When I am out and about in town I often overhear people whose kids have recently started college greet each other with, “How does [your child’s name here] like school?” The response generally is, “She LOVES it!”
Now, I understand one might not be inclined to go into personal details while standing on line at the deli counter or cashing a check at the bank. However, I also know there’s a strong chance her child does not actually love college and, in fact, may even be unhappy.
After the lengthy and exhausting application process, emotionally wrought acceptance period, Bed Bath & Beyond excursions, and tearful dorm room drop off, it can be difficult to acknowledge — to the world and to yourself — that your student is not ecstatic at college. But if that happens to be the case, you are not alone. I don’t know the statistics but get the sense that there are more unhappy kids, at least at the start of college, than ones who are completely delighted.
It’s normal for students to think they might have been happier somewhere else, especially in this era of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook where everyone looks like they’re having a better time at their school than you are at yours.
Neither of my two older sons was particularly pleased with his college in the beginning and their dissatisfaction lasted for quite some time. Many factors can affect how a first-year student feels about their school. Despite the fact that your student may have seemed as if they couldn’t wait to leave the nest, I guarantee they miss you, their siblings, their high school friends, the pets, their old bedroom and home cooked food (not necessarily in that order). In addition to homesickness, there may be adjustments to living in a residence hall, roommate issues, disappointment with classes, etc.
How much unhappiness is typical and what, if anything, should you do about it?
It took both my older sons a few semesters to find their footing. My oldest, who went to college in the Midwest, complained a great deal initially, but then joined a fraternity where he made wonderful friends. He also changed majors (several times) and ended up loving the university from which he had previously considered transferring. In fact, after he graduated, I was amused at how often he went back to visit, largely because of the fact that his girlfriend was still a student there, but also because he missed his alma mater.
It’s normal for students to think they might have been happier somewhere else, especially in this era of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook where everyone looks like they’re having a better time at their school than you are at yours. Don’t be alarmed if you hear your student say, “I kinda wish I’d gone to…” (their second choice, their boyfriend’s school, the local state university, etc.). It’s important to listen and allow them to vent their feelings but, in all likelihood, they will ultimately fall in love — or at least serious like — with the school they chose.
In a minority of cases, the school really is a poor fit and no amount of time will fix this. My middle son’s good friend from high school was unhappy at his college and, despite the friends he made and his best efforts to acclimate, he knew it wasn’t going to get better. He transferred halfway through sophomore year and is much happier. In fact, he wishes he’d done it a semester earlier.
I suggest that, if your student seems that miserable, they start the transfer process. It can be easier to get into many colleges as a transfer student than as a high school senior. If your student changes their mind, they’re not bound to switch schools; however it keeps the option open. A friend’s daughter went through the transfer process and was accepted at several schools but in the end decided to remain where she was. In her case, she just needed more time to adjust to her new environment.
Keep in mind also that mental health issues can manifest during the college years.
If your student seems more than a little unhappy or adrift, you might suggest they seek professional help, starting with campus counseling services. My oldest son’s freshman roommate routinely slept through classes and had trouble sticking to a schedule. When I asked my son if he thought his roommate was depressed, my then 17-year-old, who wasn’t particularly perceptive, said he didn’t think so. His roommate ended up being asked to leave school during second semester and later said he felt lucky that the administration intervened.
Freshmen and parents should expect an adjustment period which can last from a few weeks to a few months or even longer.
Have realistic expectations — understand that, as with most things in life, every college has its pluses and minuses. If the situation isn’t perfect it’s okay to acknowledge this, even as you encourage your student to work on improving their college experience. When all else fails, transferring or taking some time off might be the best solution. Keep the lines of communication open and remember that, in the end, learning how to “figure things out” is as a much a part of a college education as what happens in the classroom.