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Evaluating Your College Student's First Semester — Winter Break Conversation Starters

Suzanne Shaffer

Winter break is upon us! Soon your college student will be home for some much-needed rest and relaxation. You are certainly looking forward to family time, and I'm sure you're also bursting with questions you'd like to ask them.

“Winter break is an opportunity for students to reflect on the semester — on ways they have changed, on what they have learned and on how their goals are evolving. Conversations between parents and their college age children about these topics can be extremely rewarding for both parties,” says Karen Levin Coburn, co-author of Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.

After the dust from their homecoming settles (and your student has slept for what seems like 24 hours straight), your parenting kicks in.

You might discover your student dealing with one or more of these common first-year challenges: homesickness, depression, academic frustration, social struggles and financial difficulties. During winter break, you might also notice signs that college isn’t quite the dream your student had anticipated.

Even if they're adjusting well, naturally you’re curious about their college experience thus far. These simple questions will open the door to your student sharing what’s been happening over the last few months. (Just be careful not to bombard them all at once!)

How was your first term?

Starting with an open-ended question gives your student freedom to share whatever they want about their first quarter or semester at college. They may open up about anything from academics to the social life on campus to feelings of self-doubt or even depression.

The key is to listen intently and get a general sense of their progress. Your student may exude enthusiasm or be underwhelmed. Be alert for any early signs of trouble that need addressing now to stave off more serious problems.

What’s it like living in a residence hall?

Roommate issues are common among new college students. For most, it’s the first time they’ve lived with someone other than family. It’s an adjustment.

Unhappy living situations and roommate conflict can negatively impact your student’s academic performance and overall mood. My daughter was in a funk when she came home for winter break after her first semester. I could tell she needed space, so I waited a few days before nudging her to tell me what was wrong.

It turned out her roommate was barely sleeping in her own bed. After a month of boyfriend sleepovers, she was now sleeping in his dorm and going home on the weekends. My daughter felt abandoned. She had other friends, but at the end of the day, she went back to her room alone.

Some freshmen might welcome a development like this (kind of like having a single room!), but for my daughter, who thrives on social interaction, it was a downer. Just talking about it helped, though, and we came up with a plan to help her overcome the feelings of loneliness.

Have you made any close friends?

Social struggles are common in college. After having the same friends throughout high school, it can be difficult to make new ones. And friends can greatly affect your student’s outlook and overall adjustment to college life.

When my son began college after four years in the Marines, he found it hard to make new friends. He'd unknowingly chosen a school where most students left campus on the weekends. This made it tough to forge connections with classmates. He started driving home on the weekends himself and as he spent less and less time on campus, his grades suffered and his attitude toward college soured. In the end, he left school and came home to attend a community college.

Making the wrong kind of friends can also lead to problems. Friends influence behavior, and peer pressure around drinking and hooking up will negatively impact your student’s college experience. Ask follow-up questions about the social life on campus and what your student and their friends do to have fun.

If your first-year student still seems to be a bit lost on their campus, share these tips for finding community.

What were your classes like?

Instead of asking about grades, ask your student about their classes. Remember that academic struggles happen with most new college students. Was your student comfortable with the academic pace this past fall or overwhelmed by the workload? Did they struggle in one class or subject area or were there problems across the board?

Talking about classes, professors and studying can help you gauge your student’s academic progress (or lack thereof) and brainstorm ways to improve. These conversations also allow students to introduce parents to ideas and books they’ve discovered through their coursework and maybe even brag a little about their new insights. Be prepared for some lively exchanges — and to expand your own intellectual horizons!

How's your bank account holding up?

Your student has had several months to establish a pattern of spending. If you provide an allowance, it's time to evaluate where that money is going and whether it’s enough to meet their expenses. This is also a chance to identify overspending and review the importance of budgeting.

Sadly, my daughter did not budget wisely her first semester. We gave her an allowance, but she called constantly to say she was out of money. Looking at her spending patterns, we discovered she was eating out often instead of using the meal plan we were paying for. When she went back to school for spring semester, she began eating in the campus dining hall at least once a day, which helped her live within her allowance.

Is there anything on your mind you’d like to talk about?

You may assume your student will easily share any concerns they have about college, but fear may hold them back. Maybe they're worried they'll let you down if their grades are lower than expected. They might be afraid of your reaction if they're disappointed by their overall college experience. If they're homesick or depressed, they might hesitate to voice those feelings unless they're sure they won’t be met with judgment or condemnation.

The goal of these conversations is learning all you can about how your student is adjusting to college life. Allow your student to let their guard down and talk freely. Home is where they should feel safe and supported. Whether they’re sharing triumphs or confiding failures, assure them that you love them and there is nothing they can tell you that will ever change that.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.

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