Last year, at least eight freshmen at U.S. colleges died in the first few weeks of the school year. In an article by Inside Higher Ed, “Lives Cut Short”, the stories of these tragedies were discussed in depth. The deaths cast a shadow over the campuses on which the students spent too little time, but they’re also a cross-section of the kinds of issues and decisions facing freshmen as they begin their college careers — and of the choices some young students may not be prepared to make. Even colleges with the best approaches to educating students about mental health issues may have very little time to reach those who may be vulnerable.
Why is this happening?
You’ve lectured them. You’ve warned them. You’ve taught them right from wrong. But have you prepared them to face what waits for them at college: stress, extreme peer pressure, and abundant alcohol?
During senior year you are so focused on college, that often the most important discussions get shoved to the back burner. We cram those discussions in on the trip to move-in and neglect to offer our kids advice on how to deal with the difficult decisions involved during those first few weeks of college.
“It’s a huge transition and all the support systems are different,” said Pete Goldsmith, dean of students at Indiana University at Bloomington. “For students who have lived in very structured situations and environments, going to a college campus when very suddenly they have this new kind of freedom and new choices to make, it can be pretty overwhelming.”
What tools should you give your student before he leaves for college?
Discussions about the dangers he will face in college. Start there, but discuss the “what-ifs”:
- What if everyone around you is binge drinking and wants you to join in? How will you respond?
- What if you see someone who is obviously overindulging? What should you do and who should you tell?
- What if you witness dangerous behavior? What should you do?
- How do you recognize alcohol poisoning—how much is too much?
Don’t delude yourself into thinking that it’s not going to happen to your child. Every school is a party school. Alcohol is readily available, especially to freshmen who consider it an “initiation” into adulthood to get when their parents aren’t a factor and they are free to abuse without repercussions. Sticking your head in the sand won’t help you or your student. Discuss the “what ifs” before freshman year.
Discuss social activity
Next you should discuss social pursuits. College is not only a great time to make a new and diverse group of friends and participate in social activities and clubs, but it also provides myriad opportunities to network. However, your student should be prepared for the whirlwind that is social life on nearly every college campus. He could easily get sucked into partying and skipping class, and it’s not a bad idea to discuss the drinking culture that seems to go hand-in-hand with college living. The hope is that your teen will stay away from these activities, which could easily derail his academic progress, but you’re fooling yourself if you think he won’t at least be confronted with such options. Talking it out ahead of time can help him to understand what’s out there and come up with a plan to have fun without hurting himself or others.
College is a great time for students to test their independence. But it is also possible that those independent choices, right or wrong, will bring consequences. Remind your soon-to-be college freshman to think before he acts and weigh the pros and cons of their decision. Help him understand that he will have to face the consequences of his actions and these consequences often affect his future.
The pressure to succeed in college is high, and it can definitely get to the average college freshman that has left familiar surroundings and a solid support network behind for the first time in his life. The best way for you to help your student is to prepare him as best you can for what he’ll face in college. Armed with a plan of action he is more likely to proceed with confidence and go the distance.