The New College Student Dilemma

Three tasks not likely a part of a standard College Move-In Checklist, yet are on every first year college student’s mind: 

  • Establish new community (i.e. make new friends), and how do I make new friends in COVID-related restrictions?
  • Adjust to new, constantly evolving academic expectations
  • “What am I going to be when I grow up?” existential questions

Second year students (who may also be first time college residents given the 2020-21 remote learning year) will likely have similar concerns. 

I recently discussed how students (and their families) can prepare for residential college life with Juli Fraga, special correspondent for The Washington Post.

First year and some second year college students are currently wrapping up The Summer of the Long Goodbye, “breaking up” with their childhoods and preparing to separate from friends, family, and community: 

Before she heads to college in just a few weeks, Emma Khan, 19, of Naperville, Ill., is savoring time with her family and friends. “We’re going on bike rides, watching movies and having dinners together,” Khan says. “It’s important for me to see them before I go.”

Yet, in light of uncertainty (not just COVID-related concerns), but also the uncertainty of establishing new daily routines, even ordinary tasks like grocery shopping regularly (a task most parents assume), can be daunting

“I’m very close with my family, and I’m nervous about leaving them,” she [Ms. Khan] says. “I’m also worried about managing my time and living with three new roommates.”

Parents are often concerned, as they have not witnessed their teenage children manage their everyday lives, like grocery shopping and managing their finances, along with their academic responsibilities:

“For many students, these added responsibilities can be overwhelming because their entire routine must change,” [Don] Capone [psychologist at a counseling center at the University of California at Berkeley] says.

Having listened to many college students in twenty years, I’d agree with the following advice

Adjusting to this new phase is a marathon, not a sprint. With a menu of new responsibilities to juggle, focusing on well-being is just as vital as solid study skills.

Additionally, over the years, many students recommend establishing a workout routine or regularly visiting a retreat spot on campus, but especially eating regularly

In Fall 2020, first year students shared that meeting people for the first time, while both parties wore masks, building connections was more complicated but not impossible. Thus, Fall 2021 students may not be as COVID-restricted as they imagine. 

Fall 2020 students employed time-tested strategies of attending new student events or various club gatherings, sampling some new activity on a consistent basis, exploring the breadth of on campus social networks. 

As I shared with Ms. Fraga:

For some students, constructing a new social world is more challenging than academic stress…today’s college students often struggle with having unstructured, free time.

College is a time when many teens take the reins of their own lives, yet many, although academically accomplished (read as: straight A students), their common sense may be lacking. I further contextualized their “Living Life Blind Spot” as: 

“In many cases, their parents have organized their social lives from the start. They’ve had camps, social dates and enrichment programs, but college is a time when they must take the lead.”

Perhaps for the new first years and even the second years, the COVID-induced distance learning experience of the 2020-21 school year, they’re more accustomed to such self-direction so may transition with fewer challenges. 

However, for students who’ve been successful more often than not, the first few months of living on their own can be more of a trial and error way of living, an adjustment in itself. As I shared: 

Frequently, students are hard on themselves because they expect immediate outcomes…They’ve grown accustomed to studying for a test and getting an “A,” but forming friendships is a process…

Thus, parents may ride emotional roller coasters with their children, possibly even experiencing previously unknown stress reactions, worried about their children’s ability to survive college. Conversely, teens newly freed from the protective custody of their parents (as Lewis Lapham famously phrased) may be silent about their transition, seeking to establish their own independence, despite parents’ well-intentioned inquiries about life at college. 

Lastly, Ms. Fraga also addresses the increased potential for inflaming academic insecurities, especially again for students who are accustomed to be the top of the top students in their local high schools: 

“New students are often surrounded by other high achievers, which can make them feel confused, scared and inadequate,” Capone says. Making comparisons to peers, as well as putting pressure on themselves, can feel like “social media on steroids,” he explains.

However, in making comparisons (neurotic or otherwise), students often fail to note that they compare what they know of their “insides” to what they perceive of someone else’s “outside” or public persona, which is an inherently unfair correlation. 

Thus, new college students can need a voice of reason, borne of experience and objectivity, in order to regain a perspective and dispel any anxieties. Mr. Capone advises:

“It’s also important to practice courageous vulnerability and ask for help. Don’t be afraid to let a professor know you’re struggling and need assistance.”

Practice is the key word to recognize in his advice, which encourages learning and try, try again-like experience, absolving the “practitioner” from perfection. 

New college students will not be alone in establishing new communities, so will have an abundance of similarly stressed colleagues to gain support. However, older mentors, like Resident Advisors, and especially objective long-time adult advisors beyond parents can be invaluable support in the first few heady weeks of the Fall semester, so students don’t commit more serious youthful indiscretions which can have long ranging emotional and even economic impacts. 

For more advice, read the full Washington Post article, “For many students, the prospect of a new year in college is exciting and stressful” 

Jill Yoshikawa routinely counsels students during the first few years of college, as well as throughout their four years, helping to refine their life’s vision, guiding them to access on-campus resources in the modern higher educational bureaucracy. Contact CMC for more details about our Counsel for College Students

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
View all posts by Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy →