The college years are often idealized as being about a great social scene, some interesting classes, and preparation for a career. But, this image belies the reality that college—and the transition to adulthood that accompanies it—is often a rocky path. There are personal, social, and academic challenges that even the most "college ready" student will face, because this period of life is about change.

For many students, these changes include moving away from family (emotionally and often geographically), developing an adult identity, questioning the beliefs they were raised with, and choosing a career path. None of those are easy tasks, and the alarming statistics of depression, substance abuse, and misconduct on campuses are all signs that students are struggling with these changes.

In our work with students transitioning to college, we have found these five messages to be crucial to personal, social, and academic success on campus. While it's important for students to hear them before they arrive at their dorms, they'll likely need to continue to hear them as they move through their college years, too.

  1. Find an Adult Mentor—Becoming an adult requires navigating a wide range of challenges, from choosing a major and career, to deciding how to build healthy relationships with substances, peers, and sex. While colleges offer ample opportunities to confront those challenges head on, it's rare to find meaningful mentorship on campus. Professors aren't trained to serve in this role, and RA's are still grappling with these issues themselves. Because students need to talk about sensitive subjects without fear of disappointing their mentor, parents aren't well positioned to play this role in their kids' lives. Quality adult mentorship is often found by actively reaching out to a teacher, coach, or mentor from the high school years. Students need to take the initiative here, rather than wait for someone to reach out to them. Parents can acknowledge the limits of their ability to be a mentor and help their kids think of who to reach out to before there is a crisis. These kinds of mentoring relationships are relatively rare, but they are crucial to ensuring students get the support they need.
  2. College Is What You Make of It—While it's easy to define college as a set of courses needed to achieve a degree, this definition misses the big picture. Students have to give their learning meaning. College campuses are mountains of curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular learning opportunities. On campus, students are surrounded by the world's experts in everything, and have facilities to pursue virtually any passion. And, the broader community offers internships, jobs, and volunteer opportunities. Colleges offer flexibility in schedules and planning to put all of these pieces together in ways that make sense for each student. The trick of it all is that each student has to blaze their own trail up this mountain of opportunities. Being intentional about that process is hard, making the support of mentors even more valuable. 
  3. Everyone Is Changing—No college student has it all figured out. The majority of students on campus will be at the same stage of life, grappling with the same challenges. Many will go through various phases as they try on new identities and interests. This often results in friendships and relationships that come and go as passions and interests change. Students benefit from reflecting on the changes going on within themselves and others. It can feel devastating to watch a close relationship drift away. But, being conscious of the fact that they and everyone around them is going through constant changes can help students avoid blaming themselves for friendships or relationships that don't evolve with the changes life brings. 
  4. Be Brave When Shaping Your Adult Identity—Becoming the adult you want to be takes work, particularly if you aren't yet sure who you want to be. Fortunately, colleges offer lots of opportunities to take healthy risks and try on new identities. Students benefit from hearing that they have flexibility and freedom to explore subjects of study, clubs, off campus activities, and social groups without having to commit to them for the long term. This message is particularly important today, as middle and high school students have learned to commit deeply to their curricular and extra-curricular pursuits to impress colleges. Students need help differentiating between bold, healthy risks, and those that are fleeting and dangerous. 
  5. Lean into Your Passions—A common assumption among students is that if you don't know where you want to be in 30 years, you can't possibly make good decisions about what you should be doing now. This can be paralyzing for those who don't have a long term vision. It can also be painful for those who have a vision but find that the steps to getting there don't align with their passions or values. Students should be encouraged to lean into their passions by identifying the thing they most enjoy doing and finding a way to engage with that work in meaningful ways on a daily basis. By doing what they love in spaces that allow them to learn more about it and perfect their skills, students can become experts in their passions. Passionate expertise is the most direct path to a fulfilling career.

Sharing these perspectives as students head off to freshman year, then returning to them throughout their college years, is a powerful way to support students in taking control of their college experience.

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