They’ve prepared for college for years. They studied hard, did volunteer work, participated in sports, theater, music, whatever. They agonized over the decision, finally submitted the deposit to secure their place in the freshman class, said their goodbyes, and packed carefully.
Just a few weeks in, many college freshmen don’t know what hit them. They are so homesick, they can’t stand it. They just want to go home, sleep in their own bed, and eat homemade food.
This is part and parcel of the predictable Culture Shock Cycle, one that everyone experiences to one degree or another when they move to a new place or even just start a new job.
I went through extreme culture shock when I moved to Cambridge, MA and little when I settled down in Heidelberg, Germany. You really can’t predict how easy or hard it is going to be.
This part of the transition to college can hit them like a ton of bricks. The good news is that the Culture Shock Cycle has known phases and the worst one doesn’t have to last too long. It’s a normal part of adjusting to a new home.
The first phase is the Honeymoon, where you are elated. Everything is bright and shiny. Then comes Withdrawal, when everything is irritating. Suddenly the roommate’s flaws seem overwhelming, the professors horrible, and the dining hall food disgusting. Students objectify everything about the new environment and see it negatively ad are homesick beyond belief. Reports home sound grim. They try to maintain a happy tone of voice, but parents can hear right through it. They are desperate to get out of there and can’t wait to go home for Thanksgiving. They might cry and start asking if they can come home for the weekend soon rather than wait until November.
I didn’t know it then, and in fact I didn’t realize it for many years, but this is precisely the phase I found myself in when I called my parents crying in the third week of the semester. My mother responded by asking if I could wait until Thanksgiving to come back. :) Though I felt like my life was coming to an end, and I just knew I couldn’t bear a single day longer at that college, I survived. I did more than survive. I began to adjust in a positive and productive way.
That is because Withdrawal is usually followed relatively quickly by a third phase called Adjustment. The new environment becomes ever more familiar, and students notice that they are beginning to negotiate it well. They have adjusted to the amount of work, dropped out of an extra-curricular or two, and tried to figure out which of their new “friends” is a real friend. The reports home are no longer as elated as they once were, but they also aren’t as grim as they were at the lowest point either. They are more even-keeled. The new campus is feeling a bit like home.
They are quickly moving to the fourth and final stage of Culture Shock, which is called Independence. By the time they have reached the last phase, they have fully integrated into your new environment and can now call it home.
So, if your college freshman has started to describe their college as hell on earth, hang in there. Brighter days are coming. Listen, send care packages, and know that most college freshmen get through the four phases of the Culture Shock Cycle by the end of the first semester.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.