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College Parents Can Help First-Year Students Overcome Challenges
As your college student heads off for the first year, you know that there will be challenges ahead - both for him and for you. This is a year of transition for everyone. The challenges facing your student will exist in many areas, and you may feel that you will be unable to help him face his challenges if you are not there with him. It is true that your student must do the work of college, but you will provide an important and necessary support system for him as he copes with his new life.
Some students will find reasonable challenges in many areas of their new life, and some students will find smooth sailing in several areas and massive challenges in other areas. In this post, we'll consider nine major areas in which many college students encounter challenges during their first semester transition to college. Parents can consider how they can best help their student gain mastery and independence in these areas:
- Academic Challenges
- Social Challenges
- Challenges of Responsibility
- Challenges of Independence
- Physical Challenges
- Time Management
- Life Skills
- Financial Challenges
- The Challenge of Balance
As college parents, it is easy to feel overwhelmed as we consider the challenges that our students will be facing during their first year of transition. It is important that we arm our students with skills and a positive attitude so that they will be able to overcome challenges as they anticipate them and make some thoughtful decisions. The path may not be easy; there will be rocky times throughout the first year, but we can be especially proud of our students as they move forward to face these challenges.
Academic challenges are anticipated by many, but not all, entering college students. Most students understand that college will be different - and harder - than high school, but many do not realize exactly what those differences will be. College is significantly different from high school. Help your student look at his course syllabi, talk to his teachers, and look carefully at the types of assignments and amount of coursework required. Some of the students who have the most academic difficulty are those students who are taken off guard by the academic differences.
Your college student enters a new social world as he enters college. He begins his college career with a clean slate and will need to recreate his social world. He will need to make new friends, negotiate life with a roommate, and once again be at the bottom of the school hierarchy as a first-year student. Your student will likely feel social pressure to make friends, join groups (official or unofficial), find forms of entertainment, and make decisions about alcohol, drugs, sex, and other social activities. Helping your student anticipate the changes and decisions he will face will help him think carefully about what is important to him.
Your college student will be held accountable for herself and her actions in college. She is more likely to be expected to be responsible than she may have been in high school. Students are responsible for their choices and their actions. They are responsible for making decisions about studying, eating, socializing, finances, health, and managing their time. It may be a new experience for your student to be held accountable and not be able to turn to parents to fend for her. You will still be an important source of support and advice to your student, but she will need to assume ultimate responsibility for herself and her actions.
As your freshman enters college, he takes important steps in independence. He may be living a long distance from home. He may have difficulty adjusting to the many changes of being away. He will make decisions that you, as parents, will not know about. He will need to manage his money, his health, his day to day existence. For many students, who come from close families, this is a major transition. The more that you can do, as parents, to encourage his independence, the sooner your student will become comfortable with his independent status.
College students face several physical challenges because their lifestyle changes so dramatically. Your student may face the dreaded "freshman 15" - the weight gain that so many new college students face from college dining and increased snacking and junk food. Many students who were athletes in high school are no longer playing sports and so are not getting exercise. Students are notorious for their lack of sleep. Students who become ill at school must take care of themselves and/or visit Health Services for care.
Students face decisions about alcohol and drugs. Once again, helping your student anticipate the physical changes he may encounter will help. Encourage him to think about what he eats, to know how to contact health services, to continue to get exercise and try to get sleep. Physical challenges are inevitable, but prepared students are better able to confront them.
One of the biggest keys to success in college is time management. College students spend much less time in class and are expected to do much more coursework outside of the classroom. Coursework is often given in larger chunks rather than smaller daily assignments. Students spend less time in structured activities than they did in high school. Many students have on campus or off campus jobs. Help your student think about how she will keep track of her obligations and assignments, how to break large assignments into meaningful pieces, how to say "no" to activities when she needs to study or sleep. Help her find a good planner or calendar and use it to keep track of assignments, deadlines, and appointments.
Many students who head off to college have not had to cope with general life skills prior to their first year away. Help your student understand how to use a credit card responsibly, how to do laundry, how to balance a checkbook, how to budget and shop for food. Buy him a good alarm clock. Let him practice cooking and doing his own laundry before he leaves home.
Attending college requires an important financial investment - we all know that. Tuition and Room and Board comprise the bulk of the costs, but there are also costs associated with daily college life. In addition to costs each semester for textbooks, students also wish to furnish dorm rooms, snack, eat out, go to movies, shows, concerts, participate in on-campus activities, etc. Help your student think about how he - and you - will handle money. Will you send money? If so, how often? Will your student be responsible for his expenses? Help him learn how to budget. What will happen if he overdraws his bank account or can't pay his credit card? Talk to your student about a plan, and try to make his financial independence a goal toward which you are both working.
Perhaps by adding up all of the other challenges which entering students face, we realize that success during the first year (or any other year) of college relies on achieving a sense of balance. Help your student realize that he will constantly be juggling. He will need to be flexible. He will need to be aware. He must balance his academics with his social life, his need for sleep with his need for study and/or fun, his desires and his budget, his desire for independence with his need for the security of home, his freedom and his responsibility.