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Your Guide to Going Off to College

So you’re going away to college

Going away to college can be one of the best times of your life: there are few rules, no one looks at you funny if you choose to sleep all day, you have the opportunity to create lifelong friendships, and there are plenty of new things to try out!  Although this time is full of great new experiences, there are certainly stressors and opportunities for growth that will come up along the way. As someone who looks back on my time at the University of Florida as one of life’s great experiences, let me help guide you along the way! 

two girls moving into college dorm

Live on campus

Some may see this and think, “well that’s a no brainer,” but there are a large number of incoming freshmen every year who decide that they don’t want the hassle of living on campus, or maybe even living with roommates at all.  Don’t be one of these people! Living on campus your first year in school is an opportunity to meet tons and tons of new people. There is the added convenience of being close to where the action is, all of your food and meals will be provided, there is a laundry site in your building, and you kind of can’t beat the cost.  Although there are downsides: sharing a bathroom, having a roommate in the same room, and having more rules, these experiences actually have the effect of bringing you closer to the people you experience them with. The things that seem like they are going to be major bummers actually end up being the funny stories you share about your college days, and those memories are a big part of the bonding experience that happens in that first year.  If you are one of the people who want their space and are nervous about having to adjust to living with others you will actually find that although you can avoid some of those awkward moments, you will miss out on a lot. Besides those bonding times, you will also end up missing out on plans that are made! Living in a dorm is a sea of people looking for something to do and people to hang out with. You will be plugged in to where the best places to eat, parties to go to, and activities to join by just going about your daily life. I know there may be a draw to having your own space, and furniture that you like, etc. but these comforts are definitely not worth the cost!

No 9am classes!

Your first semester away you will have so many things on your plate.  You may be adjusting to living in a new area or state, you may be living with a roommate and sharing a space and bathroom for the first time, you may be taking more difficult classes than you are used to, you may be learning to be financially responsible for yourself for the first time, or you may be getting up in the morning for the first time without your parents help.  The last thing that you need to add to all of these adjustments is an early class. I know high school started at 7:00am and you made it there every day, but there is something different about college. Your whole routine will be different, and no matter what you tell yourself, adding a 9:00am class to the mix is something you will end up kicking yourself for after a few weeks of your new sleep schedule.

Take easy classes your first semester

Keeping with the previous theme, your first semester is not the time to load up on your most difficult classes.  Planning to take French, Statistics, Biology, World History, English, and Psychology to “get things out of the way?”  You may want to re-think that! Although I certainly understand the mindset of diving in and performing at the collegiate level, a gradual wading in and splitting up your core classes between your semesters, taking a reasonable course load, and interspersing your electives with your more difficult classes is a strategy that will give you a more balanced enjoyable Freshman experience.

Friends are key

The biggest predictor in student performance is friends!  This is shocking to many since from the time we enter kindergarten we learn that what is important is working hard.  I am not at all saying that working hard is not important, in fact, you wouldn’t be heading off to college if you hadn’t already shown that you have the ability to put in the tremendous effort to get through school.  What the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has known for years, though, is that being connected to a strong support system is the most important predictor of remaining in school. If we think it through this makes a lot of sense.  Inevitably, in college you will fall behind at some point. Being connected to peers and mentors who can help you to catch up or stay motivated when you may feel pulled to throw in the towel is something that can’t be replicated by other things.  In a sea of students at a large university feeling connected to others helps people remain grounded and feel like they are a part of something. That feeling is invaluable! That leads me to my next point. How to get involved…

Getting connected and involved

There are endless ways to get involved and connected on a college campus.  It puts high school extracurriculars to shame.  

  • Do you like sports?  Join a club team.  Even if you are not a collegiate level athlete, many other students are in your same shoes of wanting to play sports.  You will find everything from soccer, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, football, to badminton. I promise that there is SOMEONE on your campus that shares your love of sports and this can be a great way to connect.  Are sports not your thing?  
  • What about a sorority or fraternity?  These fraternal organizations have deep roots in college history and are great ways to get involved.  The main mission of these organizations is philanthropy and each one has a different cause that they raise money for throughout the year.  They also throw parties throughout the year, have large houses to hang out and eat meals at, offer living arrangements for members who are interested, and have different meetings, tutoring, outings, sports, and trips throughout the year.  Members become part of a sorority or fraternity “family” that provides instant connection and guidance through the many stressors that arise during that first year. If you are hoping to join a fraternity or sorority make sure you look into it over the summer.  Colleges often have “rush week” the week before fall classes start and you wouldn’t want to miss your chance. 
  • There are so many clubs available that your head will spin!  Do you want to get connected but only want to put in a little time?  Maybe a club is for you. If you search your campus website you can find out about all of the offerings at your particular school. In addition to actual school clubs, there are social justice groups, hobby groups, lifestyle groups, local interest groups, culture groups, talent groups, and theatre groups that you can become a part of.   
  • You could also run for an office at your school.  Student body offices are available on college campuses just like they were in high school.  Were you already your student body president? Then you know that this is another great way to connect to others and find your tribe of people with similar interests.  
  • If school is your main priority there are both intensive studies and research labs for subjects like languages, math, psychology and science where you can work together with a small group of people and get to know them on a more intimate level than in your large classes.  The gist of this is that no matter what you enjoy doing there are other people on your St. Pete campus that enjoy the same things, you just have to get out there and find them!

Taking advantage of on-campus activities

In addition to groups to join, there are always activities on campus and off campus to attend especially for freshmen.  During the fall semester there are activities created just for freshmen that are aimed at getting you connected to others; take advantage of these!  Activities can range from casual meet and greet, to pizza parties, to movie nights and more. Regardless of what activity it is, the goal is to meet other students who are adjusting to college just like you are.  Imagine all of the things that you will have to talk about. In addition to these freshman events, there are also regular sporting events, meetups, and parties that you will hear about especially if you are living in the dorms (nudge nudge).  Further, you could also get a part-time job either on campus or off. Although you may not be excited to become a restaurant server or work at the mall, it can be a great way to meet a lot of other people your age and make some extra money too.

Coping with change

We have touched on some of the changes that you will experience when you go away to school, but the reality is that every single thing in your life will be different when you go away to college.  Unless you are extremely lucky, you won’t have your same friend group to rely on (at least not in the same way as seeing them every day in high school), your parents will probably be living in another city or state, you will be responsible for your own meals, finances, laundry, cleaning, homework, social life, possible job, activities calendar, and more.  Before you become too overwhelmed, these changes are all for the better, they just take some getting used to. Getting organized can be a big help. How will you keep track of your classes? If you are a phone person, use your iPhone calendar to put all of your appointments, classes, and assignments in as soon as you find out about them. If you are more of a paper and pencil type person, then getting a planner and making sure you remember to bring it to class and to add the items to your schedule regularly may be the avenue that you take.  Regardless of which system you use, consistency is key. If you vary between methods you are much more likely to lose things in the shuffle. In addition to organization, it is helpful to figure out who your social support is and how you can stay in touch with them. For many people, this means regularly keeping in touch with high school friends on the phone and scheduling trips to visit, and making time to reach out to your parents. It also means identifying your new supports at school such as roommates, friends in class and even professors or guidance counselors who can provide advice and support as you navigate your changing life.  There may be times that no one is there to help and you have to rely on what coping skills have worked for you in the past. Of the five types of coping – movement, relaxation, cognitive coping, distraction, and social support – what works for you?  

  • Movement is any type of activity to get your heart rate up.  
  • Relaxation can be formal things like progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and releasing different body parts to relax your body) or taking a bubble bath with some candles.  
  • Cognitive coping are skills you learn in therapy like positive self-talk, challenging distorted thinking patterns, and playing the tape through.  
  • Distraction is all of the things you do at home that you didn’t even know were things: music, tv, YouTube, movies, video games and more.  
  • And social support is reaching out to those you know, love, feel comfortable with who can help lend their perspective, joke and laugh to make things lighter, or take time to sit and valid your experience! 

How to manage roommate or other conflicts

Being roommates is a wonderful thing that can create lasting bonds for years to come.  It can also be a strain on a preexisting friendship or create difficulties with someone you just met.  No matter what roommate position you are in, you will inevitably find yourself in conflict with him or her at some point and may feel at a loss for repairing the friendship.  Communication, and being open and upfront about your roommate expectations, from the beginning, are a great start. Instead of doing your own dishes like you always have and expecting that your roommate will do the same, and then getting upset when it doesn’t go that way, try setting the expectation in the beginning.  Having a sit down to discuss household chores and tasks in the beginning will take out the guesswork later. In fact, some college campuses build this discussion in, with RAs helping new roommates develop a “contract” of sorts, covering basic guidelines or boundaries that roommates agree to. Some may scoff at this idea, but it is worth putting some thought and effort into, because it really does help if, at some point down the road, those boundaries are being crossed!  If you have already agreed that your roommate will take on a certain task, and then it is not getting done, you then have a different type of conversation about it. No, it is not yelling or passive-aggressively putting your roommate’s dishes in his bed! It involves another conversation that begins with something like, “Hey I really like having a clean kitchen. It makes me feel proud of myself and my home. I know that we talked about your chore being the dishes but I noticed that sometimes it doesn’t get done.  Is there anything I can help with? I would really like to make dishes more of a priority, and don’t mind switching if you don’t want that job.” When you come from a feelings place instead of an accusatory place, the conversation goes a lot smoother. You can also schedule weekly or monthly roommate check-ins if you find that you have things that are building up on your chest and that you don’t always find time to bring them up. At the end of the day, decide what is truly important to you in the interaction. Is the priority to be right, to preserve the relationship, or to get what you want at the moment?  This goal will change based on the situation but if you find that you are engaging in an argument about laundry and your main priority is the relationship, maybe you let it go in that instance. If there is another time where getting something done impacts something really important to you, that may be the time for you to really relay that to your roommate.

Managing relationships with parents from afar

Keeping with the relationship theme, your parents are another relationship that is going to change in your time at college.  Your parents have always seen you as a kid, someone that they need to protect and support and provide for. This role will change a little in your time away and you all have the opportunity to create whatever type of relationship you want at this time.  Do you want them to remain very involved? Do you want to have a little bit more space to make your own mistakes? Do you still need their financial support but fewer lectures or vice versa? Whatever you decide that you want and need from them it is important that you let them know.  They will be struggling with letting go and giving you more autonomy and this may not always go smoothly in the beginning, just like your role change into adulthood will bring bumps of its own. Openly communicate what you would like from them and you have a MUCH better chance of getting it, just remember to do it in a gentle way like the roommate situation above!

How ICC can help!

Again, going away to college is often one of the best times of your life.  If you find that any of these new roles or stressors is becoming overwhelming, or you find that you could use some skills to manage conflict or communication, or that you would like to learn ways to manage any worry or sadness due to your transition, then Integrated Care Clinic (ICC) is the place for you!  As a college student therapist, I help many clients adjust to this life transition and figure out who they are and who they want to be. I can help you navigate the stressors that arise and teach you the skills you need to make this time in your life everything it could be and more.

Dr. Crecraft is a licensed psychologist. She is a trauma specialist, transitions expert, and family disorder healer. Her specialties include emotion regulation, healthy boundaries, and moving on from your past.

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