Not all of us will have a perfect first year of college. While some may live it up “Animal House”-style, others’ first semester, or first year, can be stressful, underwhelming or even disappointing.
You’re going from living at home to living in a dorm. You’re switching from being in a school where you’re comfortable and know your classmates to rooming and studying among strangers. And you’re transitioning from being parented to being responsible for yourself. These are all difficult changes to make, especially on your own.
“Whenever you’re about to engage in something that is different, something that you haven’t done before, it’s normal to experience both the positives and the negatives – both incredible excitement and also hesitations,” says South Salem resident Natalia Martínez Muñoz Potter, LCSW and associate director of counseling services at Vassar College.
“Kids definitely go in with high expectations because they see movies or social media that create hype about college being exciting and fun and all the great aspects, rather than seeing how difficult it can be to make friends, fit in and feel home sick,” adds Pound Ridge resident Melinda Canno-Velez, LMSW.
In 2022, The Mayo Clinic found that “up to 44 percent of college students reported having symptoms of depression and anxiety.” According to their research, this often comes from years of feeling pressure to succeed while not having the necessary life skills to survive on their own.
“Social anxiety and generalized anxiety are at their highest rates this past year, compared to the past 12 years,” says Potter. “College students are coming in having experienced 13 years of intense academic study, so they might be very good at learning how to do an essay, research or tackle that calculus problem, but I often find that we have not taught students how to manage emotional challenges.”
Going to college, making that drastic shift into the world of independence, can feel like being thrown into a pool for the first time and expected to know how to swim. Luckily, Potter and Canno-Velez are here to provide some emotional floaties, so to speak.
Expect the unexpected
No matter how many anecdotes you hear from friends, parents, cousins and siblings about college, it’s hard to predict what your experience will be. So, prepare to face some challenges.
“One of the things we highly encourage our students to do is, the summer before college, think through what we call a wellness plan,” says Potter. “It helps them identify various supports they need to make a healthy and optimal transition to college.”
A wellness plan helps you to prepare for those high-emotion, high-stress moments you might experience. Before school begins, ask yourself the following questions:
What self-care practices were most helpful to me at home, and how can I bring them with me?
What do I currently do to feel grounded and connected to myself?
What are some healthy coping strategies that have helped me get through challenging times?
“Sometimes, in a moment of crisis, we are just feeling our feelings, and we forget all the things we can do to make ourselves feel better,” says Potter. “Once you can identify the behaviors leading up to a possible mental health crisis and understand what solutions work, you can be proactive about getting help before it gets to a point of difficulty.”
“Whatever works for you at home – whether that’s writing in a journal, going for a run, yoga – whatever it is that helps you get to that place where you feel less anxiety and depression, try to use that,” adds Canno-Velez.
Making good grades and good friends
Canno-Velez says one of the most prominent worries her clients face in their first semester is academic pressure. But, she says acknowledging your new and complex environment is important.
“Kids can get really down on themselves about not doing well,” she explains. “They can look back at the year and say, ‘I totally screwed up. Am I ever going to do well enough or do better?’ But it’s hard to do well when you’re just getting adjusted.”
Another challenge can be making friends. No matter how many times someone tells you to “just be yourself” or “put yourself out there,” doing so may be easier said than done.
Nevertheless, just because it’s not easy, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Your roommate can be a great first friend, but don’t set that out as an expectation.
Sometimes, finding friends at school takes much more work. Try striking up conversations with people in your dorm building (as unglamorous as it may seem, the elevators and the sinks of communal bathrooms are great places for this), asking a classmate to study together or grab a bite after class, or attending campus clubs and organizations. Whatever method you choose, know that forming these connections is a process.
“These new relationships will take time,” says Canno-Velez. “Try to realize that and not be so hard on yourself. Be kind to yourself. Maybe you didn’t make as many friends as you thought you would, or you didn’t do as well, but be patient. It was just the beginning; there’s so much more time.”
College allows you to learn important communication skills: conflict resolution, drawing boundaries, forming a connection, etc. And many of these skills are learned, for better or worse, through the trials and tribulations of living with a roommate.
Canno-Velez recommends connecting with your roommate prior to moving in to help reduce some of the anxiety and stress.
“A lot of people converse with their roommates before school, and that seems to help them get more excited about spending time with them, splitting up what each person is bringing and getting comfortable with one another,” she explains.
Potter suggests creating a roommate agreement – it can be a document, an informal “contract” or even just a list of rules pinned to the wall.
And if a conflict does occur, she recommends a communication tactic known as DEAR MAN (Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce; be Mindful, Assertive and Negotiate), which allows you to approach a conflict in a non judgmental way and outline a solution.
“What is your emotional experience of this issue,” Potter asks. “Once you have thought about it, approach the person, describe the problem, express – in a non judgmental way – why the problem is concerning you, assert what you are hoping to achieve out of that relational experience and reinforce what is happening.”
Finding “me time” and a “me space”
If you’re struggling to find alone time while living with someone, your campus is there to help. Begin exploring what it has to offer – find a spot to make “yours.” However counterintuitive it may seem, many students find “alone time” among other people.
“A lot of my students will say, ‘I found this nook in the library I love – that’s my spot,’ or ‘I really love going to the cafeteria between this time and that time,’” says Potter.
This may also help you become better acquainted with your campus, or, when the desire for alone time fades, it can be a way to meet other people. Look around; who else likes to study in the library, who else likes to sit out on the green?
Depression, anxiety, etc.
“Don’t keep your problems to yourself,” advises Canno-Velez. “There are people you can go to if you’re having trouble academically, people you can tell if you’re feeling depressed or anxious.”
There are a variety of offices on campus, and there’s likely one to address your specific challenge.
Student health services can provide resources for students facing physical and emotional health conflicts.
Education services, such as a writing center or office for student success, provide academic support.
Identity offices, such as an office of international students, can help students who are facing specific issues, or they can provide outlets for finding like-minded people and potential friends.
“You’re going to be bombarded with lots of different offices and resources, but pay attention; think about them,” advises Potter.
“Students who are regularly involved in college counseling seem to do better, report decreasing symptoms [of mental health concerns] and have better academic outcomes,” Potter explains. “Seeking help is important; seeking help works.”
Learning who you are
Perhaps most importantly, remember that however difficult, this experience is a monumental one. It’ll shape you and your identity, so embrace whatever college has to offer – both the wonderful and the terrifying.
Potter says college is a time “where most people are learning who they are, what they want to be and developing a strong sense of identity, and that’s a beautiful thing.”