Getting ready to send your first born for their first year to college in a few weeks? About to pack up the last one for the last (fingers crossed!) time? Whatever stage you and your student is in, there are few things that remain constant through the college experience. In fact, so much changes so quickly that it is hard to remember how nervous you may have been about each stage. So let’s review some common worries.
Worried about how to outfit your student’s room? Once they get to their sophomore year, you may laugh at how inconsequential that shoe rack was. Concerned about what your student wants to major in? Once they get that junior-year internship at that company that has a great track record for hiring interns after graduation, you may feel you can breathe a sigh of relief. Nervous your student will flounder after graduation? Once they get into that graduate program or land a promising entry-level job, you may high five your spouse and realize everything turned out okay.
Regardless of where you or your student is in college experience, here are three essential pieces of advice that you can share with them or remind them to do when they feel stuck, unsure, or stressed out.
#1 RELAX. This advice goes to you and your student. For the love of all things holy, take a deep breath. And then another one. Recognize that much of our stress comes from worrying about the past or the future and not from being in the present moment. For college students, it is often the future that gives them the most anxiety–and that goes for parents as well.
This summer, I spoke to the parents of incoming freshmen about college transition. While I strongly believe the information was valuable for understanding what their student would experience their first year, some of the parents were more concerned about the following: their student’s first-semester schedule (Why did they decide to take a lab late on a Friday afternoon?), where and how their student was going to live (Were they sharing a bathroom with 10 other people?), what their student would major in (Like, doesn’t he need to have that figured out before now?), and a variety of other worries that make it necessary for me to say this again: RELAX. Your student will be okay. Their advisors will help them make the best decision possible for their schedule and their degree pla. They will figure out how to share a bathroom…with one or twenty other people. They will find the major that fits their goals and needs, which leads me to the second essential thing your student needs to do.
#2 EXPLORE. Before you get concerned that I mean directionless exploration, hear me out (and reread the section above). One of the great things about college is that your student can, with relative freedom, try new things. As your student gets older, and has more responsibilities, it becomes harder to dabble in interests for the sake of learning more about themselves. College degrees are often designed with some wiggle room for that exploration. And the other experiences such as study abroad, internships, community service projects, job shadowing, and campus organizations provide fertile ground for students to explore what they like to do, with whom they like to work, the ways they need to grow, and how they may build a life and a career.
Case in point: I know a student who wanted to be a math major, but when she took a first-year course in religious studies, she realized that she really liked learning about world religions. She still liked math, but she discovered an entirely new interest. She landed internships that allowed her to use her math skills and her understanding of religious studies, so she could explore the practical applications of both areas of study. As a double major in math and religious studies, she landed a job in which she uses her math knowledge primarily, but she also has tremendous insight into cultural diversity, to say the least. She obviously found a way to marry what she enjoyed learning and doing into a degree, which leads me to the last piece of advice.
#3 ENJOY. It is hard to remember–especially in light of economic concerns–to enjoy this time. Again, this piece of advice is for you and your student. If your student is having trouble keeping the joy of learning in focus, you may want to talk about how change their viewpoint: What is the experience teaching them about the world? What is the experience teaching them about themselves? Ask them about what they enjoy about the experience and why. Sometimes a shift in perspective is the nudge we need to remember to enjoy the moment.
If you, too, have lost a little of that loving feeling for this stage of your student’s life, you may to the rethink your mindset as well: What are you proud of that your student is learning to do on their own? What about the experience gives you the most joy? I would argue with anyone that this stage is so much more rewarding–and in some ways, less stressful–than other stages. Remember potty training? Or the middle-school years? Yeah, I bet you now realize how much easier, if not less expensive, this phase is.
As a parent of a college junior, I can say that watching my student realize how the world works and seeing her put into practice some of the advice we have given her has been so much fun. She has become more self-assured, more focused on what kind of career and life she wants, and much more relaxed.
You can turn these essential things into a mantra: RELAX, EXPLORE, ENJOY. At the very least, think about them when you are the moment that seems stressful or you are worried about what’s next for your student.