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Prep Talk

Preparing for a Big Change

About the Transition

As explained by respected transition specialist Nancy K. Schlossberg, transition theory is one way to understand your student’s transition to college; having that understanding can help you negotiate and be supportive throughout the experience. Here are some key points to know:

Students in transition are affected by three sets of variables:

  • individual perceptions of the transition
  • the environments both before and after the transition
  • their own personal characteristics

Transitions can be categorized by type, context, and impact. Although each student’s transition is unique, for most students the transition to college is high impact, or very significant.

 A student’s ability to cope with adjustment is determined by the four S’s of transition:

  • situation
  • self
  • support
  • strategies

Every student experiences transition differently. For some, academic pressures may prove the biggest obstacle; for others, homesickness and changes in the social environment cause more anxiety; still others may have completely different experiences. While there are patterns, there is no single or correct way to navigate transition.

You can provide support simply by listening, offering encouragement, and reminding your student that it is normal for change to feel difficult. Experiencing the ups and downs of the transition to college is not only acceptable, it is also necessary and normal. Try to be patient and remind your student to do the same.

The transition experience for most college students has observable phases, beginning months before they arrive on campus. Your student may either go through the most common ones successively, at predictable times, or show signs of some but not others. By knowing to expect these phases, parents and families can better respond to their signs—with empathy, encouragement, straightforward talk, or a combination of all three.

1. Early-Summer Anticipation

Following high school graduation, many students start the summer feeling pride in their past achievements and anticipating what’s next. They may experience a letdown, but those feelings give way to optimism and excitement—and maybe a little impatience—as they look forward to Northwestern.

2. Midsummer Anxiety

When students realize that in just a few weeks they will be leaving their comfort zone—their home, family, and friends—to enter an all-new world, feelings of sadness and insecurity may emerge.

3. Early-Fall Panic

Orientation has ended, classes have begun, and students may suddenly feel overwhelmed. For some, the adjustment to roommates, a heavy workload, and an unfamiliar social environment can feel like too much to handle all at once.

4. The “Honeymoon”

Students may focus on all the upsides of Northwestern—the new friends, the freedom, the intellectual thrill—and seek every opportunity to prove they are where they belong both academically and socially.

5. The Honeymoon’s Over!

Uh-oh. Where did the time go? Where’s all this hard work coming from? Especially for overextended students, the honeymoon ends with such questions, which can cause anxiety, self-doubt, regret, and homesickness.

6. The Grass is Always Greener . . .

The novelty of being at Northwestern has worn off, and the stress and hard work seem never-ending. Some students may fantasize that transferring to a different university would solve everything.

7.  “You Can’t Go Home Again”

Home for break, students may be shocked to discover that the daily routines of family life have gone on without them. It can feel alienating, as if their absence had no effect or their relationship to “home” shifted without their permission.

8. Coping

Sometime during winter quarter, many students feel they finally have it figured out: they can get work done, use the library without fear, have a social life—and stay on top of their laundry! They prove to themselves that they have what it takes to be at Northwestern.

9. Realization

By winter or early spring quarter, students often make a realization: consistent academic success at Northwestern takes an enormous amount of hard work.

10. Putting it together

By the end of the first year, students start to see Northwestern as a total experience. They know that hard work and achievement must be priorities, but downtime and enjoying life are essential for balance.

When Things Don't Go as Planned

If your student returns home for break and the expected academic success was not achieved in fall quarter, you may hear complaints and explanations like these:

“So many demands, so little time.”

“I found out the hard way that I need more structure.”

“Relationship stress.”

“I realized I’m in the wrong major and lost motivation.”

“Northwestern just isn’t a good fit for me.”

First-year students are more likely to view their fall-quarter performance as mediocre when they compare it with their high school record. Such comparisons overlook a simple reality: college-level work and the grading system are more rigorous than any high school’s. It is unrealistic to think that a near-perfect GPA in high school guarantees similar success at Northwestern. In fact, at the college level, success looks and feels different; its meaning expands to include much more than grades alone can measure.

If fall quarter is disappointing academically, remember that the new calendar year brings the start of a new quarter, with fresh chances to turn things around. By taking time during winter break to identify a few helpful steps—such as consulting an academic adviser, getting peer tutoring, or taking one less course—and by committing to turning plans into actions, your student can increase the likelihood of a successful winter quarter.

The signs that a student is struggling academically or socially can be difficult to discern, especially from a distance. To support your student, it’s important to show interest—which is something quite different from being demanding. Instead of insisting that your student owes you information, say “I’d like to know what’s going on.” Showing interest affirms that you care, but also that you trust your student to make responsible adult decisions.

It can be tough for first-year students to talk about their anxieties, even those that are normal and affect most of their peers. Some students feel pressure to say that “everything’s great,” even when it’s not. It helps when family members can anticipate and respond to student worries—like those noted here—with openness and empathy.

Academic Achievement
  • Will I excel at Northwestern?
  • What if I can’t measure up to expectations?
  • Will my professors be sympathetic if I’m struggling?
  • Can I get help without jeopardizing my GPA?
Separation Fears
  • Can I survive on my own?
  • How will I make new friends?
  • What was I thinking when I chose a school this far from home?
Figuring Out the System
  • Will navigating the financial aid process be a hassle?
  • How do grades work at Northwestern?
  • Can I delay picking a major?  
Relating to Strangers
  • Will I feel awkward around others whose race, class, or values differ from mine?
  • How will I react to people who don’t share my religious or political beliefs?
  • How much difference can I deal with? 
Social Acceptance
  • How will I fit in?
  • How should I act around other students and my professors?
  • If I don’t feel like deciding things for myself, do I just follow the crowd? 
Reasons for Being in College
  • Why am I at Northwestern?
  • Is it because I want to be, or is it because others—parents, relatives, friends, former teachers—expect me to be? 
Identity Questions
  • Who am I?
  • How can I “just be me” when being who I really am could disappoint, put off, or even shock friends and family?
  • Which is worse—losing their esteem or my own self-respect?
  • Allow your student to figure out how to fit in. There is a surprisingly wide range of what is normal or okay.
  • Remember that this is a time of transition. Students often change their minds, and that’s okay. A change of major—even three or more times—is not uncommon.
  • Your student might fail at something. Poor performance in a course or rejection by a student group isn’t the end of the world, despite how it feels; it’s just a piece of the Northwestern experience. Help your student see it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and build resilience.
  • Try to have regular communication, but don’t force it. Don’t be concerned if your student isn’t always responsive. One way to show interest without seeming critical or meddling is to ask about what’s happening on campus in general. Have conversations without ulterior motives—these talks may reveal areas of concern more effectively than asking probing questions.
  • Expect some tough times. Learning to cope with new people, responsibilities, and ideas may cause your student confusion and discomfort. These are normal growing pains.
  • Remember that parental and family support can have a powerful impact. This is especially true when you send positive, reinforcing messages:
“You have what it takes to be responsible.”

“You know how to take care of yourself.”

“No one knows your strengths and limits as well as you do.”

“We trust you to get help when you need it.”

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