University 101: College Transition

Reading Time: 7 minutesLillian Chiang offers advice for students who are about to embark on their first year at college

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“Congratulations, you have been accepted!” These are the magic words that numerous students and their family members long to hear when awaiting news regarding university entry. These words can also stir up multiple feelings about what’s on the horizon.

Some university-bound teens might look forward to engaging in a new academic setting and exploring fresh social circles. Some other teens may feel apprehension — or even fear — about embarking on a new chapter in life.

There’s no doubt about it. College life will be different from secondary school life. There will be ups and there will be downs. What are some common adjustment issues and stressors encountered by first-year students? What are some ways to cope with the transitions? Read on to find out.

New Experiences

When first year students arrive onto the university campus, some may experience “culture shock.” As they navigate around the unfamiliar environment, they might start to question their identity and purpose in life. For example: Who am I and what am I doing here? They may also experience nervousness from being on their own and having to navigate new surroundings. Studies have shown that first year college students can experience anxiety and stress when adjusting to university life.

It is normal to feel some level of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty during college transition. College-bound teens will face changes as they enter into university life. Identifying and recognising what these upcoming changes are can better help students prepare. Here are some college transition changes to expect:

Academic Adjustment

First-year students will need to adapt to a new academic system. They may encounter larger classrooms, professors who have different teaching styles, and academic standards that vary from secondary school. The workload may be higher and criteria for evaluating academic performance may differ. Students may find themselves having to alter their study habits and be ready to initiate communication with professors as part of their college experience.

Social Experiences

Establishing new friendships and interpersonal relationships can be an integral part of college. First year students living away from home or studying abroad will likely have roommates or dorm mates. They will be exposed to peers from different walks of life. As part of adjusting to college, students may need to learn how to live respectfully with others, build social or communication skills, and establish a new social network.

Being Away from Home

Academic, social, and personal experiences at the university can ultimately shape and play a role in defining the interests, worldview, and even character of a developing young adult. For some, it can be thrilling to be away from home while pursuing these experiences and making new self-discoveries. Others may find it challenging and miss family and the comforts of home.

Personal Freedom and Responsibility

Unlike secondary school and home life where there is a set schedule and routine, there is much greater personal freedom for university students. They can set their own daily schedules and decide what they want to do each day. With freedom comes responsibilities which can include class attendance, being on time for events, completing coursework, balancing academic and social activities, budgeting, doing laundry, and managing daily needs such as eating regular meals, cleanliness, and having healthy sleep hygiene. Part of the college experience is to learn to make good choices, take on responsibilities, and develop self-discipline.

Experiencing Change in Relationships

Relationships with parents and childhood friends can change as students become more immersed in university life and begin to have separate experiences. First-year students may develop unique personal perspectives and greater independence in college. This might impact the way they relate or communicate with family. Both students and parents may need to adjust as the dynamics of their relationship will shift. Friendships may also change. Students may find that they have less commonality with old friends since they do not share the same college experiences. Some may feel disconnected while others might become more appreciative of childhood.

Common Stressors

Adjusting to college life and facing change are not easy tasks. Many university counselling centres have identified common or top stressors experienced by first-year students. The stressors are often derived from poor adjustment to the college transition changes that are mentioned above. These stressors can impact the emotional well-being of first-year students. Here are some common stressors to be aware of:

Academic Performance

Since academic demands at the university level differs from secondary education, first year students may find college coursework, having a heavy course load, and expectations of professors to be challenging. When there is pressure to succeed, students may feel even more distressed. Often, students pressure themselves to perform well and can engage in peer comparisons. They may also worry about disappointing parents with poor grades. All this can create academic-related stress.

Social Relationship Conflicts

Not getting along with roommates or dorm mates is a common problem for many first-year students. Sharing a living space with others can be challenging especially if there are different preferences and lifestyles such as being neat vs. being messy and liking loud music vs. preferring quiet. Lack of communication about living habits can create conflict and lead to feelings of distress. Other social-related stress can include peer pressure, romantic relationship breakups, and loneliness.

Homesickness

Being away from home can be hard. First-year students separated from family members and the familiar comforts of home can experience homesickness. They may express sadness and loneliness. The anxiety from having to adjust to new situations and surroundings can lead to strong longing for family support, connection, and a return to the safe zone of home life.

Time Management

There is a great deal of flexibility in the schedules of university students. Students who struggle with scheduling, prioritising, and managing time on their own can feel overwhelmed. Tasks are not completed and there is hardship in balancing academic studies, social activities, work, and “me time”. This can cause stress and anxiety.

Emotions

Stress, anxiety, and depressed mood can arise when there are difficulties in facing changes, managing pressures, and overcoming challenges. Vulnerable feelings may arise. If students do not have a support network to turn to or lack healthy coping strategies, emotional well-being can be further impacted.

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Tips for First Year Students

Given the many challenges and stressors associated with adjustment to college life, how can students prepare to tackle transition changes and cope when things get tough? The following are some tips for first year students written directly to and for students:

TIP 1: You are not alone

Whether you are feeling excited, anxious, fearful, overwhelmed, or stressed, know that you are not alone in having these feelings. More than likely, many of your peers are experiencing similar emotions. They probably can identify with what you are going through because they themselves are facing similar challenges. Try to connect with your fellow students and share your experiences and coping methods with one another. Talk with second- or third-year students and residential advisors who have gone through initial college adjustment concerns and obstacles. It can be relieving to share and to know that others understand you. No need to handle everything by yourself.

TIP 2: Get to know the university and pace yourself

It can be overwhelming to navigate the college campus with all that it has to offer. Do not put pressure on yourself to have to know everything and to do everything all at once. Explore the university website, walk around campus, and become acquainted with your surroundings. If you don’t know something, definitely ask for more information. People expect you to ask so try not to feel intimidated when approaching someone. Once you have an idea of what you would like to be involved in and what the academic demands will be, you can prioritise and plan.

TIP 3: Connect with fellow students, university staff, and faculty

Sometimes when stressed or overwhelmed, you may isolate yourself and wonder if others would understand what you are going through (See TIP 1). Seeking out interpersonal connections and communicating with others can help diminish stress. You may feel more comfortable speaking with fellow students about personal matters but know that there are supportive services on campus. As part of getting to know the university, familiarise yourself with helping resources on campus such as the academic advising department, the tutoring centre, the counselling centre, health services, student clubs, and the office hours of professors. Seeking help to address academic, social, physical health, and emotional health concerns is healthy.

TIP 4: Connect with your support networks

Check in and communicate with your existing support system. They can be family, friends, or mentors who can keep you grounded, provide guidance, and give caring support. Identify coping strategies that work for you. For example, exercise, taking walks, mediation, and engaging in breathing techniques. Practice your coping strategies. If you would like to learn more about coping strategies, check in with the counselling centre on campus. There are caring professionals who can provide you with more information and support. Remember, it is important to make time for self-care and to reach out to others if you would like assistance.

TIP 5: Be kind to yourself

Transitioning to college can be a thrilling time but there can be college “growing pains”. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself by having unrealistically high expectations of what your university life should be like. Take a moment to reflect on the positives and affirm rather than criticise yourself. Having self-compassion can have strong positive effects on your well-being as a first year university student.

A Note to Parents

In closing, it is important to recognise that as college bound teens go through college transition changes and adjustment, parents also can experience their own change and adjustment when their children enter university.

Throughout childhood and adolescence, you the parents/care givers have been a constant companion to your university bound teens. You nurtured, taught, and comforted. Now it is time for them to discover their own paths as they transition into adulthood. While your children are at university, you may not always be there to shield, guide, or soothe them when they struggle or face challenges. They may reach out to you at certain times or they may want to embrace their growing independence and make their own decisions. Give them room to explore but also be ready with an open mind and an open heart when they ask for help or when they share their experiences with you. Let them know you are there for them, listen, and provide them with your caring guidance and support. 

Lillian Chiang PHD is a licensed counselling psychologist who has worked at university counselling centres, including University of California, Berkeley, for many years. She can be contacted through Central Health Medical Practice. www.centralhealth.com.hk

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