Settling in Takes Time

Out and about in town, I often overhear people whose children have recently started college greet each other with, “How does (student’s name here) like school?” The response generally is, “They LOVE it!”

Now, I understand one might not want to go into personal details while standing on line at the deli counter or cashing a check at the bank. However, I also know there is a strong chance their child does not actually love college.

After the lengthy and exhausting application process, emotionally wrought acceptance period, Bed Bath & Beyond excursions, and tearful residence hall drop off, it can be difficult to acknowledge — to the world and to yourself — that your student is not happy at college. But if this is the case, you are not alone.

Many factors affect how a first-year student feels about their school. Although it may have seemed as if they could not wait to leave the nest, I guarantee they miss you, their siblings, their high school friends, the pets, their old bedroom and home-cooked food (not necessarily in that order). In addition to homesickness, there may be roommate issues, academic struggles, etc.

How much unhappiness is typical and what, if anything, should you do about it? It took both my older sons a few semesters to find their footing. The first complained a great deal initially but then changed majors (several times), joined a fraternity where he made wonderful friends, and ended up loving the university from which at one point he considered transferring.

It’s normal for students to think they might have been happier somewhere else, especially in this era of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook where everyone looks as if they are having a better time than you are. Don’t be alarmed if you hear “I kinda wish I’d gone to…” (their second choice, their boyfriend’s school, etc.). It is important to listen and allow them to vent, but odds are they will ultimately fall in love, or at least serious like, with the school they chose.

In a minority of cases, the school really is a poor fit for a student and no amount of time will fix that. My middle son’s best high school friend was unhappy at his college and, despite his best efforts, he knew it would not get better. He transferred halfway through sophomore year and was much happier. In fact, he wished he had done it a semester earlier.

If your student seems that miserable, I suggest they start the transfer process. If they change their mind, they are not bound to switch schools; however, it keeps the option open.

Freshmen and parents should expect an adjustment period which can last from a few weeks to a few months or even longer. Have realistic expectations — understand that, as with most things in life, every college has its pluses and minuses. If the situation isn’t perfect it’s okay to acknowledge this, even as you encourage your student to work on improving their college experience.

Keep the lines of communication open and remember that, in the end, learning how to “figure things out” is as a much a part of a college education as what happens in the classroom.

Tip: Mental health issues can manifest during the college years. If your student seems more than a little unhappy or adrift, you might suggest they seek professional help, starting with campus counseling services.

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Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother of three sons, food shopper extraordinaire, blogger and essay editor. She attended Brandeis University, from which she graduated cum laude with a degree in English Literature. In addition to her contributions to CollegiateParent, her work has been featured on Grown and Flown, Parent and Co., Kveller, Her View from Home, the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, MockMom, Better After 50, Beyond Your Blog and The SITS Girls. Read more of Marlene's work on her site Thoughts From Aisle Four: