This is for the parents of soon-to-be college freshmen, but others may be interested as well. I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to post this, but I talked to my daughter and we both agreed it was important to share her experience.
In the next few weeks as your child prepares to head off to college they’re going to be told over and over again that this is going to be the most amazing time of their life. They’ll hear stories of everyone’s collegiate adventures, and of the lifelong friends that were made during orientation and freshman year.
They’ll be given lots of advice to enjoy every minute. And for many of them this will all be true. But, while many students will experience their first year of college as an exciting and wonderful time right from the start, there are many of them who will struggle. They’ll feel lost, they’ll be shy, they’ll miss their family and friends and pets and home. They’ll have trouble making friends or finding their place. They’ll struggle socially and academically. And they’ll feel like somehow they’re doing something wrong because this isn’t what everyone told them it would be like.
Many of today’s students are hyper-motivated and a good number of them are true perfectionists. They expect a lot of themselves and when they feel like they’re doing something wrong or not getting it, they’ll try to figure it out and work through it on their own. Many of them won’t want to admit to anyone that their experience is not the joyful one everyone expects them to have. They may even feel a sense of shame because they think something is wrong with them personally. And at the same time there can be a terrible sadness because they’re missing out on the special first year of college they’ve heard so much about.
I was one of the lucky ones who fell right into a group. Who felt right at home from day one. Who loved everything about my first year of college. Which is why I unknowingly sent my daughter off completely unprepared for her own experience.
It began during orientation when there were lots of group activities, big events, and many parties. Being shy and somewhat introverted, she found it difficult to navigate the social scene without the safety net of people she knew. She actually found all the activities overwhelming and definitely retreated into herself, which caused her to miss out on a lot of the bonding that freshmen do during that week.
We spent her first two or three months in a constant text conversation trying to help her navigate a new and terrifying loneliness, and an overpowering sense of isolation. Every phone call involved tears on both sides of the conversation. She talked of changing majors. She talked of changing schools. She talked of leaving school completely. And I didn’t know what to do to help her.
I kept in close contact with her RA and her house Fellow (known as the Resident Director in many other schools). I made sure to check in with her each morning and each night. And most importantly I reached out to other parents both at her school (one of the best things to happen was when I found the CMU Parents Facebook group) and at other schools. Parents with freshmen, parents with upperclassmen, and even parents with kids who’d graduated many years ago. And I was shocked that a huge number of them had the same story. I had no idea that so many students at so many schools went through the same thing. And the thing that united them was that they all went through it thinking they were the only ones.
While my daughter has mostly worked through this with a lot of help from friends at home, several months working with her school’s mental health services, and support from a few new friends at school who I’ll always be grateful to, it took nearly the entire year for her to find her way and to decide to stay at school. And, to be honest, she’s still tentative in her social navigation.
Throughout the whole experience I kept wishing that someone had told us this was a not far-fetched possibility so we could have talked about it before she was ten hours away and facing it on her own with no preparation.
So this is me doing what I wished someone had done for us, telling you that everyone’s experience is very, very different. That not everyone is going to have an easy time finding their place or making friends. That your friendships may take a longer time to build than other people’s. That sometimes it’s going to take just as much work socially as you’re used to putting in academically. That the first year may not be the amazing experience for you that it was or will be for others.
That’s not to say that you won’t ever find your place or your people, but it may take you longer and it may be more difficult for you. You may spend lonely times and you may feel lost. But you are not alone. All around you there are other people going through exactly the same thing.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to say that you’re not doing well and to ask for help. Don’t think you have to have tons of friends, just work to find those one or two who will understand you and help you. Don’t try to do it on your own. And remember that nothing is ever written in stone.
Rooms can be changed, roommates can be changed, majors can be changed, colleges can be changed, plans can be changed. None of that is failure. It is growth and maturity and finding out who you truly are and who you want to be and where you want your life to go.
If I help even one student be better prepared for an experience like my daughter’s, then I’ll be happy.
P.S. While she’s certainly never going to be a social butterfly or the most popular kid at school, my daughter’s in a much better place emotionally now, is actively getting help to navigate the complicated social aspects of an introvert’s life at college, and is looking forward to getting back to school for sophomore year.