As your teenager heads off to college, it is often a time fraught with worries around the change. After all, if you’ve been living with your child for their entire life, they physical distance alone can be challenging. Add to that new academic pressures, social and relationship changes, and newfound freedoms, there is a lot of change happening all at once. For many students, going to college is a mix of excitement and fear of the unknown. It can be intimidating to show up at a new campus without any sense of where they belong. And that’s why finding a way to make their college campus a little smaller, regardless of the size of the institution, can go a long way in helping your student feel connected to school. Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about campus involvement, and how you can help. After you’ve read it – share some of the tips with your college-bound student.
Ask any adult who went to college and you’re likely to find that some of their closest friends were people they met in college. The time after high school can be great for self-learning and identity development, as well as a time to make new and lasting friendships.
Samia Ali, a sophomore at the University of Washington, joined a pre-health organization for minority students in her first week on campus. Having attended a small high school, Ali found the transition to a large university to be a big adjustment.
“It’s awkward to make new friends and you’re just like starting over,” Ali explains. “Joining the org gave me something to look forward to when I had a bad day, and some of them became my best friends. We give each other advice, and introduce each other to our other friends.”
From Greek life to the surf club, sports teams to video gamers, minority-centric groups to the school newspaper, there are so many options for students to get involved on campus, it can seem overwhelming. A good place to start is with something that feels important, or personal, to your student.
“Tell them to get involved in something they’re passionate about,” says Eric Lambert, executive director at APCA – the Association for Promotion of Campus Activities, a group that advocates for and encourages student engagement. “The goal is to find your own passion and follow it.”
“It’s important to find a place where you have people with the same interest and same questions or like-mindedness where within that group you’re normal,” says Dr. Shari Sevier, a retired school counselor and director of advocacy for the Missouri School Counselors Association. She references the popular television show The Big Bang Theory as an example. “You had a bunch of nerds there, but they are all considered normal by the others. That’s important, you have a group that says ‘I don’t care how different you are but we still have these things in common’.”
So whatever the organization your student chooses, the most important part is that your student feels welcome and supported, and that they’re excited by what they’re doing. Sevier reminds parents that this isn’t about you or your activities. Try not to project what you did in college, or what you want them to be involved in, to them. “They need to find their own way.”
Information about activities and organizations can be found in various places throughout campus. In the first few weeks of school there are often recruiting events on campus. They’re usually located in a central place on campus, like the quad or student union. It was during that recruitment time when Ali learned of her student organization. She took a flyer, and showed up on a whim for the first meeting. Encourage your student to take as many flyers and gather as much information as they want during this time. They can always pick and choose what they want to commit to at a later date.
“Many universities and colleges have on-campus events to showcase different things that are going on around campus,” Ali says. “Take a moment, take a breath, and let it happen naturally. Just see what’s out there.”
Dorms can also be a great way to learn of upcoming activities, as well as serve as their own communities.
“[Students] can also attach to groups that have academic attachments,” Lambert says. “We have learning communities that stay together in dorms.” That type of community living and learning experience can have a lot of appeal for some students before they even arrive on campus. Make sure your student looks into what options are available to them at their school.
The sooner the better! Sevier says students should never skip orientation, as it not only serves the purpose of getting acclimated to the class schedule and logistics of going to college, but it can be a great option for meeting new friends.
“You’re all there experiencing the same thing at the same time so you don’t feel like the odd man out,” Sevier says. And don’t forget to get involved before move-in day.
“There are colleges that have freshman interest groups that you sign up for ahead of time,” says Sevier. “So say you’re a journalism major, they might have a group for journalism majors. So they group you together. You have discussions and compare classes and find where you have your commonality. Those are great.”
“The first month of a student’s experience with their institution is absolutely critical,” Lambert agrees. He recommends students start attending activities as soon as they arrive on campus. APCA focuses on learning outcomes from their campus activities. For example, if you have a speaker or a concert at the student union and the students attend, now they know where the union is. Simply knowing how to navigate the campus can make meeting up with other students or attending classes that much easier.
After all, isn’t the point of college to get an education? Shouldn’t our students be focused on their classes?
While it may be tempting, “Don’t tell them to stay in their room and study,” Lambert says. Without parents encouraging involvement outside of the classroom, “[students] are going to miss out on college as the transformative experience that it is.”
And if you’re still not convinced, consider this; Lambert says that campus-sponsored student organizations have the goal of retaining students at the school. Why does retention matter? Well, if you stay in school you’re more likely to graduate. In addition to not receiving a degree, college drop-outs are more likely to default on student loans. Some student organizations, like sports teams, also require students to maintain a certain grade point average to continue participating in the organization. So beyond friendships and experiences, the potential benefit for grades and graduation rates makes campus involvement important. And don’t forget about the opportunities for connections and advice for life after college. Being involved in an organization can build leadership and other skills valuable to the workplace, provide relevant experience to put on a resume, and line up contacts who may help for networking in the future. Exposure to older students can be of benefit during school and after graduation.
“Orgs are super fun and there’s always room for growth in a lot of organizations. It’s not just a club, it’s something people talks passions with and help you figure out what you want to do,” Ali says. “I got a lot of advising from older members in our group, including advice on majors. They were a great backbone for me on campus.”