“Is anybody going to die from this?”
After 35 years in the college housing business, that’s always the first question I ask when a student (or sometimes a parent) pulls me into their current crisis.
The reality is that attending college is a slow-rolling crisis regardless of the age of the student or the reason for going.
When adults begin college, the crisis is usually personal — a divorce, job loss, the empty nest. College is seen as the solution.
When an 18-year-old goes to college the crisis lasts intermittently from September to May, especially if the student is living away from home.
Managing the crisis calendar when figuring out how to survive college
The crisis calendar is very predictable. If you have a first-year student then first they’re going to learn how to find their way around campus (or the campus remote learning system), manage their time, get the supplies they need, eat properly, and get at least some sleep.
If they’re living away from home, by October they’ve been through the first round of parties, drinking too much, not remembering last night, or hoping that what they remember isn’t real. And, of course, figuring out how to get along with one or more roommates.
The last learning process is difficult because the student begins to realize that everybody else’s family doesn’t have the same rules as yours. This includes hearing different religious beliefs, political ideas, ideas about honesty and trust, and on and on.
This process can be a crisis all by itself. By the time you read this, they may have also taken mid-terms and that’s forced many to have some rude awakenings.
The crisis calendar for new college students, mapped out.
Here’s the full schedule of “Is anybody going to die from this?” moments.
First six weeks:
Living in a dormitory village – thousands of unsupervised bedrooms, lots of liquor, and trying to learn the rules of this new world.
Mid-terms and bad grades. Your student finally realizes that this isn’t high school. They know they should get help before finals but have no idea who to ask or where to look. This is especially true at large universities.
First serious bout of homesickness. Your student has learned a lot of independence, picked up new friends and habits, and feels totally out of place with the family and high school friends. Their bedroom feels like a cage.
End of semester:
Your student will arrive home after numerous all-nighters with chewed-up fingernails, exhaustion, and a hangdog look. This is not true for everybody, but if your student had too much fun this semester, that’s what usually happens. Let them sleep and do their laundry if you’re feeling particularly kind.
The best advice for new college students to support them throughout the semester.
College almost always pushes people into a crisis of confidence and spurs lots of questions about who a person really is, what they believe in, and who they want to become. Here are the best ways you can help.
1. Listen when your student talks to you and try to understand their perspective. Help them learn how to think about their situation. Soft peddle the advice till later. E.g. “Have you thought about…?” “What if you tried..?” “What worked best the first time you got into this situation?”
2. Don’t try to solve problems for your student and don’t call the help offices for them.
3. Read the campus website and locate the academic advising center, the study skills center, the health center, the counseling center, the Dean of Students, and the office for first-year students. The names of these places may differ. Go to the campus life section of the website and pick out the appropriate services.
4. Direct your child to do the same thing and decide which services they need to access. They may need to rehearse what they’re going to say, but don’t say or do it for them. Campus helpers typically don’t want to talk to parents anyway. They’re trying to help your student grow up and be responsible.
5. Emphasize trying again, learning new skills, planning a new approach to college, and slowly doing better over time.
Advice for new college students doesn’t have to be complicated
I worked in campus housing for 25 years. Freshmen always think they will die from the stupid mistakes they make. It caused me to develop a motto: “Is anybody going to die from this?”
If not, we always have time to fix it. Take a deep breath. Ask if your student has eaten, slept, or taken a shower in the last 24 hours. If they’re home, go for a walk. If they’re at school, tell them to go for a walk or go to the gym.
The first year of college is filled with crises, traumas, and confusion. The best thing a parent can do is not to fall into your student’s chaos. After all, you figured out how to survive college and learned a lot in the process. Now try to help them do the same.
Jane Fried is a life coach, speaker, and writer with decades of experience working with adults of all ages. She worked in campus housing for 25 years and has a special affinity for helping young adults discover who they want to be.