The first night of college, all the first-years and orientation leaders piled into the student center for a meet-and-greet. For some reason the school administrators thought it was a brilliant idea to hold the event in near-darkness with pop music blaring from rented speakers so that you had to scream or nod blindly when talking to a new classmate.
More than anything, I wanted to escape, to go back to my dorm, call my parents, and tell them this whole college thing had been one giant mistake. Instead, I stayed. As it turns out, that night was the start of some of the best years of my life, but it easily could have gone in another direction.
Leaving home is no easy feat; homesickness, loneliness, stress, and anxiety are all common feelings among first-year college students. That’s why we’re here with advice on making the transition as smooth as possible. These nine tips include making the most out of opportunities to socialize with other undergrads and trying not to rely too much on relationships with family and friends back home. College can be a great opportunity for personal growth, so learn how to make the most of it.
Leavin’ on a Jet Plane — The Need-to-Know
Even for the happiest, healthiest, most self-confident students, the college transition can be a tricky time. There’s the stress of a heavier workload (hey, Chemistry) plus the siren call of social events happening in the dorm room next door. Many people leave behind boyfriends, girlfriends, and BFFs, unsure how to maintain those close relationships across state lines. There are roommates who smell, and mean professors who make us miss the stuffed animal collection on our childhood bed.
In such an overwhelming environment, it’s unsurprising that first-year college students are at increased risk for mental disorders Not always smooth sailing: mental health issues associated with the transition from high school to college. Cleary, M., Walter, G., Jackson, D. School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Western, Sydney, Sydney, Australia. Issues in Mental Health Nursing 2011;32(4):250-4. . In fact, at least one in 10 college students has considered suicide Prevalence and predictors of persistent suicide ideation, plans, and attempts during college. Wilcox, H.C., Arria, A.M., Caldeira, K.M., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. Journal of Affective Disorders 2010 Dec;127(1-3):287-94. . And while there’s no one reason why undergrads are at higher risk for suicide than the rest of the population, the stress of a heavier workload, managing old and new relationships, and dealing with independent finances can all be contributing factors.
Homesickness is particularly common among first-years. Psychologists say it’s less about missing a physical home, and more about lacking love and support in the current environment. The first few days of freshman year, when we’re still reading off nametags and making awkward small talk, can be an opportune time for homesickness to strike.
Still, certain people are able to move past these feelings more easily than others. Those who have spent significant amounts of time away from home before (for example, at sleep away camp) are generally better prepared for college than those who haven’t.
Our previous relationship with our parents is also key. It might seem counterintuitive, but those who don’t pine too much for the scent of Dad’s fresh-baked cookies tend to have more positive relationships with their ’rents Attachment to parents, social anxiety, and close relationships of female students over the transition to college. Parade, S.H., Leerkes, E.M., Blankson, A.N. Department of Human Development and Family Studies, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC, USA. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 2010 Feb;39(2):127-37. . That’s because family relationships serve as a model for the friendships and other kinds of attachments we form later in life. According to Greatist Expert and psychologist Dr. Michael Mantell, those with less stable family dynamics may be unwilling to trust people, and therefore less likely to reach out to others for help and support when they get to campus.
While anyone can have a hard time acclimating, first-year women tend to have a harder time adjusting to their new environment than men do A preliminary assessment of adjustment disorder among first-year college students. Rodgers, L.S., Tennison, L.R. Nursing Department, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, Saint Joseph, MN, USA. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing 2009 Jun;23(3):220-30. . Mantell says that’s because women are more likely to struggle with body image issues as well as concerns about friends and dating.
The good news is that students have a lot of control over how much they enjoy their time away from home. We've rounded up nine simple tips to help make the transition to college life a truly awesome and pain-free experience.
Flying Solo — Your Action Plan
1. Resolve family stressors.
Still mad about the fact that Mom never showed up to any of those soccer games? Consider letting her know now, and explaining why her actions were hurtful. It’s important not to wave goodbye with a heavy heart, since negative feelings about our families can affect the way we interact with people on campus. Clear the air of family drama and enter college ready to make some solid bonds.
2. Start practicing healthy habits.
College students aren’t especially well-known for their health habits. Pre-exam cram sessions and weekend beer-pong-a-thons can leave us chronically sleep-deprived. And for some, access to a 24-hour cereal bar means fruits and veggies fall by the wayside (though the “freshman 15” is less common than we’ve been led to believe). If possible, prepare for college life by establishing a regular sleep-wake schedule the summer before heading off; same goes for learning how to make healthy choices when it comes to fitness, nutrition, and tending to your mental health.
3. Be proactive about making friends.
Almost everyone who signed up for a random roommate worries at some point that the new companion will be a total jerk/slob/party animal/nerd/meanie. To assuage (or confirm) those fears, consider giving the new roommate a call or sending her or him an introductory email. Find out what you two have in common so there’s something to bond over on move-in day. It might also be a good idea to check out any social media pages for incoming first-years, so there will be at least a few familiar faces on campus.
4. Bring home with you.
A favorite stuffed animal, a photo of the whole fam on Thanksgiving, a pair of jeans that fits every one of your best friends. (Sorry, is this not "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"?) Pack something that reminds you of home and use it as a conversation starter once school starts. You and your new buds can each share what’s important from back home and why you miss it.
5. Keep busy.
Want a surefire way to get homesick? Sit alone in a room with nothing to do except think about what your loved ones are doing right now. Mantell suggests keeping active socially, especially in the first few weeks of freshman year, in order to feel less lonely. Take advantage of all those club fairs and orientation events: They’re a great way to make friends and, more importantly, they almost always have free food. When classes start, think about snagging a study buddy to avoid logging hours alone in the library.
6. Do what you love.
Band geek in high school? Consider joining the campus orchestra, or at least finding out more about them. Passionate about journalism? Sign up to write an article for the student newspaper. That way, says Greatist Expert and psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, you’ll have a good chance of meeting people with similar interests. And don’t be afraid to be bold: College is also the perfect place to start a new organization. (Sushi club, anyone?)
7. Stay connected to home.
But not too connected. It’s helpful to set up regular phone calls with family and friends back home. Sometimes just hearing a familiar voice is all we need to feel comforted. That said, don’t miss out on opportunities to make new friends because you’re spending hours on the phone with a significant other every night.
8. Be open to learning.
Never ironed a shirt in your life and it's just hours before a big party? Instead of panicking, don’t be afraid to ask a roommate or a (new) friend for help. If it’s a really embarrassing question (what’s the appropriate cereal to milk ratio?!), try looking it up on YouTube. There are some great how-to resources on the Internetz.
9. Know you’re not alone.
The transition to college is rough for everyone — even those people who seem to be having the time of their lives the minute they set foot on campus. Keep in mind that, at some point, most people feel homesick, anxious, or downright confused. Rubin says the question isn’t whether we’ll get homesick, but whether we can respond to that feeling constructively.
No one’s saying adjusting to college life will be easy. In fact, it’s pretty inevitable that students will experience some stress, anxiety, and homesickness — at least during the first few weeks. The key is learning to cope with these thoughts and feelings in a healthy, productive way.
So eat pizza (but not too much pizza) at 3 o’clock in the morning, start a show on the school’s radio station, and go skinny-dipping in the campus pool. College can be a terrific opportunity for personal growth and developing a sense of independence — enjoy it while it lasts!