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Advice for New College Students From a Recent GradCambria Pilger
With so much uncertainty surrounding the return to campus this fall, incoming first-year students may be feeling more anxious than usual about starting college.
Complicating things is the fact that many schools will restrict parental access to campus on move-in day as part of COVID-19 safety measures.
If you’re worried that it will be difficult or even impossible to accompany your student to move-in, never fear. Every year many students (especially international students) move in to their college dorm rooms alone.
You’ll just be a phone call away if your student needs anything, and you can still help them pack and prepare everything before they go.
Since my move to college required 20+ hours of traveling from Shanghai, China to Boulder, Colorado, my family and I decided it made the most sense for me to go alone.
My mom insisted on packing my suitcases herself so she could be sure I had everything I could possibly need. It helped her feel like she was still a part of the big day — and it helped me feel like she was there with me when I was setting up my dorm with all the little things she had packed for me.
I probably should have done a little more research about the move-in process because I arrived several hours before I was supposed to and missed out on the experience of moving in with everyone else as well as the guidance of student volunteers directing me where to go and what to do. It wasn't a big issue, though — despite my confusion, I was still able to find the dorm and pick up my keys with relative ease.
Because of the pandemic, move-in day schedules will be tightly controlled this fall. Your student should double check their assigned day and time as well as other procedures and requirements.
After moving all of my things into my dorm and doing a little unpacking, I was completely at a loss about what to do next. Since most students hadn’t moved in yet, the building was more or less empty, and anyone who had moved in was spending time with their family.
This was the moment the loneliness started to hit me. My roommates had arrived during international student move-in a few weeks earlier and they were nowhere to be found. Watching all my soon-to-be classmates explore with their families made me worry that nobody was really interested in hanging out or making friends while they still had their parents there.
Those first few hours after arriving at college were hard. But I didn’t want to sit still and allow my anxiety to take over. I knew myself well enough to know that, if I waited too long, I’d retreat into my own space and refuse to be outgoing enough to meet anybody. And I was determined to make new friends!
I decided to take things one at a time. Since I hadn't lived in the States in more than a decade, I needed to set up a bank account and a phone plan. So I called an Uber and did my best to navigate through my new college town, crossing my fingers that everything would work out — especially the phone, since I completely depended on a working phone to help me get around and was scared I’d get hopelessly lost.
Of course, without a working phone, I’d be tied to my dorm WiFi for communication so I was pretty determined to get a number that I could give out to new friends (after all, there was little chance I would ever hear from potential new friends without exchanging phone numbers).
Having a working phone did wonders to help me feel more comfortable in my new environment. Knowing I could call my parents or friends for support at any time gave me the confidence to stay positive about exploring my new community and meeting new people.
When I first committed to the University of Colorado, I reached out on a Facebook group created for incoming freshmen to see if there were other international students in my year. Since I didn’t know a single person in Boulder prior to moving, I wanted to take every opportunity to make friends.
I got to know a student from Thailand, Mit, over Facebook and we made plans to hang out once we both got to campus. I was able to meet up with Mit (who is amazing despite what people say about internet friends), and we set out to explore Boulder together for a couple hours until his roommate’s move-in time.
When Mit peeled off to bond with his new roommate, I headed back to my dorm. Feeling the loneliness and anxiety creep in again, I considered retreating to bed for the day. But I remembered what my best friend from high school once told me: sometimes, just being brave for 30 seconds is enough.
That really is all it takes (as terrifying as it may seem in the moment).
So I took a deep breath and repeated this to myself over and over again as I walked out of my dorm on a mission to make at least one friend without the help of Facebook. Determined as I was, I was still pretty lost, so I more or less wandered the hallways for a while, meeting random people here and there. And crazily enough, some of those random people wound up being some of my best friends throughout college — they all lived in my dorm and everyone ended up being as eager to make friends as I was.
When I reconnected with Mit the next day, he introduced me to another international student he'd met over Facebook and she has been one of my closest friends since (and my incredible roommate for four years now).
People always seem to offer the same advice for making friends in college, and maybe that’s because it’s all true. Be outgoing, meet everyone, be open and don’t turn down an opportunity that sounds like fun to you. If you’re shy (as I often am in new situations), it can be as easy as keeping the door to your dorm room open during the first few days — chances are someone will pop their head in to introduce themselves!
In a nutshell, don’t let fear or anxiety run the show. One of the best things about freshman year is that everybody is eager to find common interests and build friendships. I was lucky to have a close group of friends throughout college and most of us met within the first week. I met one friend in an elevator after mistaking his much younger sister for a college student, another at our dorm bus stop, and another I literally ran into on my floor as he was stepping out of his dorm room for the first time after unpacking.
There were plenty of awkward moments (I'll never live down mistaking my friend’s younger sister for a college student — his family still recounts the story whenever I see them), but I'm grateful to my freshman year self for being brave enough to introduce myself to everyone I met.
At the end of my first day, though it really did turn out to be much better than all my anxiety told me it would, I found myself sitting in my dorm room feeling defeated and lonely again.
Friendships take time to build, and I was crushed that all my closest friends from high school were scattered across the world rather than there with me. I missed the warmth and ease that comes with relationships built over the span of years. I ended up crying by myself that night because I missed everybody at home so much. I was ashamed that I didn't feel more confident about my new friendships and too proud to admit to my parents that I was struggling.
So, if your new college student will move in on their own, help them stay confident. They can handle it! Make a plan with them about whether or not they want to connect with you at the end of their first day. They may tell you they want to take time to settle in before letting you know how it goes, but it's also possible they'll find themselves really needing to hear your voice. Remind them that there's no pressure to be perfect or to make their first day live up to all their expectations and you'll always be there if they need some support.
To all incoming freshmen, I encourage you to be brave and step out of your comfort zone. College is a formative time and you can be anybody you want to be. Take a deep breath and just be brave for 30 seconds. I promise you’ll be reaping the rewards of your bravery for years to come.
College move-in is approaching! Help your student prepare by making sure they have everything they need for a successful freshman year.