Transitioning to College

You may already have a child in college, in which case you know the thoughts, feelings, circumstances, and brand new situations that arise when a child leaves home for the first time. It’s a big deal, and we understand that because many of us also are the families of college-age children and empathize with your experience.

What Students Can Expect

High school students making the transition to college face exhilarating and stressful challenges. They move into residence halls and meet new roommates, receive a ton of information, meet faculty advisers, learn their way around the campus, take placement exams, do laundry for the first time, and on and on. It’s a lot of change and information to absorb in a very short period of time. Fortunately, the College of Engineering has a network of faculty, student services staff, and student peer advisers available to answer questions and lend their support.

Making new friends and becoming accepted by a peer group are high priorities among new college students. Cornell Engineering enjoys a rich diversity of students, faculty members, and staff, providing a great opportunity to develop friendships with people of many cultural and personal backgrounds.

Study practices, which may have served students well in high school, may no longer be effective, as Cornell’s workload and assignment deadlines are very challenging. New students may feel inadequate when they receive a less-than-perfect grade for the first time in their lives—we certainly encourage you to be as understanding as possible about this, especially at first. Working on time management, gaining study and exam preparation skills, seeking clarification from professors and teaching assistants, and studying collaboratively with other students and tutors are helpful adaptive strategies. Support for Engineering Students describes services available to students to help with these areas.

Freedom and independence are both a privilege and a burden for first-year students. In high school they adhered to an academic and social schedule set primarily by parents and teachers. In college, they are responsible for their course load, study schedule, and social lives. In addition, many are taking on routine responsibilities for the first time, such as handling a checking account, doing laundry, and making appointments. Learning to be self-disciplined, lead a balanced life, and be responsible are part of a typical maturation process.

Exploring self-identity occurs as the year progresses. As students enter college and their independence increases, they often bump up against their value systems and attitudes toward such things as alcohol, drugs, religion, sexuality, and morality. Families might also notice changes such as mode of dress, a new hair color, tattoos, and so on. This is rarely a rebellion against you and your values; usually, it simply means the students are exploring self-identity in a new environment with newfound independence.

What can you do?

Much like their children, families of first-year college students often go through a wide range of changes and emotions. In addition to the joy and pride that accompany the realization that their child is taking important steps toward maturity and independence, families may experience, as well, a sense of loss and sadness attendant on their loved one’s leave-taking. Often mingled with this potent blend of feelings is a general concern, or even some anxiety, for the child’s well-being in a new and challenging place. Remember that Cornell and the College of Engineering provide a wide variety of support services to help new students and their families work through the transition.

The following suggestions combine ideas from Student Services staff members and engineering students.

  • Write or email often and send care packages. Your student may not always write back, but he or she will certainly appreciate hearing from you and receiving reminders of your love and support. It will help your child feel more secure and better able to concentrate on their studies. But use caution! Write often enough to let them know you care but not so often to be perceived as intrusive or controlling. Do try to respond quickly when you receive a letter or email or text.
  • Call. Show interest in your student’s studies and extracurricular activities, keeping in mind, however, the fine line between showing interest and asking too many questions. Understand that first-year college students feel newly independent and may not want to share everything. In addition, negotiating a designated time for you to call is a good idea. Early in the morning or late at night may not be optimal.
  • Listen, be supportive and patient. Students often stumble or falter as they experiment to find out who they are and who they want to be. Listen to their goals, successes, and failures, being mindful that they hope for your approval and support as they test the waters of adulthood. Try to be as understanding as possible about grades. Likewise, don’t be overly concerned if your student calls home with a case of homesickness or the blues, unless you sense that something is seriously wrong. More often than not, they will come away from your conversation feeling better able to move on and cope with the problem. You can always call back the next day to follow up, and if you’re seriously concerned you can contact Engineering Advising or Cornell Health if you feel the situation warrants immediate attention.
  • Encourage maturity and responsibility. These traits are highly valued in college. We encourage students to talk directly with faculty, staff, and other students in order to solve problems and keep their goals in sight. Be supportive of their own investigation and analysis of problems and solutions, but try to refrain from making decisions for them.
  • Don’t compare your college experience with your child’s! Resist the temptation to tell your child that they “will have the time of their lives.” Their own experience may feel quite different, at least from this early perspective. And times have changed, after all.