I went to college barely an hour from home. During the hour-long ride to school, I wept quietly in the back seat until my silent tears turned into ugly, loud, racking sobs in response to my father’s quip, “I’m happy that we gave you a good childhood.”
I have often told my children the following story: My first night as a college freshman, there was a welcome barbecue and not knowing anyone I took a spot alone beneath a tree. At some point I decided that I needed something for my burger, which by the way tasted like sawdust to me, because I was so miserable. I left my food on the ground to get something and when I returned my plate was covered with ants. As I threw the whole meal away, I knew only one thing, I was not going to last here.
My children start to sniffle three words into this story because they say it’s the saddest tale they’ve ever heard but I want them to hear it because they should know that for some of us change is tough but that even the most challenged among us gets to the other side.
My freshman roommate and I had different values. She was a party girl. I was not. She liked to stay up late, drink excessively, vomit and “entertain” in our room. She also liked to throw me out of the room while she entertained because, “two’s company and three’s a crowd.” I liked to eat warm chocolate chip cookies, not vomit, go to sleep early and it had never occurred to me that you could ask someone to leave their own room.
A few days in, I met a girl on my hall and we hit it off immediately. Perched prominently on her desk sat a picture of her two besties from home. She informed me that the two girls hugging her in the picture were her very best friends and that that was an unchangeable truth. As it turns out, hard truths are not as hard as one thinks they are when you are eighteen.
There is so much uncertainty surrounding this transition. Until now the road has been straightforward albeit a bit bumpy, but now the questions just keep coming. What are you going to major in? And what exactly do you do with that major? What are you going to do with your life? Who are your friends going to be? Are you and your roommate going to get along?
Some kids adjust instantly and never look back, good for them. But for others, maybe even for most, this can be an excruciating transition during which it’s not unusual to feel intimidated, overwhelmed and full of angst.
Your child has left for college and you’ve gotten a call or text that truly breaks a parent’s heart, because the very child who had been chomping at the bit to get to college, is now miserable. Here are some things they need to know:
1. Give it time.
At first you grab onto others like they are life preservers. And, they are. Just know that the friends you make the first weeks or months of school act as a bridge to the next phase where you will choose friends for reasons other than they live down the hall. Some of your beginning friends will be keepers but some will not.
2. Embrace the new.
Everything feels different, strange, new. Embrace it. Second guessing your choices is normal, feeling disoriented is normal, fearing that you will never do as well socially as others is normal.
3. You are not alone.
Almost everyone is struggling with the same issues. Nowadays it may seem that everyone else is doing better than you are. Your old friends are filling your Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat feeds with happy, snappy pictures. The images people post tell little of the real truth. Trust me, you are doing as well as everyone else.
4. You are totally normal.
How can there not be a period of adjustment when you have left everything you are familiar with? You miss all of it, parents, siblings, your room, your bed, the only life you have ever known. It seems to me that it would be far more of an anomaly if you didn’t miss all that.
5. You don’t have to figure out your entire life now.
Break your goals into manageable pieces and you will feel less overwhelmed. Worry about this semester’s courses now. No one expects you to have all the answers or even half of them.
6. Talk to people.
Be honest and don’t keep your feelings bottled up. This will pass but it will pass faster if you talk about it. Talk to your parents, your friends, the residence advisor on your hall or if you can’t talk to your parents or friends, go to the student health services and talk to a professional. They get it. You’re not the first and you’re not the last to feel this way.
7. This is not the end.
If you simply hate where you are after giving it a fair chance, there are alternatives. You can transfer or take some time off. It’s important to give something a real try, not “I’ve been here a week and I’m not happy” but “I stuck out the year and it’s just not the place for me.”
As for me, my roommate and I learned to live with one another. In fact, we roomed together again sophomore year. That girl on my freshman hall with the picture of her best friends, she and I still speak several times a week. By sophomore year, college was my home and I felt sadder leaving school than leaving my parent’s house. The girl who sat alone and dejectedly threw her first meal away, made enduring friendships and met the man she built her life with in college, but it was a journey whose first steps were a little uncertain.
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