This is a holiday heads-up for parents of college freshmen.
Brace for disappointing news at the Thanksgiving feast.
Dad, I failed a midterm.
Mom, I’m switching majors.
I’ve no real friends. My roommate is a jerk. I haven’t slept more than 4 hours straight. The food is fatty. And, just so you know, I wish we hadn’t picked this college.
It’s not easy to digest. After all the preparatory test-taking, the touring of campuses, the poring over academic rankings and shelling out for admission fees, sometimes the first few months of college are miserable. And Turkey Day commonly is the time when students let it be known that life has become hard.
“By the Thanksgiving holiday it’s becoming a grind. Lots of course work is coming due,” said Howard Graham, who is associate director for academic programs at the University of Kansas’ Office of First-Year Experience.
“It’s the obvious moment for students to share openly and honestly what’s going on with their lives,” he said. “And there may be some surprises.”
Now you’re wondering why freshmen would expect this transition to be anything but difficult. Some experts note that surveys showing escalating rates of mental-health problems on campuses could partly reflect a generation of students unaccustomed to doing things on their own.
But many college counselors say circumstances have changed. From the earliest grade-school years, children are told they will attend college — no debating that. Tuition costs and student debt have skyrocketed the last 30 years. The career market is more competitive. And social anxiety is more common.
Sparkles, I’d rather be home with you.
Before losing it, try listening. Therapists caution that your student’s unhappiness could be serious.
“Often these issues they’ll express on their first visit back are related to underlying health issues” that existed before they flew the nest, said Danielle Oakley, director of counseling and psychological services at Duke University.
The latest National College Health Assessment survey finds 51 percent of students feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, 31 percent feeling so depressed that it was “difficult to function,” and 7 percent having seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months. More than 70 percent of campus counselors polled in 2012 by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors said that the number of students with severe psychological problems was climbing.
Schools try to help
Nationwide as many as 1 in 3 first-year college students won’t make it back for sophomore year, according to U.S. News and World Report, the holy book of college assessment.
The reasons range from academic struggles and family conflicts to lack of money. And mindful that freshmen retention rates are among the data that prospective students weigh, schools have stepped up efforts to keep first-year students from drifting.
A dozen Rockhurst University faculty and staff members gather weekly to review lists of students who vanish from classes — “an early alert system,” said Sandy Waddell, director of new students, retention and access services.
She said the Jesuit institution is small enough to allow professors and resident-hall assistants to identify and catch freshmen before they fall through the cracks. In some cases, however, students will know from the first week that an academic life isn’t for them.
“I dealt with one who scored a 31 on his ACT, super bright,” Waddell said. “He just decided he didn’t want a formal education that required him to go to class.”
Kansas State University has joined more than 50 institutions of higher learning in subscribing to an online program called Kognito: At-Risk on Campus. Faculty and students are encouraged to complete simulated role-playing exercises to reach out to students who might otherwise sulk in silence.
The University of South Carolina was among the first U.S. colleges to build “first-year experience” courses into its curriculum — in the early 1970s. The reasons back then were to address campus unrest, student walk-outs and the generation gap, said Dan Friedman, who teaches a University 101 course there.
Anymore, “the number one factor in a freshman’s decision to stay or leave has to do with a sense of belonging,” said Friedman. “It’s usually a complicated stew of things...and in the majority of cases it’s not about academics. They’re leaving often for psycho-social reasons,” such as depression, social anxiety or disagreements with family over which career path to pursue.
With first-year students “the big issue this time of year is realizing they want to change course with their major,” Friedman said. “My advice to the parent in that case is to listen....
“If Dad is close-minded and saying, ‘I’m paying for a business degree and not for you to be a psychology major,’ well, those Thanksgiving conversations won’t go very well.”
But better for your student to redirect in the first year than much later, said Katie Treadwell, KU’s associate director for orientation programs. She said many students and their parents aren’t aware of counseling services and tutoring programs aimed at helping students navigate those bumpy first months.
At Treadwell’s office in Strong Hall, a half-dozen upperclassmen recently gathered to discuss their roles, compensated by the university, in mentoring, promoting campus resources and participating in orientation sessions with first-year students.
“You come into college being told it will be the best time of your life,” said sophomore Liam Ormiston. “Then you freak out when faced with the first ounce of adversity.”
What incoming students aren’t told enough, the group said, is that college is difficult — it’s supposed to be. Yet movies about campus life emphasize parties and romance.
“I did well in high school cramming the night before a test,” said Kenny Nguyen, a sophomore. “In college, if you just study the night before? You’re going to fail that test.”
Across the road from his first-year experience office, KU’s Graham teaches a freshman course called University 101. It’s designed to introduce students to individualized research and resources, get them engaged and talking, provide a sense of belonging. The classes usually are capped at 19 students and Graham knows all of their first names.
One day last week, several freshmen stayed after class to exchange their own observations — including accounts of first-year dormmates who hole themselves up in their rooms all day.
▪ Zariel Gray called her mother crying about her daily diet of Ramen noodles.
▪ Suzanna Lanza left Chicago for KU partly because it was more affordable than Illinois schools. “I didn’t know anyone here,” she said. “A lot of times I wonder what I’m missing out on.”
▪ Freshman Jacob Bellerive of Salina, Kan., decided to switch from an advertising major to maybe a route that leads to teaching higher education: “A lot of people come here knowing exactly what they’re going to do. I’m still uncertain.
“I’m a first-generation college student in my family, so my parents will be proud no matter what. I just want to make them prouder.”
A hall of fame listener
I wasn’t ready for this. I desperately need a “gap year.” Pass the yams.
What do you say?
Rockhurst communications professor Laura A. Janusik said that for a variety of reasons — including the volatility of the 2016 race for president — “this Thanksgiving, people just need a good listening to.”
She would know. Earlier this year Janusik was inducted into the “hall of fame” of the International Listening Association, a decades-old organization with members in 19 countries “committed to the development of effective listening in professional and personal life,” according to its website. Consulting on the side, Janusik also has her own site, ListeningToChange.com.
Parents facing a freshman in crisis should start by listening.
Step away from other relatives to a quiet place, maybe take a walk or shoot hoops, and if your student stops talking, repeat, “Tell me more...tell me more,” said Janusik. Sometimes when your daughter begins expressing her feelings and plans, hearing her own words may help her realize that things might not be so bad.
Talk about successes. And strive to identify three options — one being to explore help available on campus. Janusik said if the final choice is a gap year, attach conditions such as a work schedule, some community college courses and requiring your child to pay rent or find his or her own place.
Remember times have changed.
“College might’ve been the best of times for (boomers),” said Janusik, 56. “But expectations today are that you have to pick the right college and do well, which means you need to know what to do for the rest of your life. If things don’t work out you won’t amount to anything. Throw in the higher costs — that’s a lot of eggs to put in one basket.”
Some argue what’s changed most is the degree to which youngsters are coddled.
Technology has conditioned millennials to expect instant fixes. And time they’ve spent gaming, texting and engaged in social media may have developed behavior that isn’t at all social, some therapists believe. Face-to-face skills can be weak.
Counselors who urge freshmen to hang in there speak of “grit.” What became of grit?
“I wholeheartedly believe in grit. Happiness and grit,” said Cassy Bailey, dean of students at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan. “But parents know their students. When you hear panic or despair in the voice, you see it in the eyes, you know there’s more than just some lack of grit.
“Our warning to parents is not to use those words, ‘the best years.’ We know how it ends. They don’t.”