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Is this Normal? Exploring the Range of Experience During the First Year of College

couple talking and sitting close togetherFirst-year students (and their parents!) usually have expectations about college life long before actually leaving home. Some students look forward to college, and are eager to experience more freedom and adventure, while others may feel enthusiastic initially, only to discover that they don't feel happy, comfortable, or secure in their new environment. In addition, there are some students who know that leaving home will be difficult and, therefore, dread the thought of packing and going to college.

No matter what the expectations, nearly every student encounters challenging experiences or obstacles at the beginning of college that they didn't anticipate. Even positive life changes produce stress, and certainly the changes involved in leaving home for college are demanding and can lead to varying emotions including sadness, loneliness and worry. These feelings are typical and part of the normal developmental transition to college.

Knowing a little more about what to expect -- what is "normal" -- can help first-year students and their families distinguish the difference between typical challenges and more serious concerns.

Changes to Expect in the First Year of College

Increased personal freedom and responsibility

Many students welcome the freedom to make their own decisions about what they want to do each day while in college. Others may find this level of freedom to be strangely unfamiliar or difficult.  Along with an increase in personal freedom is greater responsibility for one's daily schedule.

Students must make choices about how to study, socialize with new acquaintances, become involved in activities, budget money, exercise, and make time to eat and sleep. They are faced with the challenge of learning how to balance going to class, participation in activities, completing schoolwork on time, taking basic care of oneself, and having fun as well. Students are faced, often for the first time, with the need to take on responsibilities (e.g., scheduling classes, buying personal items, making appointments to take care of health needs, asking professors and staff for assistance or help).

Time management challenges

First-year students typically experience changing demands on their time. Days are less routine and predictable. Students can feel as if they have virtually no time for themselves because of the time and energy needed to manage multiple obligations.

College classes may seem difficult and draining, and may involve more hours of studying than students are used to. Others may find the academic workload manageable, but find their social, athletic or extra-curricular environments overwhelming and out of control. Effective time management skills can help students enjoy all of their various commitments and leave time left over for fun. 

Different surroundings and relationships at college

First-year students have to adjust to new surroundings and relate to unfamiliar people --  people who may be very different from family and friends at home. Students who live away from home typically have to learn to relate to, and negotiate conflicts with, new roommates. The unrealistic hope that one's roommate will become a close friend can lead to disappointment.

Freshman can also experience new expectations from other adults at college. For example, professors typically do not call if a class is missed, but will likely track attendance. In college, there is usually less interaction between parents and the school, and students are faced with the need to work out problems or concerns directly with professors, housing, health care, etc. Managing the pressure and anxiety of these new relationships can be challenging.

"What do I do if I'm not happy at college?"

It is a common cliché that "the college years are "supposed to be" the best years of your life. If you (or your student) is a first year who is feeling upset and miserable, this can be a very confusing and scary expectation.

It is important to remember that it is normal to feel sad and scared during the first several weeks of college. You are in a new, demanding environment and everything is different. You may feel like you are expected to "grow up" all at once, and this may feel depressing or even overwhelming. You may feel far away from the people who usually are there to love and support you.

Or, perhaps you don't feel "homesick" but you do feel disappointed by the lack of reciprocity by others in initiating activities or friendships. If you are feeling distressed, if may be challenging to see other students seeming happy and optimistic. But it may surprise you to hear that lots of other students are scared and sad, even if they don't show or admit it.

If you are struggling with the transition to college, there are some things you can do to help yourself make the adjustment:

  • Reach out to others in your dorm. You are likely to find that you are not the only one who is sad and upset. Your R.A. is a good resource to talk to and to help you figure out how to cope.
  • Upperclassmen may also be eager to share with you experiences of their own difficulty adjusting to college life during their freshmen year.
  • Join campus organizations and clubs that appeal to you. These activities do not have to be a perfect match for you, but can still help you to meet and interact with others who share similar interests and/or may also be looking to meet friends outside the dorm environment.
  • Make an extra effort to take care of yourself, including making time to rest, eat balanced meals, exercise and avoid abuse of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Try to develop a manageable schedule, including identifying your optimal place and time in the day to study.
  • Adjust your expectations if things are not working out as you planned. For example, your roommate might not be your best friend. You may need to initiate conversations about conflict over personal space and living habits.
  • Try to give yourself some time to adjust. Recognize that relationships take time to develop (e.g. most students' friendships from home formed over a period of years), and that your surroundings will become more familiar over time.
  • Seek out resources on campus that can help you address problems and get support, both academically and personally. These varied resources include your resident advisor, professors, Hall Health's Health Promotion Center, the Counseling Center, etc. Each of these resources will also assist in connecting you with other helpful resources on campus.

Resources

www.transitionyear.org - "Your Source for Emotional Health at College"

Citations

Counseling Center Village. (2003, November 6). Retrieved September 24, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://ccvillage.buffalo.edu/.

 

Authored by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff, January 2014