Maintaining Emotional Health

Everything changes when you go off to college. Here's how to handle the transition.

College is a bright and exciting beacon for many high school seniors. It can be an opportunity to shed some of the awkwardness of high school, to reinvent themselves in a new social setting. For others, college equals freedom from rules.

Even amidst the excitement, though, doubts still linger for many students: Will I fit in? Will I get homesick? Will I be able to handle the social and academic pressures? The crucible of college is intense and often confusing. While grappling with issues of faith, identity, sexuality, politics and the future, students are often on their own for the first time, managing their own diets, exercise, sleep habits, church participation and busy schedules. It’s a lot to deal with.

So how can students stay healthy during the first year of college? How can they deal with these issues while maintaining their sanity? To answer some of these questions, we sat down with Bob Neideck, director of Taylor University’s counseling center. Counseling students on a daily basis gives Neideck perspective on what joys and difficulties freshmen are facing—and how they can stay healthy.

RELEVANT: What's happening developmentally and emotionally for freshmen?

Neideck: The biggest things freshmen are facing are separating from home and starting to develop some individual thoughts about life, ethics and relationships. Essentially, they’re making their thoughts their own. Also, they’re learning how to manage freedom. It’s the beginning of “entering grownup world.” They’re beginning to identify purpose and what they do. They might still be good at what they were good at in high school, but so is everybody else. So they’re struggling with [the idea that]: “While I used to excel at something, I’m now in the middle of the pack. Now where do I belong?”

Is that transition from high school to college tough for a lot of students?

Yeah, it’s a lot of change all at once, and all that newness is difficult to manage. Freshmen have to learn how to be comfortable somewhere new. Practically speaking, for students who are living in the dorms, [that newness] might just mean having a roommate for the first time if they’ve had their own room their whole lives. And on top of that, they’re learning how to manage new locations, new people, new schedules and new structures.

It’s a time to manage new perspectives on the world, too: They’re going to be around a lot of people who say they have the same beliefs, but may come at them differently. For them, it can be a challenge to learn how to broaden their ideas about the world and their faith.

What might that process look like?

Well, for some students, being a “Christian” meant how mom and dad raised them. And then they get to college and realize, “Being a Christian looks different for a lot of people.” For example, they might say, “Wait a minute, this is one of the best people I’ve ever met, but they think something differently about something like Old Earth and New Earth theories.” Or, “This person has a lot of doubts, but they’re still passionate about their relationship with God.”

Overall, it’s good to question and to be challenged because students are in the process of establishing their own identity.

What can hinder the identity formation you’re describing?

The process of making friends apart from home and high school is becoming more difficult for students because of Facebook and other technology. You’re not forced to disconnect anymore. But the more students can separate, can shift away from leaning on mom and dad for structure, the better.

Why is independence from home, and even their parents, important for freshmen?

Well, if you just reject everything you learned growing up and cut off mom and dad, that’s taking it too far. But it’s healthy for students to make decisions on how to manage their time, when they’re doing their homework and when they’re going to meals. It’s healthy to talk to people who believe different things about the world—political or faith perspectives. It’s healthy to say, “This is what I think, this is what mom and dad think, and they don’t exactly match right now.” That autonomy is a good thing.

How does pressure affect freshmen?

There’s pressure from expectation, from the feeling that: “My future depends on how I do in college. There’s a lot of money going into this.” Or: “Now I’m going to college. Now I’ll meet the friends I’ll have the rest of my life, and I’ll know exactly who I’m going to be the rest of my life.” That’s a lot of pressure on four short, formational years.

What about pressure once students get to college?

It is academically tougher and socially harder, and that all adds to the burden.
In college there’s so much going on, and many students are used to being part of everything in high school. So they wonder, “How I can I be part of everything in college?” There’s not a lot of external structure to rein that in. These are areas that mom and dad have always managed.

Is achieving balance difficult for most students?

Yeah, students are really lousy at saying no to stuff. They say, “I don’t want to miss anything—it’s college!” And when they haven’t learned to say no growing up, it’s pretty tough to learn it here.

So how can students live healthy and whole lives during this busy season?

Managing physical health is critical. During freshman orientation I give students the acronym H.A.L.T., which stands for “hungry, angry, lonely and tired.” You have to manage and meet your H.A.L.T. needs during college. You have to eat, you have to rest and you have to connect with people. [At orientation] I tell them they have to sleep, and they all laugh, because they don’t. But if you have too much to do that you can’t sleep, you’ve got to cut some things out. If you’re prone to anxiety or depression and you don’t sleep, everything is bigger and worse.

There’s added stress that can build up. When there’s a lot to manage and it feels like it’s spinning out of control, we can try to manage control. For example, we can start controlling our food or our relationships.

Do you see a lot of first-year students who are willing to talk about these deeper issues?

Actually, freshmen are our lowest users of our [counseling] services here at Taylor. They’re enjoying college and trying to fit in. They expect that homesickness and roommate issues are normal, so they deal with them on their own. Other issues tend to hit later.

Sometimes getting away from home means it’s safer to talk about these things if they weren’t allowed to have problems at home. They get to college and there are other people who are anxious or have eating disorders, for example.

How can freshman learn to be open and talk about their hardships? What hinders them?

We encourage our students that it is OK to struggle and to be broken in areas
of your life. We believe that sin and brokenness are a part of our world. We want to give students permission to have feelings of: “This is who God is. This is how I’m feeling. They’re not lining up.”

Guilt plays a big role, especially at a Christian college. Students pull out verses like: “ ‘I am a new creation.’ If I’m still feeling this, my faith must not be good enough.” We often have to unpack that before we can get to deeper issues, like anxiety, for example. We let them land on their faith questions wherever they land, and we let them have doubts, have questions or feel really strong in their faith. We want to be a safe place for them.

What unique challenges will freshmen at a secular school face?

There are different challenges, but they depend on a student’s goals, hopes and expectations for college. The academic experience and the tasks of becoming independent and separating from home are the same. However, the social and extracurricular aspects can differ. Students will have to work harder at connecting with people with similar beliefs—it won’t happen as easily. It won’t show up on their floor or in their dorms. They need to connect with those [Christian] groups on campus.

In addition to on-campus community, how can freshmen look for support through the Body of Christ as they start this new chapter of college, especially as they question in their faith?

We encourage our students to get plugged into a local congregation. Sometimes it’s good to go to a church that reminds them of home, but sometimes it needs to be totally different from their church at home. Either way, we want students to be around people who aren’t college students. We want them to be exposed to elderly people, or little kids, something bigger than what’s happening on campus. It’s important for students to get away from campus, to broaden their perspective.

What should they look for in a church?

The church can be a safe haven if they are teaching the truth, welcoming students and connecting them with people and resources in the community where they are living for their college years. It’s great for students to come to a church and be ministered to and to have others pour into them.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for freshmen?

College is the beginning of deciding who you are as a grownup and a serious step into adulthood; it’s not just an extension of high school. Understand that it’s a big deal, but overall, embrace the freedom and be excited about the challenge.

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