So you're off to college next fall, huh? Get ready to meet incredible friends, learn tons about yourself and grow in your faith like you won't believe.
And be ready for some big challenges. You're about to go through a major life change, complete with emotional, mental and spiritual hurdles to jump over. Knowing what those challenges are—and how to handle them—can help get your college experience off to a great start.
Step 1: Realize Homesickness Is Normal
All through high school, my best friend and I talked about how excited we would be to leave for college and finally get away from our boring small town. So imagine how stunned I was when, a few weeks into our freshman year, she walked into my dorm room in tears. All she could say was, "I miss my family."
Before long, we were both crying and feeling like idiots for being so silly. I mean, we were two independent, mature girls who really wanted to be at college. But we still missed our moms.
If you've ever been homesick, you know it's one of the worst feelings there is. And when you're a college freshman, that awful homesickness is made worse by the feeling that you're supposed to be too old to miss your family so much. But homesickness isn't just something that happens to little kids at camp. It's a natural reaction for anyone leaving the familiar people and places they love.
So what can you do about homesickness? First, let someone know how you're feeling. There will be resident assistants (R.A.'s) in your dorm who are trained to help you work through the emotions that come along with starting college. Or grab a friend to talk to. If you share what's going on inside you, you might just find someone else feeling the same way.
Also, give yourself a chance to adjust. The best pre-college advice I got was from my older brother, who told me not to come home until the first scheduled break in October. He knew from experience those first weeks of college are packed with opportunities to meet new people. If I'd gone home every weekend, I would have missed out on the football games, campus events, and dorm activities that were invaluable in helping me make new friends.
Another way to deal with homesickness is to remember home the way it really was. When I missed home, I thought of my hometown as the most charming place a person could ever live. And I remembered my high school friends as the most exciting people on earth. I'd completely forgotten all those boring Friday nights my friends and I sat around trying to think of something to do.
Most of all, try to think of the good side of homesickness. Instead of focusing on how much you miss your friends and family, think of how God has blessed your life through the people who love you. Write and tell the people you miss how much they mean to you. Homesickness is a sign that you've been given deep, lasting relationships in your life, and they are a precious gift from God.
Step 2: Don't Be Surprised by Loneliness
Homesickness isn't the only emotional whammy to hit some freshmen. A lot of new students, especially those on the shy side, feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness in those first weeks of college. It can seem like everyone else has found a new group of friends to hang around with, leaving you feeling left out and alone.
If you find yourself feeling lonely, there are a few things you can do to get yourself out of the dumps. To start with, remember that while loneliness, like homesickness, is a cruddy feeling, it's also a perfectly natural response to being in a strange, new place.
Do your best to keep a positive perspective on the situation. When you're on a campus full of new people, overcoming even the smallest amount of shyness and making new friends can seem incredibly overwhelming. But you don't have to meet all those people tomorrow. Set small goals for yourself, like getting to know one of your dormmates a little better. You're going to be at college for a few years. You've got plenty of time for friendships to grow slowly and naturally.
Making friends also requires someone to take the first step. If you wait around for someone else to ask you to eat dinner with them, or join them for a movie, you may have to wait a long time. So go ahead and do the asking. Even if you only get up the nerve to ask your R.A. to sit with you at a meal, the chances are good you'll be joined by a few others.
You can also take advantage of classmates. Ask the professor if there's a study group you can join. Or start one of your own with a few people from your favorite class. These groups can give you a great opportunity to get to know people without feeling like you're forcing a friendship.
Make the effort to get hooked into a local church. Many churches in college towns have special Bible studies or fellowship groups just for college students.
And a word of caution: Both homesickness and loneliness are feelings that should fade during your first few months at college. If you still find yourself miserable by the time Christmas break rolls around, talk to your R.A., a campus counselor or your parents.
Step 3: Get Involved
Shy people aren't the only ones who can have a rough time adjusting to college life. If you're the kind of high school student who's well-known and involved in everything, college can have another surprise for you: Anonymity.
I went to a small high school with people I'd known since kindergarten. I was heavily involved in school activities and had a reputation as a student leader. Then I got to college. Suddenly, I was surrounded by students and professors who didn't know anything about me.
If you're like me, the best thing to do is find a niche, a place where your gifts and talents can be expressed and appreciated. If you're into sports, join an intramural team, where players of all levels can find a friendly game. If music is your thing, join a choir, start a band, or become the music critic for the school paper. From the campus theater to the economics club, there are plenty of opportunities to try new activities, find friends with common interests and make a name for yourself on campus.
If you're not the "joining" type, don't worry. You can still avoid fading into the background just by meeting new people. Colleges, as big as they sometimes feel, are actually small places. You'll be amazed at how quickly you begin to recognize faces and learn names once you arrive on campus. The college I attended had a great orientation week where freshmen were put into small groups. After my first week on campus, I knew that group pretty well, along with the 30 girls in my dorm hall and a couple of other freshmen I knew from high school. As those people introduced me to their roommates and new friends, my circle of acquaintances grew quickly.
Step 4: Prepare to Study
For some college freshmen, the biggest stress is the academic pressure. Until you experience college classes for yourself, no one can say how hard or easy they'll be for you. But no matter how challenging you find your studies, one thing's for sure: They won't be anything like high school.
For starters, most classes are set up as lectures, meaning you listen while the professor talks. And as you listen you're supposed to take notes. If you've never taken notes before, this can be a pretty tricky task, since no one can write as fast as a professor talks. But most profs don't expect you to write down every word they say, just the main points and supporting details. When test time rolls around, you'll be glad your notes are logical and easy to read. Another tip: If the professor puts something on the board, write it down. It's safe to assume that info will be fair game on quizzes and exams.
You'll also discover the classes are longer, sometimes lasting nearly an hour and a half. That can be a very long time to focus on one subject. To help yourself out, bring a snack, or something cold to drink. (That's right. You can usually eat in class.) Surprisingly, the whole note-taking thing helps too. It keeps you involved in the class and makes the time go faster.
You can also help yourself out by completing class assignments on time. That may seem like obvious advice, but with all the distractions of college life, it's easy to get behind. On the first day of class, your professor will probably hand out something called a syllabus—a list that tells you what will be covered in the course, including reading assignments, test dates and other projects. Since most of your big papers and tests will come later in the term, stay caught up, or even work ahead, on the reading and smaller projects. It takes a lot of discipline, but it's well worth the effort.
And what about those professors? Well, they really are people. And most of them genuinely want to help you get the most out of class. Yes, they expect a lot from students. They expect you to do the work they assign and do your best at it. As long as my professors saw I was trying to do a good job, they were very willing to help me out when I needed it.
Step 5: Handle Your Freedom Responsibly
No matter how shy or outgoing you are, college presents one challenge every new student faces: dealing with newfound independence. When you're in high school, the freedom of college life—making your own schedule, choosing your own friends, and coming and going when you please—sounds awfully appealing. But with that new independence comes a lot of responsibility.
When you're in charge of yourself, everything from laundry to choosing a major becomes your job. Since I hate getting up early (like before noon), I arranged my schedule so I didn't have a single class until 10:30 a.m. The problem was, I didn't like getting up at 10 any more than I liked getting up at 7 back in high school. And since I was free to hit the snooze bar as many times as I wanted with no mom to get me going, it was pretty tempting to let that 10:30 class start without me. As much as I had looked forward to being on my own, part of me wished my parents were still helping me make decisions.
Part of being independent means getting yourself through the day without a major crisis. But it also means making choices that will affect the rest of your life. Once you're on your own, it's tempting to do the things you may have said no to in high school—things like drinking, experimenting with drugs or having sex. Even at a Christian college, you might be tempted to put your values aside for a night or two and let loose. And it can be awfully difficult not to give in. But the consequences of these decisions can be a lot more serious than an unpaid phone bill or dirty laundry.
There are things you can do before going to college that can prepare you for your coming "independence day." For example, if you don't already have your own bank account, ask your parents to help you set one up. Then, see how you can manage your own money for the next few months. Make sure you know how to do the laundry. And learn to cook a few simple meals.
Most importantly, keep your spiritual life strong. Develop habits for prayer and Bible study you can take with you to college. And ask your family and friends to pray for you as you take this next step in life. When you hit campus, you'll be ready to handle the responsibility that comes with your new freedom.
Step 6: Get Ready to Grow in Your Faith
For me, all these other changes were easy to deal with compared to the changes I went through with my faith. When I arrived at my small Christian college, I thought I knew exactly who God was and what my life as a Christian was all about.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
As I sat in my classes and talked with other students, I realized my faith was something I'd never really thought about for myself. I actually had to think about why I believed what I did. And as I thought about it, my faith was stretched more than it ever had been before.
You may think that attending a Christian college will mean you'll be surrounded by Christians who think just like you. Fortunately, that's not the case. Without others to challenge us, our faith can become stale. We need to ask questions of each other, and be prepared to discuss our lives as Christians. When we do, our understanding of our amazing God grows and our faith becomes stronger. In fact, our faith really begins to become more and more our own—not just an extension of what our parents or friends believe.
To my surprise, I made it through my freshman year in pretty good shape. Sure, there were tough times. But I have lots of great memories, too—like Nerd Bowling with our "brother floor," midnight ice-cream runs with my roommate, and endless laughs with the girls who lived in my dorm. And God used all of it, the hard parts and the fun parts, to help me grow in my relationship with him.
Between homesickness, finding new friends and meeting the demands of your classes, starting college is full of challenges. But with a little confidence, a little courage and a lot of prayer, you're going to have the time of your life!