Social Support and Academic Performance
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.
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.
"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." "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.
"I was familiar with the warning signs, the importance of mental health and the statistics, 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.
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." "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."
Make New Friends
Keep Old Pictures
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:
Many times, the student center is where the main dining facilities are located and a hub for a plethora of activities, such as signing up for trips and organizations. Many students study there or hang out in between classes, making it a natural destination for socializing and meeting new people.
Some schools require that all freshman students live on campus, but even if it's not mandatory, Bradbury-Haehl says it's a great idea to live in a dormitory the first year. Living in close quarters fosters opportunities to meet people and build lasting relationships. Reach out to your resident assistant for information, tips and referrals for campus resources. "They are trained to help you find the help you need," she explains.
"A ton of people are always there, and you can almost always find someone sitting alone," Bradbury-Haehl says of most campus dining halls. "It's easy to find people to eat with, and there is always something to talk about, like the food and how good or, more accurate, how bad it is. Also, if you can't find someone new, there is almost always someone you know to sit with."
Many campuses ministry and spirituality centers provide opportunities to partake in spiritual or faith-based religious services, social activities and support groups that help you to connect with others who share similar values and beliefs.
Maintaining good physical health is a key component of enjoying academic success, but that can be challenging to do since eating and sleeping habits often change during the college transition. Many campuses now offer state-of-the-art fitness centers complete with high-quality equipment, group fitness classes and healthy dining options on site, which provide a way for you to stay on top of your health and meet others committed to doing the same.
You'll probably spend a lot of time shuttling to and from class, study sessions and social activities every day. Public and campus transportation, such as shuttles, buses and ride-sharing services, provide an opportune way to meet and mingle with others during the daily commute. Plus, it's easy to connect with others en route.
This might not be the most conventional of places to make new friends, but that's also what makes it such a neat place to expand and diversify your social circle. Most everybody is guaranteed to pass through there at some point. Chatting with others in between loads or while folding clothes is also a great way to pass the time.
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."
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
The Freshman Survival Guide
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.
Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
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.
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