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In this season, many parents/families who just sent their student to college are looking for ways to relate to their students without knowing what they might be experiencing on-campus/living in the dorms.

New experiences, new knowledge, and a new understanding of themselves are all themes related to students experiencing their first year in college. It is commonly known that the transition into college is often accompanied by many challenges, including, homesickness, depression, inability to fit in, and financial instability. Freshman year of college is known for being full of new experiences, but it also presents a variety of challenges.

The W-Curve is a model used to explain the adjustment process your student might be experiencing in terms of emotional patterns. Here are some examples of what your student might be grappling with their first year according to Zeller & Mosier (1993):

Honeymoon: “Muy excited!”

Your student may have the enthusiasm to meet new folks, be excited to be independent, and be ready to hit the ground running.  Throughout orientation, there are promises for how wonderful their experiences can be on campus, the excellent resources available to them, and a multitude of opportunities to become involved on campus.  New students are inundated with events and activities during the first week and may feel obligated to spend time only with their peers on their floor or roommate.

Culture shock: “Can I come home?”

This is when students begin to feel lost and notice that the excitement about living on their own is no more. Students will compare themselves to others on campus and to what they’ve seen college to be portrayed in movies and television.  They may also notice the stretch in academic demands which can set off a tailspin for missing home and wanting to retreat back into their comfort zones.

Initial Adjustment: “I think I can… maybe?”

With time and support, your student can continue to find their social groups on campus and develop a routine as they venture out and become more familiar with campus life and new academic and social environments. Their calls home may be full of excitement. You may also find that they call less, which can be a sign that your student is adjusting well to their new life. Still, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open via phone or email.

Mental Isolation: “Nope, I’m not college material…”

With the holidays taking place around the first 3-4 months of the academic year, your student may have gone home at the end of October or the end of November which may have been great at the time but could also ignite another round of homesickness. Your student may become insecure and have some misgivings about their new environment as they remember the comforts of home and childhood friends. They wonder if college is really for them and may question their purpose in pursuing higher education.

Acceptance and Integration: “Let’s do this!”

Your student at some point will finally feel a part of the college community, often thinking of it as home. You might find this stage the most difficult because it means that your student has really left the nest and is beginning to develop their own sense of independence apart from you.

Encourage them to keep going and know that looping back to other phases in this model is common as life continues to unravel.  Your student will undoubtedly miss out on family events, joyous births, untimely deaths, but in the end, they are also on their path towards creating the life they truly desire.

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About Lisa Caldera, Ed.D.

Born in the San Gabriel Valley but raised in Moreno Valley, CA, Dr. Lisa Caldera is a first-generation college student from a low-income family background. She became the first person in her family to earn a doctorate and dedicated her research to undocumented college student experiences. She serves as the Senior Associate Dean leading a team of case managers who oversee crisis response, support, and resources for all Stanford undergraduates.