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A User’s Guide to the First Year of College

Navigating transition

Victoria Heath
Source: Victoria Heath

Much attention has been paid of late to the trials and tribulations faced by many young people managing the transition from high school to college. And with good reason.

A survey of first-year college students conducted by The Jed Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Jordan Porco Foundation revealed that the majority of these young people feel unprepared emotionally (“defined by the organizations as the ability to take care of oneself, adapt to new environments, control negative emotions or behavior and build positive relationships”) for the challenges college can bring (Set to Go, 2018).

They also report the following (Set to Go, 2018).

  • 60 percent wish they had gotten more help with emotional preparation for college.
  • 45 percent felt that “it seems like everyone has college figured out but me.”
  • 51 percent found it difficult at times to get emotional support at college when they needed it.

Other data released by Jed and Kognito revealed, “A survey of 14,584 faculty and staff members and 51,294 undergraduate students in 100+ U.S. colleges and universities found that more than half don’t feel adequately prepared to recognize, approach or recommend support services to students experiencing psychological distress—including depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide” (JED, 2017).

And that is concerning, given a 2014 report issued by the National Survey of College Counseling Centers that noted 94 percent of counseling directors say they’ve seen an increase of students with severe psychological disturbances (Gallagher, 2014). It’s no wonder college counseling centers are struggling with overload (Simon, 2017).

If all of that sounds like very scary news, it is. A qualitative research study of high school seniors and first-year college students conducted during the 2016-2017 academic year by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) found that even those young people seemingly best prepared—academically and emotionally—for college generally find some difficulty in adjusting to inherent differences: schedules, friends, freedoms and, often, distance from family.

More recently, first-year students Aggie Chamlin (Muhlenberg College) and Peter Worzala (Northeastern University) took a look back on their first semester and offered some compelling commentary on change.

Aggie, who describes herself as “a lover of life, a doer … someone who likes to make the most out of every opportunity,” told me, “Growing up, I always knew I wanted to go to college. I had aspirations to become a doctor, to be a princess, to soar as an astronaut. I daydreamed about what college would be like, not under the careful watch of my parents. What would it feel like to leave home? How would I make new friends?

“Despite my careful deliberations in choosing between the schools to which I had been accepted, I arrived on campus in a pool of my own tears. Going to college creeps up on you fast! One day you wake up in your own bed and just hours later you’re catapulted head first into a new world! This isn’t a bad thing but it is scary! Even though I went to summer camp since I was ten years old (and that helped), the hardest part was letting go of my mom.

“The first few weeks of school are weird. You just start getting to know people and begin cracking the surfaces of friendships. It was kindergarten all over again, minus the blocks, replaced with biology. My mom has always called me a ‘social butterfly.’ Although I can be shy and quiet at times, I have been on the move, meeting people and making new friends. When I got to school I knew the only way that I would feel at home and adjusted was to make friends fast. I got to know people quickly and started to foster great relationships.

“I stayed busy and met a lot of people during the first few weeks. Naturally, they became my closest friends. But still, it was hard to adjust to the fact that these relationships are completely different from those from home, the kids I grew up with. My new friends didn’t know much about me, but with time I grew more comfortable with the people around me at college.

“I tried to keep as normal of a schedule as possible when coming to school, which really helped me adjust. I tried to keep a sense of normalcy, such as waking up early to eat breakfast like I would do in high school. I go to Chabad for Shabbat dinner to feel like I am at home. I’m thankful to have gone to a high school that facilitated my love of learning in and outside the classroom. I wasn’t always someone who enjoyed school, but as my teachers made the effort to get to know me I realized that I could achieve. I learned how to have close relationships with teachers, which has made me more comfortable with my professors in college.”

Even so, she experienced anxiety. “How can such a dramatic change not make anyone anxious?” she asked rhetorically. “In the beginning of school, there are a lot of firsts. First time going to the gym. First time in class. Firsts are scary no matter how small.”

Aggie continued, “Now that I am in my second semester, I feel much more at ease and more comfortable in my classes and with my professors.” Still, the change was not without struggle. She reported, “The beginning was definitely tricky. You are like a strange invader in an unknown space and that takes some time to get used to. The little things were actually the hardest for me: living in a small dorm room, having to go to the dining hall to eat and, of course, leaving my friends from home.”

On a “wellness” scale, Aggie rates herself as doing well with diet, exercise and relationships while sometimes struggling with emotions and stress.

Sounds typical to me.

And what about Peter? He describes himself as “a normal kid,” sometimes an extrovert but also pretty quiet. “I’ve got one of those faces that vaguely looks like a person you’ve met before, but not exactly,” he said. “Like many people in my class and generation, I was tempted by a very specific vision of the college experience. My parents’ generation was liberated by higher education. It allowed them to find themselves and go out to explore the world. It was a time for growth. As a result, I glorified the idea of college.

“Frankly, I was never the biggest fan of school. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning, but there was something unsettling to me about the rigidity of primary and secondary school. It always felt off and vaguely demeaning to me. I didn’t really enjoy myself much, truth be told. There was, however, always some hope: a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of college.

“This gave me a sense of purpose and motivation and only heightened my anticipation for college. I thought it was going to be a life changer. I hoped it could be something that would alter the very foundation of my being, turning me into what I always wanted to be. I know how unrealistic that is, but I couldn’t help but think it.

“Finally, the time came. I got into a college I liked a great deal, and so I went. It was … not what I expected. How could it have been? I had extremely unrealistic expectations. I made a pretty significant misjudgment of my own character and capacity for fulfillment when I thought that college would be some sort of milestone."

“The reality is not that college is some veritable Garden of Eden where I could learn and grow unencumbered, where I would meet lifelong friends and we would sail off happily into the sunset. The reality is that college is just another place."

“I left my friends behind and set upon the task of finding new ones. I’ve got a lot of work and less time than I thought to pursue the kind of self-improvement that I envisioned."

“Being on my own is quite liberating, although I do miss my family. It is wonderful to be surrounded by people my own age who are all so interesting and smart. Everyone contributes to what ends up being a really diverse and fascinating atmosphere. It doesn’t matter what your interests are. In a school with thousands of peers, it's so easy to find people with similar interests."

“It’s fun. But it isn’t the magical utopia that I envisioned. It doesn’t matter how good the place is, I would have been let down no matter what. My expectations were built up to an unrealistic degree. It was especially gutting early on in the first semester because my hopes were so high."

“College is pretty cool, but it’s just life. It’s a thing with a lot of good and some not so good. It’s fun to learn what I want to learn, and it sucks to leave my friends and family behind. It’s awesome to be able to learn from the kind of intellectual titans who are my professors, but it’s too bad I’ve got so much homework that I can’t explore the city the way I want to.”

Looking back, Peter has found familiarity—and perhaps validation—in the experiences of others with whom he has discussed the transition. A lack of sleep and difficulty navigating new relationships are reflected in his self-ratings, while diet, exercise and stress are at appropriate levels.

In the stories of Aggie and Peter, we find quite ordinary first-year college experiences of two quite extraordinary young people.

Dr. Victor Schwartz, JED chief medical director, perhaps summed it up best when he told me, “For a young person, every life and school transition is a developmental challenge and also a developmental opportunity. Kids become more independent, take on more responsibility for themselves and their social worlds, and schoolwork becomes more complex and demanding. Moving into this new stage with relative success sets the stage for ongoing growth of independence and self-efficacy.”

Independence and self-efficacy, the beneficial outcomes of the first year of college.


Gallagher, R. (2014). National survey of college counseling centers. University of Pittsburgh and American College Counseling Association. 2014. (19 Mar. 2018).

JED. (2017). JED and Kognito report reveals college faculty and students do not feel prepared to notice and help students in psychological distress. The Jed Foundation. October 4, 2017.… (19 Mar. 2018).

Set to Go. (2018). Students who feel emotionally unprepared for college more likely to report poor academic performance and negative college experience. The Jed Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and Jordan Porco Foundation. October 8, 2015. (19 Mar. 2018).

Set to Go. (2015). THE FIRST-YEAR COLLEGE EXPERIENCE: A look into students’ challenges and triumphs during their first term at college. October 8, 2015. The Jed Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and Jordan Porco Foundation.… (19 Mar. 2018).

Simon, C. (2017). More and more students need mental health services. But colleges struggle to keep up. USA Today College. May 4, 2017.… (19 Mar. 2018).

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