When that thermometer thing pops up out of the Thanksgiving turkey, maybe it should come with another kind of signal for the families of first and second year college students: Get ready for the “I think I want to transfer/take time off” text or phone call!
My middle son spent Thanksgiving break with relatives in New England and when we spoke on the holiday, he sounded rested and cheerful. So his announcement two days later that he’s considering taking a personal leave next semester caught me flat-footed.
I managed to stay calm — I knew it was important to listen closely, ask careful questions, then listen some more. But clearly his dad and I had missed some signs.
At nearly the same moment, a friend and colleague was having a similar conversation with her son, a freshman, in his case about transferring. Though we know from statistics that it’s common for college students to transfer or take time off, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy place for a parent to be. My friend and I were hearing some painful soul-searching from our kids: “I don’t feel like I know myself in a context outside of school”; “I can’t seem to focus — I’m not doing my best work”; “I’m not sure why I’m even here.”
Suddenly we were all feeling a bit lost.
First, why is this happening now?
Freshmen may still be homesick. It can take a full semester or even a year to adjust to college. Students who still haven’t settled in may assume this means they don’t belong. Having just been home for Thanksgiving, they may have returned to campus missing old friends and significant others with renewed intensity.
Second-year students may be experiencing “sophomore slump” (see below). Students get burned out, especially if they didn’t take a gap year between high school and college. The end of the semester is a time of high stress and short, dark days. Small things that haven’t been going quite right all fall may now be coalescing into a bigger ball of unhappiness.
Ways to offer immediate help as they slog through finals:
- Give a short, sweet pep talk — remind them of some of their top accomplishments this semester.
- Check in about the work they have left to do but deemphasize grades, especially if they’re prone to putting too much pressure on themselves.
- Encourage them to access campus support resources (the counseling center, professors’ office hours, deans and advisors, R.A.s, etc.).
- Do they need to shake up their study routine (try a new spot, stay off phones and social media)?
- Remind them to take breaks — exercise, get outside, be with friends.
My son seemed relieved to put his feelings into words and to know that he has choices, and also to learn from his class dean that he has until early January to make a decision.
What needs to happen over winter break?
As I see it, there are three basic steps a student in this situation must take, with family guidance:
- Have a truly restorative winter break so whatever happens in January, they start the New Year healthy and rested.
- Continue (or begin!) the work of self-examination to get to the root of their unhappiness or dissatisfaction with college.
- Come up with an action plan for addressing this.
I’m grateful to be able to share some advice from Vicki Nelson, long-time CollegiateParent contributor and higher education/student life expert.
Vicki’s suggestions for transfer/time off conversations
“Is this the best time to make a decision?”
Your student might be reacting to the stress of the end-of-semester workload or to holiday blues. When they catch up on sleep, they may have a different perspective. Help them think about the entire semester rather than just the last few weeks.
“Can you look at first semester as a foundation to build on?”
First-year students especially may not realize how much they’ve learned — and changed. What new academic understanding do they have, both in subject matter and “college knowledge?” What connections have they made? Help your student think about making the most of the hard work they’ve already done.
“Can you make changes next semester that will put you in a better spot?”
Could it be all that’s needed is a fresh start? Can they study differently, change their living situation, focus on time management, create a healthier lifestyle? What classes are they excited about taking next semester? Maybe their major isn’t a good fit. Talk about that.
“Is the problem with the school or with you?”
This sounds blunt, but a student who wants to transfer should consider whether any problems — social, academic, etc. — will simply transfer with them. Help your student find the root of their unhappiness.
“Is the grass really greener somewhere else?”
Your student may have decided that they need a larger school, a smaller school, a school closer to home or further away. They may want a major that the current school does not offer. There are good and valid reasons to transfer. Help your student be realistic in expectations for a new school.
“Could you consider returning to school with a plan to transfer next year?”
Your student may be anxious to transfer or leave school, but it can be difficult to complete the transfer process mid-year and also to adjust to a new school when almost everyone else has been there a semester. Next fall there will be more students making transitions. Returning with the plan of transferring later may relieve some pressure and your student may find they actually enjoy college more. Help your student consider whether finishing the year might allow time to make a smoother, more thoughtful transition or even re-evaluate the decision.
A closer look at sophomore slump
This is a real thing, and a normal thing, which is helpful for both students and parents to understand. Second year, the novelty has worn off and there can be a feeling of disenchantment with the school and the whole college experience. Your student may still be struggling to find a place/community on campus. Maybe their housing situation isn’t ideal (too noisy, or too lonely); their social life could be disappointing. They may struggle with a sense of purpose or anxiety concerning their major, career goals, etc. Classes are harder and there is more at stake so disappointing grades loom larger.
To help your sophomore find a way back to healthy balance:
- Remind them that everyone’s college career has highs and lows.
- Point out the positives of being a sophomore — closer relationships with faculty members, co-curricular leadership opportunities, etc.
- Encourage them to try a new activity or drop something if their schedule is overloaded.
- Mastery and understanding in a subject takes time and some classes required for their major may push them to their limits. It’s okay to ask for help, and it’s also a great idea now and then to take a class just for the fun of it.
- Be sure to address any mental health concerns. They should schedule self-care time into their daily life and also get off campus now and then.
- Encourage them to put creative energy into researching study abroad or summer internship opportunities or planning a fun spring break adventure.
Note to self: vacations during college should be rejuvenating to some degree. This can be a challenge when students have pressure to make money/get amazing work experiences. Hindsight is 20-20 but looking back on last summer, I wonder if my son overdid it between his unpaid internship with a local non-profit and his restaurant server job.
When my son brought up the possibility of taking time off from college, I reached out to people I knew who’d done that. As it happened we’d just spent Thanksgiving with my husband’s cousin and her husband, who both took time off during college. Lauren said her semester living and working as a waitress in London gave her a new perspective on herself and her goals for her education. Bob took a year and a half off during which he studied carpentry and did odd jobs. He said it was “important to know I could pay rent, live on my own, and make art.”
I reflected on this when I wrote a follow-up email to my son. It wasn’t so long ago that he was applying to colleges and starting this journey of self-discovery through higher education. I wrote: “If you decide to take time off, what do you picture yourself doing that will help you accomplish the goal of getting to know yourself better? Is there an experience you’d love to have that you can’t have at college or at home?” It may be that his path takes a turn or two that neither of us expected.
We will be talking about this a lot more over winter break.