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Social Support for College Student Success The Importance of Building a Community at School

For many students, heading off to college for the first time is much like the novel “A Tale of Two Cities” asserts – it feels like both the best of times and the worst of times all at once. On one hand, they’re excited about being on their own and embracing newfound independence.

On the other, it’s often scary starting a new life chapter, being away from family and friends, experiencing nervousness about the workload, the pressure of making new friends and the fear of failure. That’s why this guide will serve as a hub for students who may need help building a social support system around them to achieve academic and personal success.

Heading off to college for the first time may feel much like the novel “A Tale of Two Cities” asserts – both the best of times and the worst of times. On one hand, there’s the excitement of newfound independence. On the other, there’s the pressure of making new friends and fear of failure. That’s why this guide will serve as a hub for students who may need help building a social support system to achieve academic and personal success.

Meet the Experts

Nora Bradbury-Haehl Co-Author, “The Freshman Survival Guide”
Gina Smallwood Founder and Chair, Kelvin Mikhail Suicide Awareness Campaign

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Defining ‘Social Support’ on Campus

With 30 percent of college students dropping out during their first year, surviving freshman year is critical to powering through the remaining college years.

Research shows having solid social support – a network of friends, acquaintances and mentors to turn to, especially in times of need or crisis – positively influences academic performance, benefits overall wellbeing and eases the anxiety many students face as they transition from life as a high schooler to college co-ed. This holds especially true for members of underrepresented groups on campus.

Many experts, including Nora Bradbury-Haehl, co-author of “The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing and Everything in Between,” asserts that a student’s ability to build up a social network, or lack thereof, can ultimately make or break the overall college experience.

“They need to build a new network of support in this new place under a new set of stressors; it’s like sewing yourself a parachute once you’ve jumped out of the plane,” Bradbury-Haehl says. “College students need to find friends and mentors in this new setting to help them figure out how to get through the challenges they’re facing – tougher academics, a new social scene and a whole new set of freedoms.”

Social Support and Mental Health

Many parents and students are often naïve about both the academic and social pressures college students face and the toll those pressures can take on their mental health. In fact, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA), one third of college-aged students have reported being depressed to the point of being unable to function.

The ACHA also reports that the suicide rate among young adults, ages 15-24, has tripled since the 1950s, and suicide is currently the second-most common cause of death among college students.

Gina Smallwood launched the Kelvin Mikhail Suicide Awareness Campaign after losing her only son, a dean’s list student with a 4.0 grade point average and a full academic scholarship at a Georgia college in 2008.

“I was familiar with the warning signs, the importance of mental health and the statistics,” Smallwood says, “but I was not familiar with the risk factors and how youth can mask and lack the coping mechanisms that deal with pain.”

She suggests that parents do regular “check-ins” and visits with their college-age students. And if they’re struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. “First, try the college counseling center if the college they are attending has a good one,” she says. “You may also use SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) behavioral health locator.”

Fortunately, most campuses have one or multiple on-site counseling centers available for students to receive free or low-cost support services. Some experts even suggest that vulnerable students consider setting up a “get to know you” appointment with a counselor early on, for added support and reinforcement for if and when they encounter problems later. It’s also a good idea to keep a 24-hour crisis helpline number programmed in your phone just in case.

Combatting Homesickness

Sometimes excitement about college life is eclipsed by an unexpected bout of homesickness. And it’s totally understandable. Moving away from home for the first time and adjusting to college-level work in a new environment can take its toll.

“All the relationships for college students, even the ones who commute from home, are shifting,” Bradbury-Haehl says. “The friends they’ve been with all their years of high school and earlier, their coaches, teachers, mentors, their relationship with their parents, all those people who have cared for and supported them, challenged and held them accountable … are suddenly not there, or not there in the same way.”

Instead of jumping online in search of a cheap ticket or burning gas to get home, Bradbury-Haehl suggests these constructive ways to tackle homesickness head on:

  • Get busy

    This serves both to distract you from feeling sorry for yourself and helps you engage in your new community. Get into the groove of your class schedule and block out homework and study time. It’ll keep you busy and help you develop your new routine. “The sense of accomplishment will improve your mood, too,” she says. “Clubs, activities and community service may also shift your focus in some really positive ways.”

  • Make new friends

    Taking time to build up new relationships will give you something to do and help you through the next few months.

  • Keep old pictures

    Photos of family and friends can add to your homesickness, but they also remind you of everyone who’s pulling for you back home. Keeping those photos of special memories might be just what you need for a quick boost.

  • Rest up

    When you have a lot on your mind, sleep may be the last priority, but being well rested makes everything easier to deal with. “If you find yourself weepy or moody, sleep should be one of your first defenses to feel better,” adds Bradbury-Haehl.

  • Familiar items

    That pillow, sweater, teddy bear, music, snack or coffee mug — whatever works. When you’re feeling blue, keeping something familiar within reach can be comforting and spirit-lifting.

  • Stay connected

    Meeting new people is a great way to feel at home on a new campus, but it’s okay sometimes to take comfort in connecting with loved ones with whom you’ve already established a relationship. Thanks to technology and social media, communicating with family and friends is often just a phone call or mouse click away.

Finding Your ‘Tribe’

Building up your social network will take time and patience. It can be tempting to settle for the first friends you meet on campus, but Bradbury-Haehl says resist the temptation to do so.

“Make friends, but keep looking for a better fit,” she says. “Be willing to be a little lonely for a while – you’ll be okay. Take the title of the second chapter of my book as a word of advice: ‘Be generous with your friendship and stingy with your trust’ and in time, your ‘tribe’ will take shape.”

Make an effort to cultivate a tribe that looks different from the one you had in high school “People who, on the whole, share your values, but who you like enough to challenge your thinking,” she says. “College is, after all, about growing.”

The good news is there are plenty of places on campus to mix, mingle and make new friends:

Support for Underserved Students

Most people agree that everyone wins when colleges and universities embrace diversity in its multiple forms. But being part of a group that is largely underrepresented on your campus can be a daunting and isolating experience for students who are also grappling with the same academic and social pressures as everyone else.

It’s a good idea to research ahead of time what resources are available for support on campus. If you’re unsure, the student affairs office or a designated “diversity and inclusion” office may provide some direction. Joining organizations, such as the black student union or LGBTQ and faith-based organizations, can help you connect with others who share your experience.

Support for Online Students

For many, taking classes online is convenient and provides much-desired flexibility, but it can also be a very frustrating and lonely experience, especially for new students. Feeling overwhelmed and like you’re alone with only a laptop may adversely affect your academics as well as your mental health.

Experts say most distance learners struggle with adaptability, technical issues, time management and self-motivation. Overcoming those challenges effectively often boils down to being proactive about educating yourself about what services are available to meet your unique needs.

Joining online or in-person student study groups may provide a built-in support system.

“Most schools with online programs have tools to help students connect such as message boards chat rooms and sometimes dedicated pages or groups on social media,” Bradbury-Haehl says.

At most colleges and universities, online students have the same access and privileges to campus resources as traditional students, as well as some special services. Be sure to inquire about your options during orientation. And, if possible, plan some one-on-one, in-person time with your distance learning advisor early on to get your questions answered before any struggles arise.

Student Support Resources and Services

This online companion to Bradbury-Haehl’s book includes a feature called The Interactive RA, a blog written by resident assistants and residential life professionals that tackles nearly every question a student might have.

This site has stories of first-generation college students and a blog with tips and resources. Bradbury-Haehl says overcoming the anxiety and pressure of being a first-generation student starts in the mind. “Make your own path, no matter what path your family took, and do so with confidence,” she says. “This is your opportunity to set an example and create any kind of life that you want.”

The Jed Foundation, a national nonprofit that exists to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults, and MTVU, MTV’s college network broadcast on over 700 college campuses, have launched Press Pause as part of its Peabody Award-winning Half of Us campaign. Press Pause includes 10 animated public service announcements and an online hub where students may engage and get inspired to use simple mindfulness techniques to deal with common issues and concerns.

College students are at an increased risk for sexual assault during the first few months of their first and second semesters, and more than half of all college sexual assaults occur in either August, September, October or November, according to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. This site provides a helpful mix of information and support including victim services, legal information and helpful research and statistics aimed at raising awareness.