As the end of summer approaches, many excited teens will be rushing off to college campuses across the country getting ready to embark on a life enriching experience. Memories of college days have faded for many parents and truthfully, times have changed. The college system is more complex than ever and if you want to help your student succeed the best thing you can do is listen, be open and maybe give them some of the pointers I list below.
I recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz and am in a kind of mourning period, missing my friends, my community and the feeling of security one has when they are sure the real world is still months away from actually being real. This puts me in the perfect position to dispense advice to all those who don’t even know what they will someday miss. Plus, I was a Residential Advisor (RA); it was my job to observe freshmen, see what they needed and help them help themselves. Here is some sage advice for parents and their college bound kids.
The biggest thing to remember when transitioning from high school to college is that it is all up to you. The dogmatic structure teenagers hate in high school trains them to depend on others. Independence is something so many kids look forward to without realizing the kind of responsibility it requires to be independent. Besides not having parents around to tell you what to do, there are no counselors hounding you to get ready for the next step and definitely no teachers asking why you haven’t turned in a paper. Especially at larger universities, professors just don’t care. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions; lame excuses hardly ever work and they make you look bad. Pay attention to posters and fliers and emails.
Freshmen often head off to college like they are heading off to an Animal House party. That may happen eventually, but making friends is harder than many first year students expect. Try joining a club or team and to try not to be shy. The first few weeks are a crucial time when putting yourself out there and taking chances with new friends is exciting and doesn’t look dumb. After that, people make cliques and it’s harder to find a social circle. A job is a great place to make friends (as well as gain experience and pay the bills), but apply early before everyone else figures that out and all the cool jobs are taken. Keep in mind it takes time to make intimate connections with people. Don’t imagine that your old high school friends are having the time of their lives immediately. They’ll miss you too.
Homesickness is something I experienced and observed in countless freshman. When you move away from everything you know, homesickness can unexpectedly come over you like a wet blanket. Sometimes you feel like you are the only one who feels this way because everyone else seems to be having so much fun. They’re faking it. Everyone misses something no matter how much they wanted to get away from it. I know plenty of people who thought it would be easier to drop out and do something else. Some kids need to do that, but try to stick it out and try another approach to getting adjusted. Parents, be there for your student by telling them you miss them. Send care packages; anything they can share is a great idea (e.g. movies, food, games), and don’t forget a nice handwritten note.
Also, let your child know that counseling services are a great way to sort out feelings that may arise from anything from homesickness to eating disorders to sexual assault. If they are feeling down, they should take advantage of these resources and never feel weak for asking for help. Counselors on campus are usually free and confidential and they have seen it all. Everyone deserves to be heard and to be happy.
Get to know your RA. Listen at meetings, show up to events, be respectful and friendly. Remember they aren’t there to try to get you in trouble; they are a resource and want to keep you safe. Getting on their good side will prove invaluable.
College is a time to learn and try new things, so take advantage of this opportunity. Overall, listen to your inner voice and be cautious while at the same time be open to new ideas, new perspectives and different kinds of people.
For students of color, the transition to college can be especially tumultuous because sadly, students of color are still underrepresented in higher education. These students may feel alone in their experiences or miss their community, beauty products or foods. Most schools have ethnic student organizations whose main concern is student retention and outreach. These are superb organizations that offer many services as well as a great community. There are also similar organizations for gay students.
Other than that, stay organized, keep all of your financial records, take lots of pictures and enjoy every minute of it. Remember that minds are like parachutes – they work best when they are open!