Change is good. Change is hard. Change happens.
It is that very inevitability that makes change predictable, though not necessarily anticipated. Linear change, including grade progressions, graduations and other milestones (such as a first driver’s license, a first job and the loss of older family members) is expected. Other, nonlinear ones, such as a firing from a job or the death of a sibling, may prove particularly challenging.
Ironically, it may well be that one of the most anticipated and planned/worked-for changes is also one that poses some of the greatest risk to young people. What is it? The transition from high school to college.
While we know that, from a mental health perspective, life transitions of most any kind present challenges, it is the hop, skip and a jump from twelfth grade to the first year of college that proves so difficult for so many. The hurdles young people face as they embark on a journey punctuated by increased autonomy include finding their “tribe” in a new environment, creating a balance between work and play and, perhaps most important, knowing when to ask for help.
Some, such as 20-year-old Adam Rosen, a sophomore at Tufts University in Massachusetts, find the transition to college presented more opportunities than hardships. In an October 2017 presentation to the national advisory board of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), of which he is a student member, Adam outlined three primary spheres of change: interpersonal (developing rapport with peers), personal (exploring new interests and passions) and environmental (taking personal responsibility for good, or not so good, choices). Adam seems to have mastered all three.
For others, including 19-year-old Declan Hayes, a first-year student at Xavier University in Ohio, the initial experience of college can be more daunting. He told me, “For me, the most challenging aspect has been making friends. I often struggle with putting myself out to new people with whom I have no prior interaction, which is essentially what you have to do when moving to a whole new environment. Loneliness is hard to cope with and the only real remedy for it is finding friends and companions, which can be difficult when you’re lonely.”
In truth, the complexities associated with adjusting to this change begin months, if not years, earlier. It is now widely acknowledged that the college search, selection, application and admission process is, at best, flawed. To wit, the January 2016 release of “Turning the Tide,” a report shepherded by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and representing the input of colleges nationwide, was an important step forward in articulating the excesses, and stark inadequacies, of the college admissions process. Intended to reduce the stress of student applicants, the report’s recommendations address such things as standardized test scores, which many colleges already treat as optional; advanced placement courses, which not every school offers; and a quality over quantity approach to extracurricular activity and service.
All of that can’t come a moment too soon. Yet such change can be slow to manifest.
The November 1, 2017, article in The New York Times “What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything)” states, “The admissions process is out of whack. Just ask the heartbroken applicant, rejected by her dream school. Ask high school counselors, who complain that colleges don’t reward promising students for their creativity, determination or service to others. Even the gatekeepers at some famous institutions acknowledge, quietly, that the selection system is broken.”
Broken and not inconsequential.
A survey by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation identified school, including concerns about college, as a critical source of stress for young people. In addition, a survey of stress by the American Psychological Association suggests that teens are experiencing levels of stress equal to, and in some cases greater than, that of adults. And they know it, self-reporting feelings of being overwhelmed, sad, depressed and tired. As one professor put it, “At school there is a range of academic pressure we feel, derived from a need for perfection worry over grades, parental pressure, competition, sports, or a tough class load.”
Janel Young, a school counselor at La Plata High School in Maryland, says, “For the majority of students, the college admissions process is the most stressful, soul-searching, life-changing process they’ve had to experience.” Young, and likely many others like her across the country, has come to recognize the gap that high school juniors and seniors face between planning for college and maintaining a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
Dan Rubin, director of guidance at Newton South High School in Massachusetts, told me, “The work of school counselors is increasingly intense. Some parents and even some school personnel now regard getting into the ‘right” college as the most important developmental milestone of adolescence. There’s a lot of catastrophizing going on.”
Similarly, in a March 2015 New York Times review of Frank Bruni’s book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia University, writes, “Getting into a top college, even for the most accomplished high school students, has become a mad scramble.” Rubin adds, “Some kids are so focused on arriving at the school of their choice they don’t know what to do when they get there.”
In addition, droves of them are arriving on campuses already being treated for mood disorders. According to a 2014 report, 86 percent of colleges counseling directors cite a continuous increase in the number of students who arrive on campus on psychiatric medication.
Dramatic research conducted by The Jed Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and The Jordan Porco Foundation concluded, “60 percent of first-year college students wish they had received more help with the emotional preparation for college.” Further, the organizations’ joint report states, “The vast majority of students (87%) reported that during high school, there was more emphasis on being academically ready rather than emotionally ready for college, and 50% said their independent living skills need improvement.”
In its publication “Depression and College Students,” the National Institute of Mental Health discusses 2009 data revealing that about 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year. While depression is but one trigger of suicide (others include substance use disorder and disruptive disorders such as ones related to conduct, attention deficits and identity), it is a significant one.
And here the news is decidedly bad.
An April 2016 release of data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that suicides in America are at a near thirty-year high. A year earlier, the CDC and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center each listed suicide as a leading cause of death among college students. And the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stated that about one in thirteen young adults had serious thoughts of suicide from 2013-2014.
But there may be some bright lights at the end of the tunnel.
Organizations such as The Jed Foundation, the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and CARE are working hard to amplify the mental health priorities for youth and to build a sturdy bridge of support from high school to college.
In particular, Jed offers a wide variety of programming, including The Jed Campus Program, a nationwide initiative designed to empower schools with a framework and customized support to enhance student mental health and help with substance abuse and suicide prevention efforts, and Set to Go, a program to emotionally prepare high schools students for impending transition.
For its part, the University of New Hampshire Psychological and Counseling Services advises first-year students to remember what coping skills they’ve used during past transitions and to try the following.
Explore new interests, discover new places, and meet new people. These experiences contribute to college life and help keep you inspired about your academic education.
Before committing to any one group or trend, students should take their time getting to know other students, investigating different activities, and deciding what makes them feel most comfortable. Affiliations change a great deal over the course of the first year as students become more knowledgeable and confident.
Participate and prioritize. No one can do everything. When students narrow their focus, they often feel less overwhelmed. Finding a passion is one of the most exciting aspects of the college experience.
Personalize the experience. It’s easy for students to feel lost in the crowd. Students who take responsibility for their education by seeking out particular adults often have the best experience. Getting to know professors will personalize college and help the student feel connected to an institution that may seem impersonal.
Be patient. It takes time to understand the rhythm of a new academic life and for students to develop a personal learning/studying style. Over the first semester it becomes easier to understand the flow of work and realize how to accommodate different teachers’ standards and course requirements.
Evaluate the fit. Assessing how expectations meet reality during the first year is a necessary process. Some disappointment or surprises are not unusual and may require some fine tuning; adjusting one’s course load, changing majors, [or] rethinking involvement in activities. Sometimes a school turns out to be different from what was anticipated or students learn more about what truly will suit their needs. Students should get guidance and explore options and certainly consider changing schools if that’s what seems best.
Never ignore a problem. Both academic and emotional challenges are most successfully managed early when small.
Similarly, Declan offered some valuable hindsight in explaining to me, “In thinking back to what I wish I knew before I came to college, it would be that not everyone’s experience is perfect. Not everyone finds his or her perfect fit in school and it is not necessarily going to be the smooth ride that it is many times depicted to be. I know many people who are having a great time in college, but I personally have not. I think that letting students know what struggles they might face is important, but also letting them know these struggles are natural and that they are not the only ones experiencing them is important as well.”
Finally, on a less granular level, Olympic Gold Medalist Joe Jacobi, in his article “The Art of Transition,” provides some 50,000-foot wisdom to help guide our young people as they tackle the shift from high school to college. He writes, “I don’t pretend to understand more about transition than anyone else. But … I’ve discovered the positive results that come from rounding off the hard corners of a transition.
“People who approach life transitions as they would anticipate a hard right or left turn at an intersection put themselves in a blind spot.
“Blind spots are uncertain and intimidating.
“Charge at them – or retreat from them – at your own risk. With either choice, you leave a lot to chance.
“But when you re-sculpt important transitions … as rounded off corners, you gain:
1. A wider view of what’s ahead.
2. A little runway to gain momentum.
“So how do you change your perspective of transitions as hard turns to become round corners?
1. Let go of the belief that the momentum will stop. It doesn’t. Just as on a river, life’s current takes all shapes, sizes, speeds and gradients. It always keeps moving, which means you are continually in transition.
2. Practice transitioning. To improve at anything is a function of practice. If you regularly test the small decision points within your day, then the big transition times will feel less scary.
3. Strengthen your center. The constant state of transition is a never-ending, out-and-back process of moving to your edges where you can affect change. Then, you relax and come back to a strong center.
What weakens your center? Stress, fear and desperation which are basically extended periods of tension. Counter those with small, curve inducing intentional investments in yourself every day.
Your body, mind, and spirit will learn to softly expand without the unwelcome tension of a hard corner.
Lose the hard corners. Build gentler curves. Round them with purpose. This is the art of transition.”
This is the art of change.