GW needs to provide more support to freshmen struggling with college transition

Since my first day of high school, I’ve looked forward to college. The thought of leaving home left me dreaming about the independence and opportunity to try new things in college, and I even started counting down the days until high school graduation. But University life was not what I expected.

Like many freshmen, I was unaware and unprepared for the toll leaving my home in Florida behind and starting over would have on me. When I got out of my parents’ car in August, I entered West Hall with very little idea of what I was going to be up against. In the coming days and weeks, feelings of anxiety, stress, loneliness and homesickness all seemed to drop on me like a ton of bricks. I was overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness from not being able to acclimate, and I started to neglect healthy habits like sleeping and eating. During my worst moments, I had no idea how to pull myself out of this rut or recognize what I was going through.

Both my peers at GW and friends from home seemed exhilarated by their new freedom, leaving me to feel ashamed by my personal struggle. I questioned whether I was cut out for college at all. But I now realize that my story is far from unique, and these stressors are familiar to far more freshmen than just me.

The words “transition” and “adjustment” don’t hold weight until you’re actually experiencing them. GW must implement better programming aimed at addressing the enormous change and emotional toll of the freshman experience during Colonial Inauguration and throughout the fall semester.

The freshman year of college is a breeding ground for potential disruptions to mental health.

At CI, emphasis was placed on the academic transition from high school to college. In reference to study habits, a panel of professors sternly warned us, “High school is not college!” A skit performed by CI guides showed a freshman struggling to balance friends, classes and student organizations, even though she had done so successfully in high school. But that wasn’t enough.

The University had placed so much emphasis on academic change and the scholarly evolution from high school to college that consequently, I was in no way prepared for the other difficult changes I would experience in the fall. College is more than an academic change. New friends, home and schedule: It is an enormous lifestyle transition that many are ill-prepared for and don’t anticipate.

The Mayo Clinic addresses mental health issues concerning college newcomers by explaining that “dealing with these changes during the transition from adolescence to adulthood can trigger or unmask depression during college in some young adults.” A yearly study at the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute showed that in 2016, freshmen nationally reached a nearly 50-year record high when 11.9 percent affirmed that they felt “frequently” depressed. Mental health issues that go beyond the off day or bouts of nostalgia plague thousands of freshmen across the country each year, but very little is done to prepare students for it at GW.

CI programming already informs students of available mental health resources like counseling provided by Mental Health Services at the Colonial Health Center, the GW Listens peer support line and the CARE Network. But very little is currently included to educate students on how to separate a difficult few weeks from a serious lack of emotional well-being. This must change.

I was quick to brush off my struggles as weakness and a personal failing rather than a serious ailment. The freshman blues are often glossed over as an embarrassing and minor hardship to the point that they seem like unmentionable and taboo topics. The freshman year of college is a breeding ground for potential disruptions to mental health, and the University needs to improve its methods of addressing it.

Supporting new students as they enter college life should be a priority for the University.

Northwestern University added mental health sessions centered around stories of resilience and small group discussion to its freshman orientation in 2013, and GW should do something similar. During CI, small group leaders already address issues like drug and alcohol use, roommate disagreements and registration tips. This is the University’s chance to provide a space where potential emotional hurdles can be freely addressed, effectively preparing freshmen for the enormous changes they will face in their first semester. This kind of programming is invaluable and effective in preparing freshmen for potential transitional challenges.

In addition, freshmen often face mental health hurdles during times beyond move-in day, usually in response to the stress of midterms and missing home. Therefore, concerted efforts should exist to check in with students throughout the semester, too. The University of South Carolina employs a call center that reaches out to new students at least once in the first two weeks of class, while UCLA has devoted the Campus and Student Resilience Program to addressing challenges students often face year-round and promoting methods of endurance.
CI small group leaders should also emphasize to freshmen that they are available for support even after CI ends. GW has a responsibility to continually support freshmen through the struggle of their college transition and to equip them with sound methods to handle emotional hardcomings.

Supporting new students as they enter college life should be a priority for the University. Equipping first-years with the means of overcoming transitional challenges will protect retention, make freshmen more able students and curate future success at GW.

Ronnie Riccobene, a freshman majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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