My College:
Student Life

The Rhythm of the First Semester

David Tuttle


NOW WHAT?!

After all of the applications, tours, decisions, packing, unloading, and last- minute (if not outdated) parental advice, your students are on their own. As someone who sent four kids to college and served as a campus administrator over several decades, I’ve found there is a cadence to the first semester.

Here’s what to expect.

Uneasiness and Anxiety

You can tell by the look in their eyes. Pulling up to the residence hall, meeting other students... Your kid is feeling the pressure. How does the meal plan work? Where are my classes? Am I a nerd? Is my roommate a nerd?

For many, these feelings will quickly pass. For some, though — especially introverts — the stress may last until they get further into the semester. The best thing you can do is check in, be available, and listen. The Resident Assistant (RA) is a great resource — nudge your student to talk to them and lean on them for support.

Euphoria

The early days of the semester have a special energy. Everyone’s putting their best foot forward and students are drawn in by their diverse and dynamic classmates. Connecting over social media prior to move-in means there’s a comfort level already among many of them. They have a lot in common — they all want to be at college, in particular THIS college.

The truth is, a lot of them are doing what we all do in new and uncomfortable situations: faking it. This is a handy survival skill. New students may latch on to the first people they meet, especially in the residence halls. (Note: The first friends aren’t always the lasting ones — or even the ones that are there by the holidays.) What’s more, how often do we get chances to reinvent ourselves? Students can leave their high school personas and reputations behind, make changes, and start fresh.

Freedom

Students can stay out late and sleep in. They can clean their room — or not. They’re meeting new people. They are becoming new people. And the stuff that gave them anxiety? They have mastered it. As they manage their own decisions and emotions, they become more surefooted. You may notice over the holidays that your adolescent is blossoming into a confident adult.

Hurdle One: Homesickness

At some point, most students face a bout of homesickness. The euphoria fades, and with freedom comes accountability. Often something minor will happen. Maybe their roommate didn’t invite them to breakfast, or they saw all their friends at a different school on Instagram having a great time. Maybe sustaining the reinvention feels exhausting and inauthentic. And maybe, just maybe, parents, siblings, and the family home provide some real comfort.

Expect the call. The one where they say they don’t fit in. They want to see you (or they want to see the dog). This is normal. Listen a lot, knowing that after the call they may end up going out and having fun while you toss and turn with worry. If homesickness is sustained, have them home for a visit or go see them if resources and time allow. Some parents set an arbitrary rule that their kids can’t come home until Thanksgiving. To me, that seems more punitive than productive. Sometimes having the visit early on can help get them through and understand that their new lives can co-exist with their old ones.

Fall Family Weekend

If the school hosts Family Weekend and you can attend, it can be fun and reassuring. Programs give you a chance to learn what’s happening on campus. Your student will want to see you, show you off, go out to eat, and maybe come away with a little cash.

Whether a structured campus event or a random fall visit, it’s nice to take your students and some friends out for a meal. You can learn a lot from the friends that your student has found at this point. Mostly, you can gauge that they are happy and fitting in. Don’t be surprised if the group is made up of various genders. College breaks down these barriers more than high school.

Finally, let your student show you around campus with their new eyes. You can see where they go to class, study, and hang out. Our son gave us a tour of the recreation facility he worked at. He took great pride in showing us how his key worked. This display in the obvious made us proud, too.

Hurdle Two: Grades

College is hard. Professors love their disciplines and know a lot. Students may be checking off requirements, but the faculty is committed to teaching and learning, and they want to entice students into their majors. Students will read and write more in the first semester than they did in one or two years of high school. The other students are also the brightest of the bright. Academics are competitive and no one gets by any longer on talent alone.

The first subpar grade on a test or paper can create self-doubt or trigger imposter syndrome. Some students aren’t used to seeing so much red on their written assignments, and it can be very humbling. Know that most instructors are fully aware of this. They are laying the groundwork of expectations for the quality of work that is expected in college. For you, maybe temper expectations about first grades, including for the whole first semester. Students will learn what they need to do to succeed and you will often see a bump up in the second term.

Get Used to Being Shut Out

Instructors don’t give as much graded work except in languages and STEM (science and math). This makes it difficult for students to assess their progress and even more difficult to report it to you. They may have two or three papers and a few tests. What instructors want to see is that the students are engaged. Urge your student to attend class, participate in discussion, and turn in their work. The grades will follow. Professors love it, too, when students go to their office hours.

Professors will likely not communicate with you if you reach out. The faculty treats students as adults, and that’s how they’re viewed by the institution as a whole. If you contact the school with a question about your student, they will want to know if your student has filled out a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) release (usually available on the college website). You should stress that you’re not asking about grades, but want to discuss how your student is doing, if that is the case. And you can always just share your concerns and hope they act on them.

Finally, your student may also shut you out. They’ve gotten the message that they are adults, so they want to handle things. That’s what you want, too. But sometimes you need them to rise to your expectations. And don’t forget, you probably have leverage.

Don’t be afraid of your student. One of my kids told me he felt like I was micro‐managing him. I was proud of his assertive communication. Still, he needed to know that our investment in him meant that we should have input and some authority. We reached a satisfactory understanding moving forward.

The Holidays

This may be the first time your student has been home since fall move-in. They’re long-term tired after being “on” for several months and will want to sleep and see their old friends. Discuss expectations in advance and let them know when they need to be with family. And be prepared for them to have new perspectives, new beliefs, and even a new voice to disagree with you and other relatives. This is your new, educated, emerging adult!

The End of the First Term

The first thing on everyone’s minds is how grades turned out. If your student is in the average to above-average range, see this as a win. Discuss what they will do differently in the next term and ask about scheduled classes. Let them regroup academically and emotionally. If the grades are subpar, it may be time to dig deeper and possibly reach out to the advisor or academic support people.

By the time your first-year student goes back to campus in January, they will be ready and you probably will be, too. They may say they’re going “home.” Don’t take it personally. They want to get back to their freedom and friends and start fresh on this next lap. And they will likely be sad to leave you as well. But you’ll all have less angst than you had the first time. Everyone is getting the hang of this!

A Note on Weed-Out Classes and Registration

Schools say they don’t have weed-out classes. But many students in the pre-med track learn that the rigor of chemistry, calculus, and biology is simply too challenging.

If the student switches majors, they have weeded themselves out. That is normal. Sometimes it’s best to drop some of these classes by the deadline if they will have severe negative impacts on the grade point average. And maybe it’s time to look at different majors.

In late fall, students register for the next term’s courses. This can be stressful because heading into the first semester, class seats were set aside for them; now they’re in with the general population and at the back of the line. Don’t be surprised if you get a call that they have a crummy schedule.

Direct them to ask their advisor or the Registrar's Office how to navigate waitlists or find other classes that will fulfill requirements. And knocking out some electives isn’t a bad thing. Many a student has taken a class in something they would have never considered only to find a passion area as a major. The main thing is to make sure highly sequenced courses are completed so the student’s graduation schedule isn’t thrown off-kilter.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected]

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