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In College and Cut Off?: Experts Have Advice to Ease the Transition

Going to college is exciting, but it can be jarring when the reality of leaving home and friends behind hits. Here is some expert advice on adjusting.
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Going away to college is a new and exciting time, full of possibilities, but it also can be jarring when the reality of leaving home and friends behind sinks in.

A recent survey for the JED Foundation’s First Year College Experience found that 60 percent of freshman wished they had more help emotionally preparing for college. Half said they were having a tough time making friends.

“There's a difficulty connecting with people that they don't have a shared history, especially when they come from small tight-knit communities and grew up with the same group of friends since grade school,” said Erika Martinez, a licensed clinical psychologist in Miami. “Humans tend to like things and others that feel 'similar' to ourselves. It can be very scary in a new place because nothing feels familiar.”

Getting comfortable in those new surroundings requires students to make new connections.

Rebecca G. Adams, professor and gerontology program director at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says years of research on friendship finds that it requires three key ingredients: “proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions and a setting that encourages people to confide in each other.​”

Getting involved on campus is probably the quickest way to make friends, experts say: Greek organizations, student clubs, and on-campus jobs or volunteer opportunities put you in close proximity with others, offer ample opportunity for repeated interactions, and many of them encourage students to share their feelings and experiences.

Extroverts often take on activities such as these on their own, but shy or introverted students might have a more difficult time assimilating, said Martinez.

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“Starting off slow and small is key for shy or introverted students,” Martinez said. “Make the effort to attend one event you're curious about once per week and connect with one or two people at the event. It's OK (and completely normal) to scope it out one week and actually connect with people the following week.”

As tempting as it may be to hide out in your dorm room, Martinez suggests fighting the urge and spending time in public areas like student centers, commons, or libraries to increase the likelihood of spontaneous interactions. And making small talk with other students before and after class doesn’t hurt, either, she said. Shy students can challenge themselves to say “hello” to a fellow student at least once a week, then work their way up to one or more a day, Martinez suggests.

Making friends can be particularly difficult for commuter students because they’re not on campus as often as other students. Again, Martinez said, creating opportunities for spontaneous interactions is key.

“Don't just go home after classes are over,” she said. “Set aside some time each week to eat or meet with friends on campus before or after classes.”

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It may also help to play host. Students can organize and suggest off-campus activities, she said.

Martinez adds an encouraging thought for any student feeling lonely: Many other students are in the same boat, so even a small amount of effort to initiate friendship can go a long way.

“Above all, stay open and willing to consider the opportunities that you come across,” Martinez said. “It can be scary, but if you're willing to experience a little discomfort, the new friendships and memories might well be worth it.”