In the next few days, students all over the country will be returning to college. Where I live and practice, this is evidenced by an influx of early twenty-somethings descending on the nation's capitol. With five universities located all within a three-mile radius of one another, DC is officially a college town. I have to confess I get a little nostalgic each fall watching the energy that comes from having all these college students ambling around the city.
College can be an exciting time for students as they embark on their college careers. However, even the most well-adjusted student can experience periods of uncertainty and disillusionment in the course of their college career. Sure, being away from home for the first time can be liberating, but it can also be anxiety provoking.
Having trained and worked at several local college counseling centers, I have come to appreciate the natural flow of the college lifecycle. You can almost set your watch to it. For counseling center staff, the first couple of weeks are often quiet but by the third or fourth week of the fall semester, a virtual tsunami of students start to appear on the steps of their college counseling centers, a trend that will continue almost uninterrupted until Thanksgiving break. Often what prompts many students to seek out counseling services on campus is the feelings of unease that stem from being separated from family and friends for the first time. Once the novelty of being in a new academic and social environment subsides, students are sometimes left feeling ambivalent about their new lives as college students. Such reactions can stir up mixed feelings, reflecting early separations and even a sense of abandonment. For most, such feelings abate as the student begins to establish new relationships and attachments on campus. By the time these students return home for Thanksgiving, they are already plotting their escapes in order to be with their new surrogate family of college friends.
One of the challenges and a potential source of stress for many students is the increased academic pressure students face when they start college. Students, accustomed to constant attention from teachers and coaches in high school, can find the lack of structure inherent in college to be initially overwhelming. Even the brightest students may still find themselves ill prepared for the magnitude of reading required for some classes, as well as the frenetic pace at which their professors will cover course material. Accustomed to being at the top of their class, these students may not be prepared for being "average" (academically speaking) in comparison with their college peers. The straight-A student, who was captain of the soccer team and editor of the high school yearbook, may suddenly find herself struggling to maintain this same level of accomplishment. It can be a real narcissistic blow when a student has to accept his or her limitations and is forced to reevaluate what is realistically obtainable. Though it may take time, most students are able to navigate this transition and find a healthy balance between work and play.
Perhaps one of the greatest developmental milestones accomplished in college takes place in the interpersonal and sexual realm. Although some students date prior to arriving at school, many students will have their first "serious" romantic relationship in college. Such relationships can be extremely intense and serve as an important source of attachment and self-identity. For some students who may be questioning their sexual identity, college may be a time of sexual experimentation and discovery. In dating, college students have the opportunity to learn about themselves in a safe environment that allows them the freedom to experiment and potentially grow and mature as sexual beings. At the same time, such experimentation can elicit intense feelings of attachment and abandonment that may be a source of confusion and anxiety for them.
It is in the college students' final year where feelings of separation can also resurface. As students prepare to depart college for that "next chapter" of their lives, some may experience ambivalence about separating from the surrogate family that college has come to represent. They begin to internalize outside messages that it's time to "grow-up" and become an "adult" now. Really, what can be more scary than becoming an adult? While some students cannot wait to leave college behind, others may struggle to relinquish these emotional ties. As my college counseling colleagues can attest, every spring semester as seniors prepare for final exams, there will inevitably be those who complain it is impossible to study, not because they "don't care," but because they care too much. They recognize (at least on some unconscious level) that successfully passing this last round of exams means they will have to graduate, an especially frightening thought for any student feeling emotionally unprepared for the uncertainty of what potentially lies ahead. Eventually, these students manage to move on but it may take an extra semester (or two or three!) for it to happen.
Sometimes, I wish I could go back to college and do it all again, but I doubt it would be as much fun.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.