Surviving Your First Year of College

Posted Oct. 12, 2010, at 4:57 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 13, 2010, at 5:55 p.m.

So you’ve decorated your dorm room, posted college photos on Facebook, and eagerly begun your classes. Now as the first few weeks of the semester roll by, you may be feeling more stressed than you expected, and maybe even a bit anxious or depressed. If this is the case, you’re certainly not alone. I work with many students dealing with issues such as these. In fact, one recent survey reported that 40% of college students seek counseling during their first year.

Psychologists know that life can be divided into different venues such as home, work, school, family and social life, and that stress in one venue can be offset by relative ease and comfort in the others. Since entering college represents change and related stress in all, or nearly all, venues, it is understandable that many first-year students struggle with anxiety or sadness as they adjust to these changes.

While each student’s experience is unique, certain challenges are shared by most first-year students.  You may feel homesick, missing your parents and hometown friends. Tied to this is your newly gained independence and learning to navigate the new relationship likely developing between you and your parents. Here it is important to keep an open dialogue with your parents, and technology provides some great ways of doing this. It may be very helpful to call your parents when you feel lonely or need to talk. Don’t hesitate because you fear causing them to worry. They want to be there for you, and you may find that just talking things over with them can help you feel better.

Fitting in is an important issue, including finding your friend group, defining your close friends, and developing a sense of belonging. My best advice here is to work at making new friends, even if it means reaching beyond your comfort level. Get to know your roommate, even if  he or she is not your choice for a close friend. Leave your dorm-room door open. Set some goals for yourself, like making at least one new friend in each of your classes. Join a campus club or organization that interests you. Although socializing is not the primary goal of college, developing a sense of belonging is an important need, and when our important needs are not satisfied, it is difficult for us to grow in other ways.

Many students worry about making the right decisions regarding their college major and career. Give yourself time to explore your areas of interest without feeling pressured to make a decision. Sign up for elective classes that interest you, talk to your friends and to your academic advisor, and most importantly, take advantage of the services offered by your college career center. Career development theory teaches us that when we choose a career we like and enjoy, we are most likely to be productive, happy and successful in our work.

The academic challenge of college feels overwhelming to some students and may cause you to feel anxious or even to question your abilities. First of all, talk to your professors! Get to know them and let them get to know you. Professors tend to form a more positive impression of students who take the time to visit during office hours. If needed, seek out campus resources such as academic tutoring. Also, it is extremely important to learn effective study methods that will see you through the toughest material.  I highly recommend the SQ3R method (see www.studygs.net/texred2.htm for a great explanation of this method).

Perhaps the biggest challenge for college students, encompassing and superseding all others, involves developing your identity as a person. If you spend some time thinking about what kind of person you want to be, including goals, values, and behaviors, this image will guide you in the choices you make during your college years.

Finally, learning stress-management skills now will help you to cope with not only with this transition, but with life. Exercise is one of the most important of these skills.Visiting your recreation center on campus, doing yoga or just taking a daily walk will do wonders for your energy and your outlook. Other important coping strategies are relaxation techniques and meditation, deep breathing, keeping a journal and taking time for things you enjoy. Add to these good nutrition and good sleep habits, and you’ll maximize both your health and your coping ability.

And please do not hesitate to visit your college counseling center. The clinicians there are very experienced in helping students with their problems, and getting help early is likely to prevent small concerns from becoming unmanageable.

Lenore M. Tipping is a psychologist with practices in Bangor and Orono.

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