Sometimes parents are the last to know.
Students have heard that "college is the best four years of your life" since elementary school. Talk about building up unrealistic expectations - it's nearly impossible for any freshman's experience to live up to what's been drilled into them for so long.
Consequently, there are a lot of unhappy college students.
They're frequently depressed and they're in an unfamiliar place with none of the comforts of home. Most students who find themselves in this tenuous situation don't know how to advocate for themselves and they typically fall into two distinct categories.
The expressive ones, more typically girls, who respond to the transition challenges with frequent calls home to mom and dad. Though it may be difficult to hear all their emotions, parents should be pleased that they are sharing how they feel.
The nonexpressive ones, more likely to be boys, who choose not to talk about what's going on in their lives. They may find themselves overwhelmed by the changes in the social environment, as well as the level of academic rigor, and keep their emotions bottled up inside.
Some students, both the expressive and nonexpressive, may also feel guilty that they are not maximizing their parents' financial investment in their education.
According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website (www.nami.org), more than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year.
How can parents help?
1. Talk with them before they leave and give them permission to NOT be happy, at least some of the time. Let them know that they are not alone and no one expects that every day will be nirvana.
2. Check in on a regular basis. This is especially important at the beginning of the freshman year. This may mean arranging a regularly scheduled telephone call when you can ask questions about academics as well as social activities.
3. Get to know their friends. Request the cell numbers of their friends. Promise them you will respect their privacy and will get in touch with them only in an emergency situation.
4. Be proactive and simultaneously patient. Pay attention to the little things that might be the small signals that their adjustment is not going as smoothly as everyone had hoped. Don't overreact, especially if they're homesick at the beginning of the year; it takes some students longer to get engaged in the college campus lifestyle. It is often a delicate balance between supporting their independence and wanting to solve their problems.
5. Encourage them to seek help. Before they leave home, check out what campus services are available from resident advisers, faculty advisers and campus health services. Make sure your child knows how to access them if needed. Tell them there is no shame in admitting that they're not happy. Be sure to emphasize that the sooner they seek help, the better off they will be.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website at College Admissions Strategies.