By Amy Baldwin
It’s that time again: Back-to-school planning and general excitement about a new year. Sort of.
I am not sure if you are feeling the end-of-summer worries like I am, but I have been wondering: Will things be better? Could they be worse? Will my students be excited about coming to college and eager to experience all those things that we know is part of being a college student?
Even with a belief that things will indeed be better, this “new beginnings” enthusiasm has been tempered because of the ongoing COVID-19 concerns and the changes in how we do business in college. While this fall may be more “normal” than last year, it may also have some of the same elements such as the need to take health precautions by distancing and wearing masks in certain situations. That’s okay, though, because I know we can do it!
While the focus on what we can and cannot do this fall has occupied much of our attention, there are still some tried-and-true aspects of the college experience that will impact your student’s upcoming semesters. In fact, these three things your student needs to consider this year are pretty common. And yet they have become more important because they were harder to deal with last year.
#1 Emotional support. The biggest takeaway I got from teaching and parenting during a pandemic is that the emotional needs of our students take precedence over anything else. An unhappy or even depressed student will not have the strength to do much more than keep their heads above water. This was true even before the pandemic–I would see more and more students struggle with mental health needs. In many cases, once they got the appropriate support, they were able to manage.
The good news is that this generation is much more likely to talk openly about their struggles. High profile athletes such as gymnast phenom Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka, who have been public about prioritizing their mental health, provide not only an example of what this generation faces, but also role models for taking care of ourselves.
You can help your student manage the issues that surround the emotional adjustments that are needed to succeed in college:
- Talk to them about the emotional adjustment of starting or returning to college. We saw last year that many more students disclosed issues with anxiety, which is understandable. This will likely continue until we get well past masking, social distancing, contact tracing, and initial vaccinating.
- Be open about the support they ask for. While it may be unusual for someone in your family to seek out therapy or medication to manage emotional issues, be open to these potential strategies for coping, which have gained more widespread acceptance over the years.
- Remind them of the campus resources for emotional support. My institution provides a variety of counseling and mental health workshops that can help them build coping and resilience skills. One-on-one counseling, group therapy sessions, and even relaxation and meditation classes such as yoga or bubble blowing can have a positive impact on students’ wellbeing.
#2 Social support. Making connections as a college student can be difficult enough on its own. We saw how important building a social network was last year when students found it difficult if not impossible to get to know others in the classes and mingle with other students at typical functions.
My youngest kid pledged a fraternity his freshman year and while it provided him with a wider friend network, it was difficult to make meaningful relationships when they were prohibited from gathering. Many of my students who took classes from home indicated that they really missed out on socializing in college, something that they had looked forward to the most. My oldest kid relied on her roommates and the people at her internship for her social interaction.
This year, you can help your student build their social networks by doing the following:
- Talk about the opportunities to get involved on campus. Not every student needs or wants to join a Greek organization to have a built-in network. Most colleges have lots of special interest groups and organizations. Encourage your student to seek out groups that share similar interests. Does your kid like volunteering, fine and performing arts, video gaming, or international cuisine? I bet there are groups on campus that include these activities.
- Encourage them to get to know their classmates. An easy way for students to get connected it to introduce themselves to their classmates. I know, it’s awkward, right? But what better way to connect with someone who has an immediate commonality!
- Remind them that faculty and staff can be part of their network. Every semester I am able to connect with students in my class who take a little extra time to reach out. After we talk initially, I usually continue to check in on them to make sure they are doing well. I consider this networking to be an important part of my job: I am able to get to know them better (and help them more) and I am able to serve as a lifeline should they need it. Many of those students follow up with requests for recommendation letters or for serving as as reference. Remind your student that peers are not the only social connections they can make. The people who work closely with them on campus can be great people to get to know.
#3 Academic support. There are two types of parents: Those who worry too much about their student’s being academically prepared and those who don’t worry enough. What I mean by this is that I know many families who overemphasized academic achievement in high school (e.g., “My kid must take AP classes” or “My kid must not bring home anything less than a B.”) as if that is the only way a student will be prepared for the challenges of college (If you are not sure what is more important, notice the types of support that I designated as #1 and #2). I know other families who have not given one thought about their student’s level of academic preparation and what it will take to take it up a notch.
No matter what kind of track record your kid had in high school, they will have a moment in their college experience when they need to do more or do things more effectively. I see all kinds of students in my office who struggle (albeit temporarily) because they just weren’t prepared for what it takes to conquer the content. Why is that? Usually it is because they are 1) overconfident in their abilities and 2) do not heed their professors’ suggestions to go to tutoring, ask questions before the test, or form a study group.
You can help your student navigate the challenges of academics by doing the following:
- Remind them of the academic supports on their campuses. Dare I say all colleges and universities offer free tutoring? I am pretty sure they do. Many more offer regular workshops throughout the semester that can help them with all kinds of academically-related issues. My own college offers workshops on dealing with failure, improving test grades, and communicating with professors.
- Encourage them to talk to the professor before a test or major assignment. If I had a nickel for every student who came to me to ask me about how to study for an upcoming test over the past 25 years I would have 15 cents. And yet this is one of the best ways to get individualized attention and help preparing for that first test that so many students do poorly on because they weren’t expecting it to be hard.
- Suggest they make changes to their study habits. If they fail to do the first two suggestions, they should at least do this one: Change what doesn’t work. If they reread their notes for the last test and earned a D, they most likely need to do something different next time. Hint: Rereading notes is one of the worst things one can do. Instead, they should be testing themselves on how well they know the material.
These three types of adjustments and support–emotional, social, and academic–are the three pillars of a satisfying and successful college experience. They don’t have to be conquered all at once, and, for sure, they may get more complex as your student moves through their degree. But being away as a parent of how important they are can help you be the a source of strength for your student.