A Counseling Center Director’s Reflections on Her College Experience
I remember my mother sharing her perceptions of my college experience. When my parents took me to college for the first time, it was a completely new experience for all of us. Neither of my parents had attended college, and I was the first in my family to do so.
Since that time, my mother has shared that she often thought I was having a miserable time in college. Every time I called her, I expressed how busy and stressed I was feeling. I worried aloud that I did not do as well on a test or project as I had hoped to, complained that my roommate was bugging me, and my room was too hot. All of these things were true from time to time, but many years later, I recognize that my conversations with my parents illuminated only part of the picture. If I had shared the whole picture with them, my mother would have known then, what I know now, that I had a wonderful college experience. I made many new friends (several of whom have recently contacted me on Facebook to reconnect); I gained a wealth of knowledge, learned to think in more complex ways, and began to come into my own as a young adult.
How difficult it must have been for my parents to know whether to worry about me and what to do with their worry? How could they know if I was lonely or depressed? What is “normal” for first year college students? Was I having difficulty adjusting? Was I overwhelmed and in over my head academically? Or was I generally doing well but only sharing with them the hard parts? How could they know if, or when, to intervene? Twenty-five years later as a university psychologist, I find myself wondering how I would have advised them if I knew then what I know now. Here are some of the questions I would have suggested they ask and some of the advice I would have given them.
When your student calls with complaints or concerns, validate their more uncomfortable feelings before asking about positive experiences. Here are some examples:
“What a stressful week. Did you get a chance to do anything fun?”
“Your classes sound difficult. Do you think you’ll like any of them?”
“The people on your floor sound a lot different from the kids from high school. Have you met anyone that seems like a good fit for you?”
In this way, you can avoid sounding critical of their complaining, and you will help them to bring the positive experiences to light, as well. And you will get a better sense of both the negative and positive aspects of the their lives.
Consider what you are hearing in the context of past experience with your student. How have they typically approached new or challenging experiences?
Do they typically focus on the negative aspects of their circumstances?
For example, are they consistently convinced that they have performed poorly on a test or a project, only to learn later that they did quite well?
Throughout high school, I had a tendency to underestimate how well I had done on tests and papers. Naturally, I carried this pattern into my college experience. After a while, my parents recognized that I was simply carrying on my old habit of expecting the worst. It never occurred to me or my parents that I could work with a counselor to adjust my expectations of myself or to more accurately interpret my experiences.
Does your student typically have many friends or have difficulty making friends?
Is what you are hearing about their social life sound similar to or different from their previous experiences?
In high school, did your student tend to be independent, or did they need help navigating the world?
Did they make their own appointments, resolve conflicts with others on their own, take the initiative to talk to teachers when they did not understand material or were uncertain about a grade?
The answers to these questions might help you determine how ready your student is to tackle the challenges of college with autonomy.
What is your student’s usual way of coping with stress and distress?
Does it sound as if they are using healthy coping strategies such as talking to family and friends, getting some exercise, writing or drawing, playing sports, pursuing their interests?
Does your student have a history of coping with stress and distress in problematic ways (i.e., alcohol and drug use, cutting themselves, isolating themselves from others)?
Are you hearing anything that causes you to suspect that these patterns are re-emerging?
Assess family situations that might affect what and how much your student shares with you. When families are struggling financially, going through a separation or divorce, coping with an extended family member’s illness, or having difficulties with one of the student’s siblings, college students will often tell us that they do not want to tell their parents of their own problems. So many students are concerned about worrying or disappointing their parents. If there are circumstances that might cause your student to keep things from you, you may need to say, “I know that our family is going through a difficult time right now, but I don’t want that to stop you from telling me how you are doing, even when things are not going well. We can handle it.”
When you are unsure how things are going, ask your student. Do not be afraid to express your concern, to ask if there is anything you can do to help, to inquire about whether they have someone on campus to turn to for help in dealing with their difficulties or stressors. Encourage them to reach out to a Resident Advisor on their floor, a faculty member, or a friend. Let them know that you fully support their coming to the Counseling and Testing Center for assistance. Normalize this for them by letting them know that we see thousands of students a year for a wide range of concerns.
Contact the Counseling and Testing Center, if you would like to consult about your concerns. We can help you better recognize the warning signs of more serious problems, advise you on how to talk to your student about your concerns, and connect you with other resources, as well. As a student, I was fairly unaware of the impact of my college experience on my parents. As a university psychologist, I have a much clearer understanding that college is often a family experience.
Shelly Kerr, PhD