By Diane Schwemm
You may hear (at orientation, and in every college parenting book you read or from every veteran college parent you talk to) that the first six weeks of college can set the tone for your student’s entire freshman year. There’s truth to this, but it’s important for students and parents alike not to panic or despair if the start of the year is a bit rough either academically or socially.
By understanding what your student is experiencing during these early weeks, you’ll be better positioned to provide appropriate support and express your confidence that your student will rise to meet the challenges of freshman year.
They’re the ones going off to college. How do parents fit in?
We are still actively parenting our college freshmen even as we encourage their independence. Being in regular touch — i.e., once a week, not once (or twice or ten times) a day — can help them stay grounded during this time of enormous transition.
Don’t send a flurry of texts “just to check in.” Do schedule a weekly phone/Skype chat. If you’re on the receiving end of an excessive amount of texting/calling, consider gently disentangling yourself from this pattern.
If and when your student runs up against an obstacle — a problem with a roommate, or with her course schedule — resist the urge to get involved or tell her what to do. It’s an opportunity instead to remind her of all the great resources available on campus (the dorm RA, her academic advisor, the tutoring center, etc.).
The intoxication of newfound independence
For most freshmen, college is the first time they’ve been entirely in charge of their own routine and activities 24/7. Your student will make choices every day and night about how to allocate all those blocks of “free” time. When you check in with her, don’t overlook the obvious.
Your student may need gentle reminders to:
- Eat and sleep on a somewhat regular schedule
- Enjoy socializing but make sure class attendance and studying always come first
- Tackle the time management challenge with the help of a planner or calendar (paper or electronic)
- Find some good study spots on campus (probably not the dorm!)
Even students who took AP/IB classes aren’t always prepared for the many ways in which college academics differ from high school.
A few things it’s helpful for parents to understand:
The bulk of required coursework is done outside of class. It is not “homework” (i.e., repetitive of what was covered in class and/or optional) but rather work essential to the learning that takes place in class. There is a lot, and it needs to be done over the course of hours and days — not right before class.
Procrastination and high-quality college work are not compatible.
Everything your student needs to know about textbooks and required materials, assignments and labs, dates for papers and tests, etc. is located in the course syllabus distributed at the beginning of the term. Professors usually don’t explain/post assignments or remind students about deadlines. Your student should read the syllabus early and often.
There is abundant academic support available on campus, but your student must seek it out herself.
Social life and personal safety and responsibility
It’s common knowledge a lot of partying goes on during the first few weeks of the year at many schools. In addition, at some universities, fraternity and sorority rush kicks right in. Ask your freshman about the social scene and the new friends she’s made.
She may or may not be going to parties and may or may not want to talk to you about it, but you can still check in and make sure she knows that you expect her to follow campus rules about alcohol and drugs. Even from afar, you care about her being healthy and responsible.
On a related topic, you may have heard the first six weeks of college referred to as the “red zone” — a time when young first-year women in particular are at increased risk of sexual assault. By talking to our students, male and female, about healthy sexual relationships and consent, and responsible partying, we declare our concern with their happiness and safety and our trust that they will strive to be respectful members of their college community.
Finding a place
Your student will find her place but it may take time. A few observations about “fitting in”:
Some freshman roommates click right away but for others it takes a while. And it’s okay not to be best friends as long as they are considerate of each other and their common space.
Is she thinking about going to a play or a capella audition, or a club or team meeting? She won’t regret putting herself out there, so cheer her on. Most groups welcome freshmen and it’s a good way to make friends and accelerate the sense of belonging.
Your student can drop by the Student Union and Career Center — both good places to meet people and find out about fun opportunities for engagement. Campuses tend to have vibrant, welcoming faith communities as well and this might appeal if going to worship or youth group was part of her routine at home.