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When College Is a Four-Year Journey: Freshman Year

Vicki Nelson

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This is the first in a four-part series about the college journey for students in a traditional bachelor's degree program. Although your student’s experiences and timetable will be unique, the evolution from new freshman to graduating senior often follows a common path.

There's a reason so much attention is given to the first year of college. It's a time of tremendous transition for students — and for their families.

When you drop your child off at move-in day, it's nearly impossible to imagine the adult who will walk across the stage at commencement. So much will change in the next four years.

But first, they need to survive freshman year!

It starts the summer before college. As your student begins to shift their identity from high school to college student, you may both realize that this transition is more complex than you anticipated. It’s the beginning of a roller coaster ride.

Settling In – The Honeymoon

As your student begins college, everything is new and exciting. Sure, there are some anxious feelings, but it's an adventure — accompanied by a newfound taste of freedom.

Exploring campus, getting to know your roommate, making new friends, and the start of a new life help your student begin to create their college identity.

The first six weeks of college are especially important as students learn the ropes and the school welcomes them and orients them to their new life. There are special events, welcome meetings in the residence halls, information and club fairs — the ice cream truck may even show up at the dorms!

Some students experience homesickness in the first few days or weeks. Parents can remind them that this is normal and encourage them to allow time to adjust.

In spite of this initial nervousness, most students feel positive and successful as they begin their college career.

Ouch! What Am I Doing Here? – The Dip

Just when you breathe a sigh of relief that your student has adjusted, things change. Students who have been comfortable and successful during the first weeks of college may be caught off guard by feelings of self-doubt and unhappiness.

Some students struggle as they discover that college expectations are very different from those in high school, and they may worry about being able to do college level work. It can all seem overwhelming.

This shift often occurs if a student receives their first low or failing grades. For students who have never experienced low grades, this is a shock. They may feel like an imposter — clearly the college made a mistake by admitting them! Reality kicks in for many students at mid-semester as they face their first set of exams.

In addition to unwelcome grades, your student may experience other issues:

  • Roommate problems may begin to surface.
  • They may become frustrated at how much effort it takes just to function. Completing daily living tasks such as getting to class on time, managing their time, doing laundry, and juggling schoolwork with social life and a job can feel overwhelming.
  • They may miss life at home. Everything at college is still so strange!
  • They may miss family, friends – and even the family pet!
  • Some early friends on campus seem to be heading in different directions, and your student may not yet have found those true friends that matter.

This is the time parents may receive THE phone call.

It often comes late at night from a miserable student who is overwhelmed, hates everything about school, and feels they’ve made a huge mistake. This is when you take a breath, encourage your student to do the same, listen a lot, and ask them to try to give it a little more time.

Things will turn around for most students, even if they don’t believe it right now.

I’ve Got This! – Recovery and Adjustment

Gradually, your student begins to adapt to their new world and the new culture of college. They begin to feel in control again.

Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Your student feels competent and confident in their ability to handle their life.

Successful first-year students often learn two important lessons during this transitional year:

  • Free time does not mean that all of your time is “free.” It means that you control how you spend your time rather than living within the structure set by family, school, extracurricular activities. This definition of freedom comes with the responsibility to manage your time wisely.
  • Independence doesn’t necessarily mean handling everything on your own. As your student begins to assume responsibility for their new life, they must learn to ask for help and take advantage of the resources that the college offers.

Your student’s confidence at this stage can come from managing their schedule and knowing how to access services such as a writing center, counseling center, residence assistants, and professors’ office hours.

Your student is managing their life. They’ve got this!

Uh-Oh! – Feeling Isolated

This may be the most unexpected phase for some students. Just when they (and you!) thought they had made their transition, things fall apart – and this time, the problems seem to be more personal.

  • Friendships are shifting and students question their social circle. Early friends are falling away. Some may leave after the first semester, some are clearly not a good match, and others simply drift away. Your student feels lonely and guilty for not maintaining these early friendships.
  • Your student comes home for a long winter break. They may not be sure how they fit into the family now, their high school friends have changed, and they miss the independence they have experienced at school.
  • Your student may struggle with the consequences of some poor choices. They may face poor first semester grades, may realize that their experimentation and lifestyle have taken a toll, or they may see the impact of their credit card use or personal expenses.
  • Returning for the second semester can be difficult. Students now understand the hard work ahead of them, high school romantic relationships may have broken up, and social media seems to paint a rosier picture anywhere but where they are.
  • Students may wonder whether they’ve chosen the right major, or worry that they are still undecided about what they want to do.

In the struggle to live into their independence and responsibility, the focus all seems to be on the responsibility, and it can be daunting.

I’ve Got This (Really!) – Adaptation

Finally, for most students, things begin to fall into place. This time, it feels more stable.

Your student begins to feel integrated into the new culture of their school. They begin to find real friends, they have a more realistic understanding of how they fit in, they learn from mistakes, and they can handle problems and personal changes with more maturity and confidence.

Your student is engaged and finding their place on campus. They have made it through the first difficult transition to college!

What Can Parents Do This Year?

  • Let your student take the lead on Move-in Day. This is their first step toward being in control of their college experience.
  • Remind them they were accepted to college for a reason. They can do this!
  • Remind them of the importance of the first six weeks of college. Encourage them to hang in there when things get rocky.
  • Explain that feeling homesick is a normal reaction. Given time, their feelings may change.
  • Encourage them to actively reach out to find new friends and to engage on campus and participate in events and activities.
  • When a problem arises, do more listening than talking. Suggest they take 24 hours before making any decisions.
  • Encourage your student to know and use the resources available on campus.
  • Send care packages and actual snail mail for their mailbox!
  • Congratulate your student on the huge transition they are making!

Your student will complete their first year of college with new sources of information and the college knowledge and confidence that prepare them for their sophomore year. They will be ready to move beyond mastering their new environment to clarifying their sense of self and purpose.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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