Congratulations! Your baby is becoming an adult.
Did that sentence make you a little queasy?
Sending your student off to college is bittersweet. For that matter, being a parent is bittersweet. It’s a constant tug of war amongst your emotions. On the one hand, you’re bursting with pride when your precious one meets milestones (you know, like high school graduation) and on the other, you’re saddened that they are growing up too fast (like heading off to college).
College is an amazing opportunity for your student. It’s an outstanding place for your student to blossom from the teenager that’s been eating all of your food and keeping you up at night to an emerging adult poised to go out into the world and experience greatness. But like any new phase of life, the transition from high school to college, from teenager to emerging adult, from dependent to independent is full of growing pains and setbacks (a.k.a. growth opportunities–wink, wink).
The good news is there is a method to the madness that you can anticipate and prepare for. I’ve broken the first semester of the college experience into four distinct phases. Each with its unique set of setbacks, freakouts, stressors, and growth opportunities (don’t forget growth opportunities). This way, when your student calls you crying, begging you to let them drop out, and requesting to move back home, all while hitting you up for a little more cash – you can stay strong and direct them to resources that will help them push beyond this momentary adversity.
The Four Phases of the First Semester of College:
Phase One: Summer Camp (Weeks 1-4)
Aw, if only college could always be like the first few weeks – few assignments due, a feeling of new found freedom, and lots of time to hang out with your new friends. The early days of the semester are kind of like the early days in any new relationship – awkward but exhilarating. Your student will not quite realize what it means to be in college during this time. Their focus will be on finding their place on campus, making new friends, and adjusting to life away from home. But it will largely feel a lot like being away at summer camp. These early weeks are usually full of on-campus programming to help your student adjust and connect with the campus community. You want your student to take advantage of these events. They will help your student feel more at home, but can also contribute to the summer camp feel of these early days. Your student may even be wondering what all the fuss was about college being challenging.
This is fun!
Phase Two: Reality Check (Weeks 4-8)
Uh oh…college is for real. During this phase that new car smell starts to fade, and reality starts to set in. Your student will realize that this college thing is their new normal. A desire for life to go back to normal begins to emerge. Roommates become annoying. Cafeteria food grows old. The first round of tests and assignments are due, and they don’t go as well as expected. This is the moment that students rethink their decision to go off to college. They may want to change their major, they may want to come home, or they may want to transfer to a school where they have more friends. They feel uncomfortable with the change that heading off to college brings. They are feeling growing pains. The key is to help them weather this transition. They don’t realize that the discomfort they are feeling is transition. Remind them it’s okay to be a little uncomfortable and that it’s a normal part of change.
Phase Three: The Scramble (Weeks 8-12)
With great freedom comes great responsibility. This is when early choices to blow off academics and focus on social life come home to roost. This phase is marked by the second round of assignments. If your student has not been paying close attention to academics, is behind, has performed poorly on the first round of exams, or has not been keeping a planner the cracks will start to show now. The general increase in the demands of college academic expectations will give rise to stress and anxiety. Encouraging your student to utilize academic resources early and often can be helpful. Also during this time, academic planning for next semester begins which may cause your student to reconsider their current major and further question if they belong at their current school. This is normal. Studies show that 50-70% of students will change their major at least once during college. Giving your student the space to study something they truly love and pursue a career that aligns with them is an important ingredient in any successful college experience.
Phase Four: Burn Out (Weeks 12-15)
It’s time for your student to make their final push. Because faculty want to give first-year students a chance to adjust to the demands of college life during the early weeks of the first semester most of the culminating, high-value assignments are due during this time. You might find that your student’s Thanksgiving “break” is consumed by them working to catch up on everything that is due in the final weeks of the semester. This heavy workload is further complicated by the fact that your student is exhausted and their immune system has been weakened by poor sleep and nutrition habits. My doctor once told me that I work in a petri dish, which means your students are living in one. The primary challenge students face during this time in the semester is marked by physical illness and mental fatigue. Students can boost their immunity to the stressors in this phase by drinking water, eating healthy foods, getting a good night’s sleep, minimizing substance use, and working on assignments when they are assigned NOT when they are due. If you are worried about your students’ physical or mental wellbeing it is important to contact the Dean of Students office on your student’s campus. They can connect your student to both on and off campus help.
What Can You Do?
First things first. Don’t freak out. Adversity is not a bad thing. Remember…growth opportunities. In my 15 years helping college students and young adults the thing that separates those who thrive during college and those who don’t is not an absence of adversity. It’s the ability to persevere through it by asking for help, using resources, and enlisting support. Those who believe that adversity, setbacks, and mistakes are opportunities and work to learn and grow from them find success much faster than those who don’t. Parents often ask me: “what can I do?” The truth is (and you’re not gonna like it) is that you don’t need to DO anything. Your job is to empower your teenager to become an emerging adult by letting them take the wheel. But don’t despair…you can stay in the car. I find that the most effective way to support students during college is to connect them with high-quality tools, resources, advice, and recommendations just as you would any other adult you really love and let them dig themselves out of their own mistakes most of the time. If you want some back-up, sign up for my monthly parent newsletter where I share a curated collection of resources, tools, and information to help your student through college.
And remember…growth opportunities.
HaveUHeard is happy to feature Katy as a guest blogger to give you more advice on college life. Katy Oliveira is the Founder and CEO of Collegehood, LLC and the host of the Collegehood Advice podcast, where she shares expert insights, strategies, and stories to help students thrive during college. In her coaching practice, she helps young adults figure out what they want to do with their life then use their college experience to make it happen. When she’s not helping students you can find her in a garden, on a yoga mat, or in a kitchen cooking with her friends and family in Austin, Texas.
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