For many young people and their parents, the transition to college holds great promise, likely mixed with a smaller dose of trepidation such change typically brings. This may be especially the case for first generation college students whose families may have little experience with which to guide their new enrollees.
Indeed, a November 2012 article in The Journal of Higher Education, “Think of First-Generation Students as Pioneers, Not Problems,” notes that the needs of this first-year cohort may get brushed aside as schools struggle with budgets and enrollments or simply because they assume that all students appear on campus with the same profile of preparation.
Of course, that is unlikely.
According to The Journal, these students – who are growing in number – face challenges across a number of spheres, including educational, emotional, financial, personal and social. As fewer students enroll in college, “heads in beds” concerns of enrollment management officials may mean deeper dives into this pool of newbies, meaning that the degree of difficulty in successfully transitioning may increase.
As the title of that article suggests, colleges and universities are well advised to carefully frame their approach to, and support of, these first-year students.
Similarly, even the most well-heeled and most successful children of college graduates may initially flounder in a sea of new people, new independence and new schedules. Hence, they, too, will require ample attention from administrators, professors and dormitory staff.
The good news is that parents get the first bite of that transitory apple. But what to say, or do?
• Recognize that change is occurring not only for your student but also for you and any other family members, including siblings still at home.
• Anticipate unspoken questions, both yours (Will he succeed academically? How will she fare socially? What choices will he make about eating, sleep, and exercise? How will she handle the freedom of being on her own and the decisions she will face about alcohol, other drugs, and sexual behavior?) and theirs (Will I fit in and find a group I’ll be comfortable with? How will I find the right balance between work and play? Can I keep up academically?).
Perhaps most important is for parents to keep in mind that they will continue to have significant influence in the lives of their children even after they have left for college, though mom or dad might believe otherwise.
Fortunately, that may be especially the case with issues related to mental health, substance use and sexual behavior.
According to data from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and the national SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions), more than one-third of first-year, first-semester college students report using alcohol – and many for the first time (26 percent). This is particularly noteworthy as decision-making during this critical time may translate into normative behavior throughout their college years.
Coping skills also include “self-medicating” with other drugs and even sexual intercourse (46 percent and 27 percent for the first time, respectively). In turn, mental health can quickly deteriorate.
While depression and suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among college students at all levels (the National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time in the past year), many first-year students have the added burdens of learning to live away from home and experiencing the sense of loneliness that can engender.
Thus, while it may appear to an outside observer that these young people have more friends – and a better social life – than ever, those things often mask a pervasive sense of isolation.
Longtime private school head and current executive director of the Louis August Jonas Foundation Richard Enemark, Ph.D., offers sound advice for parents wanting to help: “Too often the ills of freshman year – binge drinking, sexual promiscuity, indifferent morals, cruelty and bullying – are born of a college life that forgets the lessons of 18 years of home life. If you remain a presence to your student, not a helicopter parent hovering above but a steady guide and always-available counselor, you will be doing your child the greatest service.”
Soothing words for parents of teens uprooting for the land of hopes and dreams.
Stephen Gray Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
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