The College Mirage: Helping your freshman navigate the first year

Last year at about this time of year a student came to see me. She was a new freshman and, a week or two into her shiny, sparkly college life she was feeling neither shiny or sparkly. While she was loving college in general, in some ways things weren't working out the way she had expected--her roommate wasn't her soul sister, there weren't endless dates, her class load required a lot more work than she had needed to do in high school, and she was still figuring out how to find her way in this new place. In some ways, the shiny sparkly college life felt like a mirage--one that had been the promised land all through high school and one that all of her friends on social media seemed to inhabit.

photo via

photo via

I've been thinking a lot about college transition and freshman loneliness ever since--as a professor who studies & teaches human development, as an advisor to freshmen students, and as a mom to three college-age students.

We tend to prepare our children for college like getting in is the hard part, the finish line. After lavishing all that energy and attention on those entrance exams, applications, GPA maintenance, extracurriculars, no wonder they internalize the message that once you receive that acceptance letter, you've made it! Everything else will fall into place! Books, tv, movies, social media all highlight and glorify the golden glow of the college years. But, like most things in life, the reality often doesn't live up to the hype. 

Meanwhile, if they want to, new freshmen can manage to keep up the image that the hype lives on, curating photos and posts and emoji-adorned texts to downplay the real emotions and loneliness (or even depression and anxiety) that might be happening beyond the tiny phone screen. 

Just at the point when parents begin to acclimate to their child's absence in the home, across the miles for many freshmen students, the orientation parties and excitement of meeting all these new people wears off. The reality of the academic workload sets in and some students manage this better than others. Some sail through pretty well but many don't want to disappoint their families that their grades are lower than they've grown used to getting in high school or that they still haven't found their tribe.  

Last year, Cornell freshman Emery Burgmann created this video about her college transition for a class assignment on transformation. It's a funny, poignant window into the freshman transition ("I feel like this friendship-hungry gremlin...") and the Youtube comments on this clip attest to how common these feelings are:

We parents are pretty good at prepping our kids' dorm rooms and outfitting them with the school supplies they'll need. Just as important (arguably more so), having family conversations leading up to the college launch can ease everyone's social/emotional acclimation to this huge milestone.  We can paint a realistic view of what this next level of study and life will look like rather than glorifying (or trying to live vicariously). In the months and years leading up to the transition to college, try to have open conversations that are sparked by questions like these:

  • What kind of living/dorm situation will open you up to connecting with others (single occupancy rooms might seem ideal but they can also lead to isolation)?
  • What will you/can you do when you're lonely (because everyone feels lonely sometimes, especially during transitions)?
  • What if you get overwhelmed with the workload?
  • What resources are available on campus for talking to a trustworthy, informed adult?
  • How will we stay connected so you can share your good times but also your struggles?
  • What are the signs you can watch for to check on your emotional wellbeing and mental health?
  • Did you know you can drop a class? Or withdraw from one, even, if things get overwhelming?
  • How will you let me know if you are really really struggling (some families even have a family signal word that means "help!")?
  • How will you navigate roommate differences and disagreements?
  • What activities can balance out your schedule or provide an outlet for stress, anxiety?

If you're the parent of a college student right now:

  • emphasize that friends are made gradually and it's completely normal to feel at sea during a big transition. It often takes years to find your "tribe."
  • just listen, hear, and validate the emotions. You don't need to solve the problems, just be a guide through them. Share your own hard experiences and how you navigated them (but first just listen listen listen).
  • make time to Skype/Facetime/Marco Polo and talk on the phone. Texts are marvelous for check-ins and logistics but can be misleading, minimize, or mask real emotions. If possible build in a set time each week to really connect.

Interested in reading more? Check out:

  • The Real Campus Scourge by Frank Bruni (New York Times). Emily references this article in the video above; it's the article her mom sent her.
  • What Made Maddy Run (by Kate Fagan), a heart breaking and eye opening book looking into the death by suicide of U Penn star athlete Maddy Halloran. For a shorter peek, try this NPR story and this podcast with author Kate Fagan's insights and takeaway messages.
  • Practicing mindfulness has been linked to healthy college transition. Another study here.  
  • Great tips here for college students, including keep your door open and spend as little time as possible in your room--hang out in common areas and study in the library.

What do you wish you knew when you started college? What helped with the transition? What didn't?

The tango

Drawn to The Song of the Lark , Karin Jurick

Drawn to The Song of the Lark, Karin Jurick

"You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you’d given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless. You wouldn’t know the outcome for a long time.”  

Meg Wolitzer, The Ten Year Nap

. . .

I've been thinking about proximity and parenting. In the early years my closeness to my kids was primarily on their behalf. I mean, of course I enjoyed it, or at least abundant moments of it. But in the early years proximity meant their survival, safety, some element of insurance. I was enlisted to deliver these young, blooming humans to adulthood and I will admit that sometimes I sighed in the service of irrationally demanding infant sergeants and capricious toddlers whose needs sometimes felt a tad at odds--if not inverse--to my own. Sometimes the only time away from them was the moment or two in the bathroom, with a child crying and jiggling the doorknob on the other side. One of the essential tasks of that early relationship felt like a tango, with their pull for closeness and my tug encouraging a little independence in them, a little space for myself. 

These years, right now? I love them.* They are my mama payday: the wry observations and witty banter and deep conversations and giddy discoveries and big dreams and good question-y envelope pushing. I relish these times; I want to inhale those last "ambient gold shavings" of their growing years. It strikes me that, in some ways, the proximity equation has flipped for us as parents and children. It becomes our job (and our joy, usually) to seek them out: Where are you going? When will you be home?  Want to come down from your room and join the family for a while? (Of course this varies with each child and parent and there are many ways older kids and teens still seek proximity. But remember when the worst thing for a young child used to be time out, away from us? Now in adolescence typically the gravest punishment is grounding, having to stay close.)

Don't worry, I'm not in danger of embodying the semi-creepy I'll Love You Forever model of parenting (yes, it's a sweet children's book but does that part, when the mom climbs a ladder, creeps into the adult son's bedroom and rocks him at night, strike anyone else as a little odd?). It's just that both ingredients to healthy attachment and development need advocates: Team Proximity, Team Independence.  The occasional, necessary tug-and-pull tango still happens; we've just somehow, instinctively, switched directions along the way. I don't know when it happened but I sense we're dancing toward the door.

. . .

*Yes. I hear you. Though I completely love this stage, I will be the first to add that the issues and heartbreaks of this later, mid-stage mothering period are much more complex and less easily resolved than a midnight feeding or a sandwich cut on the diagonal

Guest post: Flying to the trees

I'm happy to introduce you to today's guest writer, Jennifer Blaylock. Jenny lives with her family in Maryland, where she is the mother of five children--four sons and a daughter. We happen to share a great grandmother (remember the one who said "go easy on the oldest"?) but even if we weren't related, I hope I would be lucky enough to still number her among my wise and true friends. She's currently in the throes of launching her second son, which prompted today's post. 

The spring of 2014 finds me with the second of my children getting ready to graduate from high school. Honestly, it is still a little surreal to me that these babies of mine have reached such a milestone. “The days are long, but the years are short” is no joke, I’m telling you.

Brock senior pic.jpg

As we get ready for all the busyness that surrounds the end of a senior year, I am making a more conscious effort to savor this time without becoming annoyingly morose and melancholic (you’re welcome, children)—to be joyful in celebrating this launch of my second baby (all 6’4” of him), while making sure he knows how much I have loved the ride. The good, the bad, the ugly, the sweet, the hard, the…well, if you’re a parent, you know. As I think back on my firstborn’s graduation, I am reminded of a little side story that accompanied and paralleled our whirlwind weeks before graduation, and how it poignantly nudged its way into the forefront of that whole experience of graduating a child from high school. I think of it to remind myself that it’s going to be okay.  Life is constantly moving. For everyone. And life is good.

May 22

One day, while we were sprucing up our gazebo attached to the deck with a little spring-cleaning and some new cushions, we found a nest.  The most perfect little bird’s nest you’ve ever seen. Inside were three gorgeous blue eggs.

The mama bird was quite put out when the weather turned nice and she found her secluded spot inhabited by a family wanting to enjoy their outdoor spaces.  The nest lies in a perfect spot, nestled between the outside of the gazebo screen and the tall evergreen bush that rests against it. We have an incredible view, and the nest, mama, and eggs are well protected from accidental touches from the humans. Yesterday our babies hatched! They may not be much to look at now. But they will be.

May 28

Birdie Update

Our little birdies’ rate of growth is amazing. Often, we check on them in the morning and by the evening they have changed. They are getting so big—and even a little fluffy now! Quite a difference from the squirmy, weak, naked-bald babies that came out of those gorgeous blue eggs.

June 6

Today after church I went out to the gazebo to check on our baby birds.  As I opened the door, I immediately froze. One of our baby birds was perched on the ledge next to, but out of the nest. He turned his head all the way around to look at me and then nervously took a few steps—hops really—back and forth; a few inches away from the nest, a few inches back. Time was frozen: me standing there, he making his decision. I watched silently, mesmerized. 

And then, he flew away to the trees.

I walked slowly to the nest. The other two birds were snugly inside and showed no signs of unrest. There they sat, perfectly content, looking up at me. I went around to the side of the gazebo where the nest was secured in the tall evergreen bush and I searched the ground next to the elevated structure and then all around a large nearby tree in our yard. I breathed a sigh of relief. He was not there. He was in the trees.

I had mixed emotions of sadness and pride that our little birdie was ready to fly so fast (only sixteen days!), and felt a strange comfort that the other two remained tucked safely in the nest. I wasn't ready to see them go just yet.

At lunch I told the kids I had been able to witness the little bird flying away. "It was exciting," I said, re-telling the story of his back and forth hopping before his decision to fly away. "But the others are still there." I said.

After lunch we all went out to look.

The nest was empty. 

I thought about it for the rest of the day.
And couldn't help thinking of my own emptying nest. 

Graduation night, a few days ago, was very unemotional for me.

This surprised me a little.

Maybe it was the after effects of such a busy swirl of events that was the month of May. (I am still reeling!) Maybe it was the 400+ graduating class sardined into a high school gymnasium with moms, dads, grandparents, and siblings. Maybe it was the woman sitting next to us who had maybe started celebrating a little early and stumbled and fell every one of the many times she trekked up and down the bleachers during the ceremony (or maybe the fact that she kept yelling for her daughter to turn around through the entire thing). Or maybe it was the heat.

Maybe it was because of the impersonality of it all or the quickened pace of names read and seniors parading across the stage.

A name called; applause, a yell.


I thought maybe I would be more emotional at home during our own little "after party." Seeing all of my children together. Watching Jameson read the sweet cards his brothers and sister had made for him. Fun, yes. Emotional? Not really. “What’s wrong with me?” I thought.

And then there were things to take care of. A summer job in a different state meant a flurry of last minute things: packing, flight check-in, good-byes to friends.

The mucking out of his bedroom. (Yes, son, I'm sorry, it is no longer yours. Twenty-four hours gone has found another's sleepy head in "your" space. Being the oldest, it happened to me as well, and is often the way in large families.)

And then, due to a planning oversight and major error, Bruce and I attended seminary (four-year scripture study) graduation ceremony alone tonight, with our graduate settling in far away on the other side of the country.

The chapel.
The quiet.
The peace.

The images of my son as a baby flashed on the large screen as part of a slide show honoring the seniors. The "awwww" from the crowd.

It hit me then. My son had flown away to the trees.

I was filled with that same strange mix of emotion I had felt for our baby birds: happy-sadness (is there such a thing?), and I no longer held back my tears.

I thought about the empty nest from earlier that day. I thought about how this is the beginning of the emptying of my own little nest.

My little nest that I have carefully, and painstakingly labored over. My little nest that I have kept tidy and nourished my babes in. My little nest that I have kept watch over and made valiant and vigilant attempts to keep predators at bay. And that image of the empty nest filled me with great sadness at what will inevitably come. Until…I had another thought. 

The nest at the gazebo's edge was empty. Completely empty. That mother and father had flown to the trees, too. They did not wait and fret over an empty nest. They had joined their children in a chapter of new adventures high in the trees.

And they sang.

The Braxton-Hicks of launching kids

Yesterday Sam left on a school trip to France. For a month.

Look at that I'm-going-to-France smile! Or is it an I'm-getting-outta-here smile? I'm going to tell myself it's the former.

Look at that I'm-going-to-France smile! Or is it an I'm-getting-outta-here smile? I'm going to tell myself it's the former.

I know! A month?!  My reaction exactly! It's not the school trip of my own high school experience but apparently, if you are a school in Australia planning to take a group of students all the way to France, you go big or stay home.  At Sam's school most kids take a trip like this at least once in high school. It's a big part of the school's global education focus and we feel really lucky that they value and support these kind of experiences for their students. (And, since the two-week term break is coming up, he'll really miss just 8 days of school overall.) Sam's had his eye on this trip for a long time and has been counting down and preparing for months. The all-over-France itinerary has me alternately super excited for him and wildly jealous. I mean. April in Paris! They write songs about that kind of thing.

Sending him off on this trip has reminded me once again that, ultimately, one of my mama roles is to stand at the doorway and wave goodbye, over and over and over again--handkerchief waving optional. Launching implies a leaving place, a launching pad to push against and leave behind. I am that person, that place. I've had my turn at the launching myself; now I'm the launcher, not the launchee. That's the deal. (See: The Lion King.)

I have been remembering those pesky Braxton Hicks contractions that plagued me in the last part of my pregnancies.  Life has a way of warning us, of designing rehearsals into our systems so that we can gradually prepare ourselves for the real deal.  I've come to think of these adventures and field trips as another set of Braxton Hicks experiences, just preparing me ever-so-slightly for the time when he--they--get on the plane and fly away into a new life. Ever since their births, the leavings just get longer and more distant, more thrilling and bittersweet.  But it's what I signed on for and I have to remind myself that healthy, sprouting, blooming independence is a thing to celebrate, not mourn. Right?

Go, Sam!  Now go bring us back something delicious. And remember to pick up your socks and towels at your host family's house.

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