A College Survival Guide

Things parents and students should know from current college kids

8/5/2012
BY CHERIE SPINO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Katie Larose, Allison Dunn,  Kelsy Hernandez, and Haley Ott.
Katie Larose, Allison Dunn, Kelsy Hernandez, and Haley Ott.

It's that time of year: time to shoo the fledglings out of the nest and send them off to college.

Perhaps your child is full of bravado and ready to fly. Or maybe he is a little more uncertain about testing his wings. "All new students go through some level of transition," said Jodi Webb, senior associate dean of students at Bowling Green State University.

Most schools cover first-year survival skills at orientation. But let's face it, two days of advice on everything from paying your bills to drinking to roomie relationships can make a teen's eyes glaze over.

Here, in a condensed form, is the advice that students say they wish they'd paid attention to at orientation. We talked to parents and administrators, too, for their tips on getting off to a good start.

This first year is crucial, according to the research. The better students handle it, the more easily they make it through the next three years, said Jennifer Rockwood, director of the University of Toledo's First Year Experience.

Homesickness

For Nick Hentges, it hit his first night at Kent State University, after his parents had left. "I realized I was living completely by myself," the sophomore from Perrysburg remembers. "It was weird."

Knowing that even the most self-assured students will feel blue occasionally doesn't make it easier when a parent gets that call from a distraught child.

"When you're getting nonstop texts saying, 'I don't like this place' it's natural for parents to try to fix the situation," Ms. Webb said. "But [students] need to work things out for themselves."

That's just the advice Kelsy Hernandez, a sophomore at Ohio State University, got from her mom in Oregon after one particularly rough day. "I had been away from home for a really long time. I called my mom crying," Ms. Hernandez said. "My mom told me to ride it out because that's how you're going to learn to be independent."

Other tips for combating homesickness:

Maddy Mihaly, a junior at Grand Valley State University, calls her mom in Toledo when she travels between classes. She also schedules weekly Skype dates with friends at other schools.

Rob Hentges, Nick's brother and a junior at BGSU, recommends keeping your room door propped open. "People stop in to say hi," he said. "It's a great way to make friends."

Make sure students bring mementoes from home for their room, and don't let them come home too often. It breaks those connections they're forging on campus, Ms. Webb said.

Robert Hentges who is a Bowling Green State University student.
Robert Hentges who is a Bowling Green State University student.

Get organized

You won't be there to tell your child to study or to go to bed. "They need to find some method of tracking assignments and maintaining a schedule," Ms. Webb said. "It can make a big difference."

Whether they use a planner, a white board, or a calendar, students need to know what's up in the coming weeks and prioritize tasks. If they can map out their semester, they'll know ahead of time when the rough weeks will be in terms of tests and assignments.

Your child may have an entire day with no classes. It can be hard for them to get used to this unregimented schedule. Urge them to look at that down time, Ms. Webb said. "What do I do with that? Study, work out, see friends?" Build it into the schedule.

"It is essential to block out time for fun," said Matthew Perry, hall director of UT's Parks Tower. "If you are not having fun, then you need to re-examine your schedule. Do things in advance, to allow for more fun time."

Learn how to study

When 270 incoming freshmen at a recent Ohio University orientation were asked how much schoolwork they did outside of class, a third said less than an hour a week.

That's not going to fly at college. Work is tougher, and there's more of it. A lack of study skills is a big issue for many students, Ms. Rockwood said.

Nick Hentges admits that he's a work in progress. He didn't have to study much in high school, but "in college you study or you fail," he said.

Ms. Hernandez said she, too, learned that in college, everything counts. "I was told but never really listened -- what you put into it you get out of it," she said.

And take it from students who've been there: "Distractions are a huge issue," said Nick, whose grades suffered in his first semester. "Instead of studying I'd find other things to do -- the Internet, cable TV."

Establishing a daily routine helped Nick. His brother Rob came up with a reward system. If he did his work or wrote a paragraph for a paper, he'd get some Internet time.

It also helps to find a regular study place. "We bring blankets and study on the quad or reserve a study room in the library," said Becca Gerken, a sophomore at John Carroll University. Studying with friends helps her. "It's nice to be able to talk about classes and bounce ideas off each other for papers."

It may take that first semester for students to find a rhythm and figure it all out. Be patient.

Ask for help

Ms. Hernandez struggled with a math class. She knew her roommate was getting As, so she asked her for help. She also went to the math lab and sought her professor's aid. "A lot of students are shy but you have to reach out," she said.

It doesn't matter if a student got straight As in high school. There's bound to be a class in college that will kick her butt. And when it does, she has to be proactive about seeking help, said Alana Malik, assistant director in the Office of Residence Life at UT.

"There are a lot of academic resources beyond the professors," she said. "A student has to seek them out. It's OK to ask for help."

Stress relievers

When the work mounted and stress soared, Ms. Gerken found herself eating more. She and her roommate started exercising together. "It was a way to get my mind off school and the drama with friends," the sophomore said.

Exercise also is how Ms. Mihaly stays sane. "When I have a rough day there's nothing I want to do more than swim a few laps or run a few miles," she said. "I focus on something completely different so I can come back and focus on school."

Physical exercise may not work for everyone. But whatever they choose--ping pong, reading, playing video games--students need to find something that helps them let off some steam.

Get connected

"When they feel connected to the faculty or their peers, it tends to make them feel better about being [at school]," Ms. Webb said.

You've probably been preaching this for years, but keep preaching. Your circle of friends makes all the difference. "It's important to find a group of friends who have the same priorities, who have your same beliefs and morals," Ms. Gerken said.

She also likes to have one activity just for her. She joined her campus' Humans vs. Zombies game, trying to rid John Carroll of Zombies with her Nerf gun. "My friends weren't into it," she said, "But I like running around just having fun and being childish."

Another way to make connections is to get a job.

Rob Hentges, who works in the audio visual department at BGSU's student union, recommends working on campus. "[On-campus employers] work well with your class schedule," he said. "They're cool with me studying on the job. And I've made friends I wouldn't have otherwise."

Ms. Mihaly, on the other hand, likes getting away from campus at her job at a physical therapy office in Grand Rapids, Mich. When everything you do is on campus, you can feel trapped, she said. Her job is a "great outlet to get away from the 20-something drama and be with adults," she said, "I hear about [my co-workers'] kids instead of worrying about who wore my skirt."

Communicate

If your child has been used to her own room and bathroom, living with someone can be one of the hardest adjustments. Adapting is all about communication and compromise.

"Communicating with your roommates makes all the difference in the world," Ms. Webb said. "The little things can add up, and by November you're ready to explode."

Resident advisers can work with students early on to identify pitfalls and write up room agreements.

And it's no great crime if it doesn't work out. "You can always move to a new room," Ms. Malik said.

Students should also take advantage of their RAs. Ms. Gerken lived just two doors down from hers. "It was like having a mom away from home, someone to talk to," she said. "It was nice having that security away from home."

It's also smart for students to get to know their professors. It can only help if professors can connect a face to a name. "It may feel intimidating, but students need to take that risk," Ms. Webb said.

Handling money

Cathie Schmidt, a Toledo mother of four, made her kids accountable for their financial aid and tuition bills. Sure, they got into a bit of trouble occasionally. One of them forgot to look at his bills online and ended up paying at least $100 in late fees on a $300 bill. "At some point they have to take responsibility for doing these things on their own," she said.

Ms. Gerken also struggled a bit as she learned how to manage money on her own. "I ended up overdrawing my bank account because I wasn't paying attention to how much I had in there," she said.

Keep an open mind

College is such a great opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds, Ms. Webb said. Staying open to new experiences is a critical component to adjusting to campus life.

"Don't be in too much of a hurry," Ms. Schmidt said. "It's one of the most rewarding times of your life so explore, be curious, and find out what sparks your interest." Her son was a political science major, but took an EMT class because he's always wanted to be a paramedic. Now he is one.

Flexibility also means knowing when things just aren't going right. Ms. Schmidt's daughter wasn't comfortable at school. It wasn't a good fit, so she transferred. Ms. Schmidt doesn't recommend this for everyone, but she said it was the right move for her daughter. "Don't think that because you started a major or made a decision to go to a certain school that you can't change it," she said. "Listen to your instincts."

This last bit of advice may not make any of the survival guides, but according to Rob Hentges, it's the one tip your student must heed: "Nothing makes you look like more of a freshman than asking to use the bathroom in class." So, hands down and no one will get embarrassed.

Tips for Parents

The hardest part for students when they go away is learning to do everything for themselves. The most difficult thing for parents? Letting go. It's time to "park that helicopter and let them grow up," said Jennifer Rockwood, UT's director of the First Year Experience. Try these tips.

● Trust. "We've had 18 years to give them information and they've absorbed more than we know," said Cathie Schmidt, who's getting ready to send her fourth child off to college. "Give them time to remember what we've told them and apply it."

● Be a good listener, but be supportive from a distance. Your child will make mistakes. It's not easy to watch them struggle or fail, but let them deal with the consequences and resolve issues themselves. "Tell them, 'You'll hit bumps in the road. You'll have difficult courses, friendships,'" Ms. Rockwood said. "Students need to feel as though they can get through things."

● Reinforce behavior expectations that have been set at home. Those don't change because you're not on campus, said Jodi Webb, senior associate dean of students at Bowling Green State University. "Newfound freedom is pretty exciting, but with freedom comes responsibility. They have to make good decisions," she said.

● While you want to make sure things are going well, don't hover. There's a fine line and it may take some time to figure out what feels right for you and your child. "Students are so connected to parents with cell phones and texting it doesn't allow them to grow and learn to make their own choices," Ms. Rockwood said.

So negotiate with your child about how much communication they want from home. "If you don't hear from them as much it's not a bad sign," Ms. Webb said. "It means they've gotten caught up in their life here." Which is, ultimately, what you want.