All around the country, happy Moms and Dads are posting pictures of family reunions. At the airport or the train station or in front of the Christmas tree, smiling parents are “so happy to have our baby back under our roof after the first semester of college!”
They may be smiling in the picture, but many of these freshmen are covering up a sense of impending doom. Sooner or later, Mom and Dad are going to ask about grades, open up the parent portal, or see the letter that details just how badly their first semester has gone. Classes failed, C’s and D’s for students who never saw a B in High School, emails about academic probation and the risk of losing scholarships or not being invited back, if things don’t get much better, and fast.
This was the scene in our house a couple of years ago, when our son came home from the first semester of college. We were so happy to have him back home, having not seen him since Thanksgiving. Fast forward through his first few days with us, when we attributed his mood swings to re-adjusting, catching up on sleep, wanting to spend time with his friends.
About a week into the break, it all started to fall apart. A simple comment from his father about reading for his courses next semester, sent him first into a rage, and then into a helpless, weepy mess. College was too hard for him, he told us. He had been under the impression that he was doing okay, but when grades were finally posted (don’t get me started on how long that takes…) he found he was scraping along at the bottom of most of his classes.
In freshman seminar, he had been penalized heavily for something that was posted just a little late. His English professor hated him. He was not keeping up with the work. His roommate was weird. He had made a lot of friends, but they didn’t seem to need to study. He was homesick, sometimes.
No sleep for anyone in our house for the next few nights. My son was relieved to have broken the news to us, but ashamed and embarrassed – especially when friends from high school all seemed to be doing well. (We came to find out later that this was not the case – there were similar experiences to ours playing out all over town).
As parents, we were shocked that we had missed the signs – if there were any – at Parents Weekend, or Thanksgiving, or when we talked to him on the phone. He was at the only school he had ever wanted to go to and we still had the picture of him at drop off – looking so happy to be there – up on the refrigerator. How had it all gone wrong, so quickly – and could he recover? Should he even go back?
A few nights later, I was still up when he came home from an evening out with friends and we sat in the kitchen and began to talk about college; “It wasn’t all bad, Mom. There’s a lot about it that I like.” That’s when we came up with The Two Lists. I pulled out a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle. On the left-hand side, I wrote a heading “What Worked” and on the right “What Didn’t Work.”
Over the next hour or so, we filled out the lists. And I fought every instinct to get mad, or judge, and tried to listen and give him space to be honest. He had a lot of energy, at first, around the negatives: He had picked a couple of dud classes. His schedule sucked. His roommate was the reason his friends didn’t hang out with him more. He found it hard to sleep at night and had trouble getting up in the morning.
Some of it was hard to hear. He admitted that he went out too much and partied too hard. Once he could see that his grades were low he started skipping some classes. He didn’t get help from the Learning Center, even though he knew it was available. He set up some tutoring but gave up after a few sessions.
His diet was poor. He spent too much time on the Xbox, even when he knew he had assignments outstanding. He didn’t like having to set up times to see his professors during Office Hours. The online courses he had to take were confusing and didn’t suit his learning style.
As he detailed all of the downsides, however, he also started to add items in the other column. There were a couple of classes he liked – even though his grades weren’t good – and he was pretty sure that if he started them over in the spring he could do much better. In the last few weeks of the semester he had found a quiet place to study with fewer distractions than the dorm.
He loved being on a campus with great school spirit and going to football games. He had gone to college a long way from home, knowing just one other person there and had made a lot of new friends and took pride in that. Heck, he was even proud that on a couple of occasions he had managed to get his weird roommate to stop studying and come and party. He had been on some great hikes in the mountains. He and several friends in his dorm played basketball in the gym at 11.30pm every weeknight and he loved blowing off steam there.
With every bone in my body, I had to overcome the instinct to try to solve the problem for him – to enlist tutors or make appointments with academic advisors, to hover. I also had to bite my lip and not scream, “Do you have any idea how much money we are spending on college? You are grounded until further notice!”
Instead, I took a big sip of wine and told him that whatever he decided, we would support him, but that only he could determine whether he wanted to be at college badly enough to make it work. If you do what you’ve always done, I reminded him, you’ll get what you always got.
We both went to bed that night relieved. We had taken a long hard look at the facts. More importantly, he had started to take responsibility for his performance. And I had stopped thinking I was a terrible parent, who must be to blame. I could help him put a plan together, but if he wanted to turn things around, it was on him.
If this were a Hallmark Christmas movie, it would end with him going back to campus in the New Year and making the Dean’s List. This is not that movie. Truth be told, he had another shaky semester. We made two more lists. Some of the issues from the first semester were resolved and others were not. There were some new positives and negatives.
He squeaked back in for sophomore year and began to find his groove. His grades got much better and I began to get calls and texts from him when he was excited about how he had done on tests and quizzes. He found a better balance between his social life and studying. He began to see himself as a successful student.
His early hiccups mean that he is on the five-year plan and will graduate at least a year behind his peers. But he will graduate because he has figured out how to focus on the things that work and minimize the behaviors he knows drag him down.
A few weeks ago, I found the first two lists we wrote that night in the kitchen and remembered how many tears were shed, that first break – how sad and disappointed we all were. I called him to tell him how proud I was of how he had turned things around. He told me “At first, I was at college because that was where everyone expected me to be. Now I’m here because I want to be.”
Here’s hoping that your freshman had a great first semester. If they didn’t, help them make two lists. And let them decide what they are willing to do to get different results next time around. You can help them put the plan together, but you can’t do it for them.
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A Brit who lived in New York for twenty years, Elizabeth Wood now lives with her husband in San Francisco, where she works in Human Resources. She has a son and a daughter, both in college, of whom she is unreasonably proud. In her spare time, she likes to write and has many “pre-published” novels and short stories in her desk drawer.