All students experience some basic life changes as a result of going away to college, but for those who attend a school with a very different environment than what they are used to, the situation may present additional challenges.
Many students specifically choose colleges or universities in environments different from where they grew up. Some students from small, tight-knit communities choose to go to a big university (some state schools can have populations mirroring major cities with 50,000, 60,000, and even 70,000+ students!). Some young women choose an all women’s college, even though they studied at a co-ed high school. Other students grow up in a big city and want to spend time at a more rural school, one far off the beaten path.
Students in these and similar situations might be surprised about some of the changes they will face. The truth is, every first-year college student experiences transition issues, and everyone responds differently. But with a little understanding of the changes you might face, you can be ready when you first get to campus.
Changes in campus environment
These issues largely stem from a jump to a campus unlike the environment you’re familiar with; however, you can attend a state school two towns away and still be caught off guard by some of the differences in college life!
Moving to college in a rural environment far from any city sometimes means students feel isolated, like there is nothing to do. If you are used to being able to get places quickly via car or public transit and are unable to do so at your new school, it might feel as if you are trapped on campus or in your dorm room. If you are accustomed to being around a variety
of theaters, museums, restaurants, and shopping, a small town presents very different options for leisure time or running errands.
On smaller campuses, schools usually provide a shuttle service to nearby shopping centers or towns. Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, for example, offers a shuttle into the nearby towns all week and one that takes students into Columbus, Ohio, on the weekends.
Conversely, moving to a flagship state university or one in a busy urban environment can be intense. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the pace of a city or vast campus and find it challenging to get around confidently. City schools make an effort to help their students understand their options and navigate their new surroundings safely and effectively. Barnard College in New York City offers orientation sessions that include riding the subway and walking tours of various neighborhoods to help students get a feel for the area.
Moving to a college in a very different environment than what you are used to may mean a change in the diversity (cultural, racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, etc.) of the population around you. Whether you move to a place with less or more diversity than you are used to, you might feel intimidated until you get to know your classmates, friends, and new surroundings.
At Kenyon, the school has programs to improve the cultural literacy of its students. “We have many cultural events, and students enjoy and value sharing their culture with others,” says Jane Martindell, Dean for Academic Advising and Support at the school.
Making the college transition on a social level is a challenge for every student—you are meeting people from different places and experiencing unfamiliar social situations. You have to figure out, sometimes on the fly, how to navigate your new landscape.
For students moving from close-knit environments to a large school, the difference can feel significant. If you’re used to knowing every kid in your class, abruptly finding yourself on a campus with tens of thousands of students is a very different experience. There is also the risk of suddenly feeling anonymous. Fortunately, large colleges and universities typically have programs that help students form smaller groups—by class, residence hall, major, etc. This is a way to create a more intimate environment within the larger school community.
The opposite may happen, as well. Students attending a small college or a university in a small town may feel there are not enough social options or potential new friends to choose from. Smaller schools typically have social programs designed to get students together in groups and help overcome those concerns.
But social fears are not limited to those who attend a larger or smaller school. Differences in the student population can cause concern as well. “The main anxiety for our students is the social aspect. Are there going to be boys here?” says Lisa Hollibaugh, First-Year Class Dean at Barnard College, a small women’s college in New York City. “Students can cross-register for classes at Columbia University, so it is a little different here than at other women’s colleges in that our students are in classes and clubs with men as well as women. But precisely because of that, our students have to think consciously about why they chose a women’s college, what value they find in that experience.”
Safety is particularly an issue for students who move to an urban area, a particularly large school, or any type of school environment with more people around than back at home. Safety concerns tend to fall into two camps: genuine concerns based on conditions in the environment, like walking down the street of an urban campus late at night, and perceived concerns that stem from unfamiliarity with the environment, such as feeling uncomfortable when surrounded by more people than you are used to. But both are real to the student experiencing those feelings.
Know that campus safety is a big concern for all colleges and universities. Every school discusses safety issues with students to help them understand the risks and how to get help when necessary. This information is made available to students on an ongoing basis, usually as part of new student orientation.
Barnard College, for instance, offers orientation events to discuss safety issues and life in the city. They also discuss how to prioritize feelings of safety, to help students understand when they are truly in danger. “We train them to be more aware of their surroundings and of other people,” says Hollibaugh. In addition, the school offers a free shuttle service to pick up students around the city, so they can always feel safe getting a ride back to campus.
Food habits and preferences are particularly challenging for students moving from an environment with a lot of choices, like a big city, to a college in a town with fewer options. “This comes up a lot,” says Kenyon’s Martindell. “Students used to a variety of ethnic foods in cities like New York or Los Angeles sometimes struggle with the more limited choices here.”
The pace of life differs from school to school. A small college might have a slower pace than a big city school or even a big university in a small town. For students moving to an urban environment, the level of energy and even the noise can feel overwhelming; from a big city to a college in a rural setting, the lack of noise can feel troublesome. Try to remember that with time, you will likely become accustomed to things like the popular weekend activities, the nature of casual conversations, and even nighttime sirens/crickets . . . or the lack thereof.
Changes in general
There are a few transition issues that every student is likely to face at one time or another during the first semester or first year, no matter where they went to high school or chose to attend college.
The difference between a high school class and a college class is a pretty big one. For one thing, when you get to college you are expected to spend more time with the material outside the classroom. And the amount of work you are expected to do can be five or 10 times as much as what you did in high school.
“For students who come to a highly selective school, the level of academics is likely much higher and more difficult than what they have experienced in high school” says Steven Abbott, Associate Director of Admissions and Coordinator of Native Outreach at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “There is a lot of academic pressure.”
Don’t forget about the everyday life issues you’ll need to take care of once you arrive at your new school. Things like washing your own clothes, solving your own problems, and managing your own life. In most ways, it is fun to have these new responsibilities, and it can feel liberating. However, for students who are taking care of these issues on their own for the first time, while still getting used to the academic load and making new friends, it can feel overwhelming.
How to deal with it all
As you think about your big transition to college, there is one important thing to keep in mind: everyone in your class will be going through the same things! That is true even if other students express their concerns or anxieties differently than you or hide that they are feeling anything at all.
Indeed, the first four months is the biggest hurdle to get over. “This shift to college life is tough for everyone,” say Abbott. “And there is a code of silence, particularly at more selective schools: ‘I can admit to no weakness.’ But everyone is dealing with the same thing.”
Hollibaugh agrees. “First-year students spend a lot of time comparing themselves to each other. It’s a natural part of the process that students have to move through and beyond. Every student has his or her own timeline. What matters is your own individual journey . . . you’ll figure it out.”
So how do you deal with it if you find yourself challenged by your transition to college?
- Understand that it is natural to need an adjustment period. Be kind to yourself.
- Embrace the fact that every day will be different than the day before. These changes are usually good.
- Take advantage of orientation sessions, programs, and groups offered at your school.
- Seek help if you are feeling overwhelmed, afraid, or out of place. There are many people at the school who care about you and are ready to help: faculty, resident and academic advisors, deans, etc. There are also other students, such as peer mentors and upper class students, who know what you are going through because they have experienced it themselves.
- Identify what is important to you about your college experience. When you know what that is, ask yourself: Can I get this at this school? In a small number of cases, transferring schools or taking time off may be the answer.
Once you remember what was important to you about this school, make sure to find the time to take advantage of the environment you chose.
No one expects you to know how to do everything right away or to feel like you fit in immediately. Not your parents, not your professors, not even your fellow students (because, again, they are all feeling the same things that you are).
“Every student has an idea in his or her head about what college will be like. That is to be expected,” says Hollibaugh. “But I can pretty much guarantee that it will not be like what you are imagining. It won’t be better or worse, just different. Learning how to navigate those differences is a big part of your first year on campus. Sometimes it feels great. Sometimes it feels challenging. Try to be open to the whole experience.”