When Grande Lum first came to the University of California at Berkeley as a student in the 1980s, it was difficult.
The school felt big. He was sharing a room with two strangers for the first time. Everything felt new.
Now he’s the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Menlo College and watches new students come to his campus each year.
“We forget how challenging it is,” he said.
College freshmen often leave behind their familiar surroundings for new peers and places. They confront a whole new set of academic challenges, and they don’t always know what to expect. This is especially true for underrepresented students. But there are things students, parents and universities can do to make the transition more smooth.
Lum advises first-year students to try to spend time on campus or meet classmates in their area before school starts to get comfortable with their new surroundings. He also suggests students focus on developing a few deep friendships early on to build a support system.
For minority students, joining affinity groups can help, he said. When he was in law school at Harvard, he found community in the Asian American Law Students Association.
“Those are people who may be experiencing things in similar ways as you or may have faced similar challenges,” he said. “We all have a multiplicity of identities that can be helpful to our adjustment to a new environment.”
According to Dr. Vinay Saranga, a psychiatrist focused on children and adolescents, parents can play a major role in easing their kids’ transition into college. He recently issued a list of four tips for parents to help with the process.
His first suggestion was for parents and students to create a plan – for everything from the logistics of moving into the dorms to first-semester class schedules – to make sure students feel prepared. Detailed plans help to ease the uncertainty, Saranga said. He also advised parents and children to establish clear communication so students know their parents are interested in how they’re feeling.
To reduce anxiety, Saranga suggested parents encourage mindfulness practices, helping students “stay present” instead of getting “lost in all of the fears, anxieties and ‘what ifs’ that surround the transition to college.”
Lastly, Saranga emphasized having frank conversations about some of the new situations students might encounter at school, including sex, drugs and alcohol use.
“Talk about all of the new freedoms, responsibilities and expectations associated with the college years,” he advised.
But for first-generation and other underrepresented students, parents might not know how to provide that support, and college often comes with an extra set of anxieties, said Sara Urquidez, director of the Texas-based Academic Success Program.
For one thing, students from under-resourced high schools can be intimidated by the new kinds of work they’re asked to do in college, especially if they don’t have family members to guide them.
“They just haven’t had that exposure or experience,” Urquidez said. “Everyone around them seems to know how to write a paper that’s 10 pages, and they just haven’t done that.”
The Academic Success Program – which prepares underrepresented high school students in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for college – runs a week-long boot camp for students about how to navigate the college transition, in addition to small group discussions and one-on-one meetings.
Urquidez and her colleagues cover everything from handling homesickness to finding cheap textbooks. She said the bulk of what she tells students is where they can turn to for help when they hit academic challenges, such as faculty office hours or their campus writing centers.
“We try to make sure that our students understand that professors and TA’s are not scary people,” she said. “They’re actually great humans. I think often our students have not seen their teachers as being accessible outside of the classroom.”
Urquidez’s main advice to incoming college students is to ask questions.
“We want our students to understand these aren’t places where they have to have it all figured out,” she said. “Everybody is in the same boat, and somebody has to be the one to speak up and say they don’t know the answer.”
But it’s not only students’ responsibility to ask for what they need, she said.
“As the campus landscape has changed, as the demographics have changed, as we have less people familiar with college enrolling in these institutions,” colleges and universities need to make sure their orientation programs inform students about the resources available to them, without assuming prior knowledge, she said.
“I think the schools need to take a step back and recognize that this world of higher education as the professionals know it is a different place for a student who doesn’t have any institutional knowledge of what that transition will be like,” said Urquidez.
Lum takes that duty seriously. Menlo College is about 33 percent first-generation students and 50 percent students of color, he said. About 95 percent require some kind of financial aid.
So, the school offers programs aimed at first-years who need extra support, like its Rising Scholars Program, which brings at-risk students to campus a week early to work on their math and English skills.
Meanwhile, Menlo College is launching a pilot program where each full-time faculty member mentors a small group of first-years. The school also just created a new position, enrollment management specialist, specifically to make sure first-years’ needs are met, “like a concierge service.”
Students with parents who went to college can ask them for advice about “what it’s like to go to college, what to expect when you’re living in a residence hall, what it’s like to live away from home,” Lum said. “For students who don’t have that direct experience with college, they’re going to be a little more at a loss, and I think you have to help them connect to each other and provide guidance they might not get from their families.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.