If it's the right school, why am I miserable?
I recently had tea with a student, Alex, who was home from his first year of college. It was all I could do to resist the question that every family member had immediately asked upon seeing him, but eventually we got to the, "How was your year?" part of our chat. After a long silence, Alex started by saying that he knows he's at the right school. He said the first month was great; he liked his roommates, volunteered as a tutor, did well academically, learned Ultimate Frisbee, and started a job in the bookstore. But by mid October Alex hit a wall; he was struggling in one of his classes, he had been sick for weeks, wasn't sleeping or exercising, and he was overcommitted which meant that he was giving half effort to everything. He just wanted to be home. Refreshed by three weeks with family and friends over winter break, this now-experienced student re-entered, better prepared for second semester. He settled into long stretches of feeling generally good, but still intermittently miserable. And yet, Alex is looking forward to his sophomore year. He knows he's at the right school.
This first year story is a familiar one. If you get nothing more from this post, I hope it helps you maintain confidence that you are ready for college, and that unexpected struggles are part of the process. And I want you to know, that in those struggles, you will not be alone. If, after your honeymoon period, you find yourself feeling homesick, overwhelmed, depressed, exhausted or lonely, you can be assured that some happy-looking classmate or Facebook friend is feeling something similar inside. After all, if you are answering, "I'm doing well," despite your distress, it's fair to assume the same of others.
Here's the good news: you will have access to on-campus, judgment-free resources designed to help you with anything as simple as finding academic support, to concerns about alcohol abuse, if you need it. I appreciate the relatable messages, especially near the end, in this 6-minute video featuring Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students. http://tinyurl.com/p368cso
Even though you might not end up using counseling and wellness services, they are available for a reason. Every year on every college campus, students need support in diverse ways. Consider some of the typical and not-so-common resources you might find:
If you managed academics, extra-curriculars, family responsibilities and social time just fine in high school, you might not think that time management will be a problem at college. The challenge comes from having all the freedom to choose what to do and when. Many colleges have tools or suggestions like these from St. Mary's College. http://tinyurl.com/nvwzgd5
You might be surprised at the simple resources offered at your college to help you get through a tough day. Being sick at college can feel especially lonely. When students at University of Puget Sound feel too sick to eat in the cafeteria, or want to help a sick friend, they can use the sick student meal service. http://tinyurl.com/q2s67jz
If focusing and following instructions has caused some problems in high school, but not enough to prevent academic success, you could find yourself struggling with rigorous classes in college. At many colleges, like University of North Carolina, students can be assessed for learning differences that might lead to targeted academic support. http://tinyurl.com/pe5r8o3
If you are particularly anxious anticipating your first year at college, a summer program might be the right thing for your transition. These residential programs for admitted freshmen meet over the summer, offering a sampling of the college's social, academic and extracurricular life. UC Santa Barbara offers a Freshman Summer Start Program. http://tinyurl.com/k67d57g
Through meetings with a health counselor, Alex determined that the nature of his struggles were related to learning to live independently, and had nothing to do with his college choice. As he anticipates sophomore year, Alex doubts that he will feel lonely and he knows how to stay healthy. And the bit about overcommitting? Well, Alex admits to being a bit of an adrenaline junky; at least he'll recognize when it's happening.