Paul Burgett recalls the excitement he felt his first few day as a freshman violin major at college. He'd won much acclaim as a high school musician in his hometown, and was sure that
college would be only a way station on his fast track to an international concert career. Then he heard the other students practicing.
"There was the terrible moment when I feared that the admissions office had made a mistake, and I would soon receive a second letter asking me to leave under the cover of darkness to spare everyone the embarrassment," said Mr. Burgett, who is now the vice president and university dean of students at the University of Rochester, the school where he had been a freshman.
4 "My notions of talent were radically redefined."
The freshman year of college is punctuated by feelings of panic and incompetence. Psychologists and university administrators say that for most students the fears are predictable and may help them make the transition to adulthood.
The early teen-age years are a time for children to experiment with separating from their parents. By taking more control of their social lives and by earning some of their own money, they can test what it's like to be more independent. Throughout this early testing, however, their parents are still nearby, providing a safety net.
The first few months at college give late adolescents a chance to fly without that net, with all the excitement and terror that freedom naturally provides.
During freshman orientation the students may appear uncomfortable around their parents and ask them to leave quickly, or at least walk on the other side of the campus. They are sure their anxieties are abnormal and that they must impress their new classmates with how mature and independent they really are.
"They're champing at the bit," said Dr. Charles W. Ross, the director of counseling services at Oberlin College in Ohio. "But they're feeling ambivalent, lonely and abandoned. They're thinking, 'Oh my God, I really got what I asked for!' "
For the first time, many adolescents must make decisions about how they will spend their time, when they will eat, when they will sleep and what they will study. They must go from the top of high school to the bottom of a new hierarchy. And they must find new friends among strangers.
"It's like moving to a foreign country," said Karen Levin Coburn, an associate dean of students at Washington University in St. Louis, and co-author of "Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Today's College Experience" (1992, Adler & Adler, $12.95). "There's a new landscape, a new culture, and a new language full of acronyms and nicknames. Even the food is different."
While some entering freshmen may express their anxieties directly, many send their messages obliquely. They may withdraw or show a great deal of bravado.
Their phone calls home may contain complaints about the workload ("I have to read four books and write two papers this week!") or fanciful descriptions of the school's food ("We call it mystery meat, Mom. Someone said it was owl.")
"They sound so scared that it's tempting to jump in with both feet and save them," Dr. Ross said. "But they really need to be encouraged that they can handle it."
There's sometimes a paradox in the complaints parents hear. By describing the cramped dorm rooms and institutional food, they are reassuring themselves that they are mature enough to handle the challenges they face. By complaining about the heavy workload, they are letting their parents know that they are getting their money's worth out of the tuition.
Similarly confusing communications can be heard from younger teen-agers attending a boarding school for the first time.
"They'll call up their parents and punish them with everything that's bad about this place, even though they may well be happy when they're not on the phone," said Henry Wilmer, the dean of students and residential life at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where 80 percent of the students live on campus.
Making the transition
Students who have the most difficulty "are often those who have had the fewest experiences with people who are different from them," said Dr. Paul Burgett, the vice president and university dean of students at the University of Rochester.
Even the most worldly freshmen, however, sometimes feel overwhelmed during the first few months of college. If you get a panicked phone call, here are some things to bear in mind:
* Say less than you used to say.
Remember that one of the main tasks of children this age is to handle things independently. Often the first step in gaining the confidence to do that is simply venting their feelings.
"Encourage them to hang in there, but don't give them a lot of advice and platitudes," said Dr. Charles W. Ross, the director of XTC counseling services at Oberlin College in Ohio.
* Assure children that it's normal to have some problems adjusting.
New students have a distorted perception of how their classmates are experiencing the transition. University
administrators routinely describe meeting with freshman roommates individually, each of whom is frightened and depressed and thinks the other is having no difficulty with college at all.
"There's a feeling that everyone else is so much more confident and comfortable, but that's not true," said Karen Levin Coburn, an associate dean of students at Washington University in St. Louis.
* Look at your own emotions and the changes in your self-image.
Remember that freshmen aren't the only ones who must deal with the changes brought about by the first year of college. "Many parents are struggling with issues of control and power in their new relationship with their child," said Mr. Burgett. "What does it mean to their own lives that their child has gone away?"