birthday falls in the midst of finals, more than likely your student won't be able to attend.
The journey your new college student is about to begin impacts your life as well. If you live close, you may have the pleasure of meeting some of your teen's new friends and even members of their families. However, distance might preclude you from doing much more than visiting occasionally or participating in annual events planned especially for parents, such as parent's weekends or homecoming.
Regardless of your role on campus, the most difficult aspect of this time of transition will be allowing your child to use the knowledge and lessons learned to make his own way through life. You will not be there each day to provide oversight, nor should you be. You have equipped your child with the skills needed to survive and thrive on this journey through college. It is now time for your teen to take flight. "You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth." Let them soar!
Melinda Dalgarn, Ed.D., has been involved in higher education for 25 years and is the author of an educational CD entitled Smart Start, a survival guide for first year college students (and their parents too).
For more information, visit collegesurvivalguides.com.
How to Survive Your Freshman Year
Edited by Marc W. Bernstein (Hundreds of Heads Books)
Compiled from interviews with hundreds of college students from big, small, private and state schools, this book covers the best, the worst and the unforeseen of their freshman years. Their experiences – whether satisfied, relieved or regretful – are universal.
Navigating Your Freshman Year
By Allison Lambardo (Natavi Guides)
This Students Helping Students guide stretches beyond predictable problems to offer a full array of possible challenges and useful strategies for solving them.
When Your Kid Goes to College: A Parent's Survival Guide
By Carol Barkin (Avon)
Written by a mother who survived her own child's college years, this book provides practical, supportive, reassuring and helpful tips for handling the separation.