After all the work you did to finally see your child off to college, it can be troubling or even devastating when your child comes home for the holidays less than exuberant about the first semester. Some college freshmen don’t say anything because they don’t want to disappoint their families or embarrass themselves, but if you can tell that something’s wrong, what can you do about it?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that this is not unusual. At all. Moving to a new home, engaging in new activities, finding new friends – it’s a daunting prospect, especially for teenagers! And even more so because the college experience is burdened by so much nowadays. It’s seen as a make-it-or-break-it situation. It’s a lot for anyone.
Your child may be going through some of the predictable phases of culture shock. Whenever we enter new environments, whether for work, play, or study, we go through these stages – sometimes back and forth rather than in a straight line – but eventually usually end up in the fourth and final stage, which means we have fully acclimated to our new environment and learned how to navigate it well.
Unfortunately for the college freshman, it usually takes more than four months to fully adjust, so winter break may come when some of the toughest adjusting is happening. If you suspect your child falls into this category, discuss the culture shock phases with them. It will be comforting for them to know that the negative and difficult feelings they are experiencing will pass with time and that they will soon master their new campus and lives.
What may also help is to break down the first semester into manageable chunks.
- Academics: How did classes go? Did they manage work well? Were their grades ok? Did they see faculty in their office hours? Did they feel comfortable speaking in class? Often the first-semester difficulties come from a somewhat or even radically different classroom experience from what they’ve been used to. If things didn’t go well, what can they do differently in the coming semester?
- Social Life: Did they get to know any peers? Or do they feel pretty lonely? It might be helpful to point out that it is next to impossible to make “good friends” in four months. Perhaps it would help to go through the list of possible student organizations to identify some for them to check out in the spring. Most campuses have hundreds, and each one can be a “social home” for your child.
- Advising: At best, advisors serve as the helpful navigators of the college experience. Does your child have an advisor who serves as a productive guide and sounding board for them? Most students dramatically underutilize the advising resources available to them. It’s time to change that. Even if they say that their advisor is awful, which most do, challenge them to make an appointment to try again. An advisor should be someone who is knowledgeable, caring, accessible, and approachable. If your child has tried and tried and tried again to connect with their assigned advisor, it’s time to find an informal sounding board on campus. A faculty member who is inviting. A peer advisor who has energy and ideas. A coach or music teacher who has a vested interest in them. Before they go back to campus, they should reach out to one or more and set up a time to see them and talk about the first semester and their plans for the second.
- Health and Well-Being: Have they fared well in the sleep and hydration departments? How has their diet been? Did they gain any of the dreaded freshman 15? If you notice a marked difference in their overall health, it may be time to take more drastic measures. It’s possible that your child has been introduced to new drugs or sexual experiences that are difficult to process, even more so because most kids are afraid to talk to their parents about them, fearing their reactions. It’s time to put away your own feelings about drugs and sex and find out what is really going on with them. If they won’t talk to you, see if there’s someone else in your circle they will confide in. Or get them to a therapist.
Finally, if the first semester hasn’t gone well, it may be a good idea to alert someone on campus. Colleges are obsessed these days with “retention,” their ability to retain students from one semester to the next. The first year is a huge source of “attrition.” Less than two-thirds of students return for the sophomore year. Or, in college parlance, over one third of students attrit at the end of the first year. One-third!
Every college president is laser-focused on keeping your kid on their rolls. That being said, no campuses seem to have a person parents can reach out to when there’s a serious retention risk. Strange, huh? In the absence of a “retention officer” who reaches out to parents and students on a regular basis to see how things are going, colleges put enormous pressure on advisors as their retention officers. But advisors are usually only truly conversant in the academic experience. Not in the residential, social, and other important aspects of college life. So, hard as they might try, their advice might be limited in range.
If I were a parent of a freshman who was seriously unhappy about the first semester, I would call the Dean of Students or the VP of Student Affairs and let them know that your child is a retention risk and see if they or someone on their staff will work with your student to make a plan to tackle them. That’s what your child really might need – someone on the campus to help them make a plan to succeed. For them to sit with someone for an hour or so to really hear what is going on and to discuss options for taking the college experience in a different direction can generate hope and energy for the coming term. It will show that the college cares enough about your kid to do whatever they can to make the experience better.