Four Ways College Faculty and Staff Can Help Freshmen Who are Struggling

There’s a tentative knock on my door, which is already open.

“Professor Brenner? Um, do you have a minute?”

I look up with a smile, not sure yet who it is or what we’ll discuss, but knowing this: my nervous visitor is probably one of my first-year students.

“Of course–and would you like some tea?” I reply, gesturing to the cozy chair near my desk.

I worked on a college campus for 23 years. I served as a professor, an undergraduate faculty advisor, the director of the campus’ largest freshman living-learning community, and as the creator of the university’s first-year experience course.

I taught thousands of college freshmen in both large lecture classes and small seminar rooms. Since leaving the university, I’ve consulted with students and parents, led lectures and workshops about first-year students, and co-authored a book about transitioning from high school to college.

student in college library
Small challenges can have a big impact on the life of a new student. (Twenty20 @tyler.noblett)

What’s Different About First Year of College

I really know first-year college students.

For over two decades, students new to campus arrived nervously at my door during my office hours. In my office, we’d share pleasantries or discuss classroom business for a bit–a clarification of an essay prompt, advice on an internship site, or an answer to a question about their academic credits.

But then I would ask each of my students how their first semester of college was really going. I made sure to express how tough the transition had been for so many of my previous first-year students, and I let them know that my office was a safe place to talk and to vent.

Certainly, there were students every semester who already had it down…they’d report that all was going well and exit my office quickly to meet a friend or run to their next class. The great majority of my first-year students, however, stayed seated, contemplating my question and my openness to listen.

Perhaps it was my choice of words, the welcoming smell of brewing tea in an offered mug, or maybe it was simply me normalizing the stress of the college transition for them–but there was usually a pause, a sigh, and then their words would begin to flow.

I replaced countless tissue boxes on the small yellow table beside the visitor’s chair in my office. They were used most by my first-year students, sometimes at the onset of the first illness away from home, but often for tears of loneliness, frustration, or the overwhelming feeling when one realizes that the path forward might not be as clear-cut as had been envisioned.

Small challenges can have an enormous impact on the life of a new student, and a startling number of first-year college students don’t return to their campus as sophomores. New college students are failing to thrive in record numbers across U.S. campuses, and anxiety and depression in these young adults is on the rise. We now have a cohort of college students struggling to learn what being dependent on themselves actually means.

Freshmen who thrive are those who prepare themselves for the various academic and socio-psychological challenges that will come their way in college, including seeking out campus mentors in their first semester. Those first 15 minutes in a caring adult’s office might be that difference between a student feeling as if they were failing in their transition to college, and one who could push through successfully into another week.

How College Faculty and Staff Help First Year Students

1. With struggles in their residence halls, such as the complexities of sharing a room with a stranger, mastering rising for early classes without parental prodding, and the reverberations after a heated late-night political debate with peers.

In response, I sang the praises of their well-trained RA’s as peer mentors and role-played my share of tough conversations that would inevitably need to take place with less-than-thoughtful roommates. I explained that less-than-thoughtful people would continue to be in their lives, and advised that the first semester of college was the time to begin acquiring skills in deliberation and compromise.

2. Challenges students faced in transitioning from high school to college academics, like an overwhelming week when 200 pages of reading were expected, a malfunctioning printer (and a professor who did not offer extensions), receiving a first “C” on an essay they believed was well-written, or the fear that everyone in their politics class seemed so much more confident.

In situations like these, I offered advice on reading strategies and explained how confidence does not necessarily imply knowledge. I often shared some of my own educational challenges from both college and graduate school, and revealed the secret: the rest of their professors had experienced their own academic stumbling blocks as well.

3. Mistakes they’d already made, such as a lost student ID, phone, or new college sweatshirt— replaceable items that had taken on greater meaning as they felt like a failure at “adulting.”

I refilled bowls of granola bars for first-years who hadn’t known to schedule a lunch break between classes. Freshmen shared their stories about alcohol consumption and fears that the new college friends who threw the parties might not actually be “their people.” I provided words of caring to students who were trying (impossibly) to get it all right, moving from dependence to independence overnight.

So many of them wanted to appear cool and collected to their families back home, masking that their transition to college was actually a bit rocky. What I offered time and again was advice about the power of learning from mistakes and then having the courage to move on.

4. I’m not really so unique: many college faculty and staff are doing the same–opening their office doors and their hearts to the young adults we serve.

Lots of us are there to listen to our first-year students, encouraging self-advocacy, sharing a multitude of resources on our campuses, and discussing the growth that takes place when we can be resilient after a challenge.

And seeking help from these campus professionals is exactly what students should be doing in their first year of college, on the precipice of adulthood. Students may think that “adulting” means doing it all alone, but it’s actually about finding resources along the way–caring adults who are not only willing, but excited to help them attain self-reliance. Successful students are the ones who are actively learning that needing help is not the same thing as admitting failure.

 Advice for Parents of First Year College Students

1. Parents should support this move into adulthood by encouraging their students to go to office hours of the campus professionals they like and trust–they exist for far more than academic help.

Your child’s college is filled with professionals who, like me, have worked with hundreds of first-year students every year. Many of our campuses have trained us how to identify the differences between typical college stress and the signs of a student in distress. We understand how the young adult brain functions, and how fear and invincibility can exist simultaneously. Most importantly, we want your kids to thrive and grow as scholars in our classrooms, as community members in our residence halls, and as leaders in their co-curricular areas of passion. Trust us and encourage your kids to seek us out.

2. Don’t try to be your child’s “fixer” once they enter college, regardless of how you’ve mastered that role.

College is the transitional time where the baton is passed from the parent as the primary adult support to the student, who will soon enough be responsible for their own self-care. One of the greatest gifts first-year parents can offer their students is to encourage them to seek out adult mentors on campus. We promise to help pass that baton, using our student-facing expertise to support your kids through this transitional time.

The most successful first-year students don’t do it alone; they learn that “adulting” includes first acknowledging their own struggles and then asking for guidance. These are the students who show up at their professors’ office hours, at affinity group meetings, at the campus tutoring center, at the LGBTQ resource center, in the counseling center, or at their RA’s door.

Sometimes it’s as simple as crossing the threshold of a professor’s office hours door.

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Andrea Malkin Brenner, PhD, consults with high school students and parents and works with high schools, colleges, and other academic organizations on all things related to college transitions. She served as a sociology professor, an undergraduate faculty advisor, the director of the campus’ largest freshman living-learning community, and as the creator of the mandatory first-year experience course at American University in Washington, DC.

She is co-author of How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There) (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019) and a fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.

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