Lehigh University
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Easing the fear of the first year

It’s a fairly predictable sequence of events: A first-year student finds himself missing the comforts of home, the constant presence of caring family members, and the familiar circle of friends. Alone, insecure, under pressure to succeed and fearful of rejection, he retreats, and spends more and more time in his room.

He may sleep too much, or not at all. He may overeat, or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. He may develop addictive behaviors. He may decline opportunities to go out. He may fret obsessively about his circumstances, gradually convincing himself he’s a failure and not able to really “make it” on his own. He may even begin to seriously question his decision to go away to college.

“All these new situations first-year students find themselves are so common, but still anxiety-producing,” says Ian Birky, head of Lehigh University Counseling and Psychological Services. “What’s important to remember is that most students experience some of these feelings when they’re adjusting to this new experience. It’s completely normal.”

What isn’t normal is when these feelings persist, and the student and his family make a life-altering decision for the student to leave the university. It’s a decision, says Birky, that is fairly rare, but still one that might not have been necessary had the student sought help sorting through the often-overwhelming emotional issues.

“There are so many people who are there to help,” says Birky, who heads up a team that includes psychologists Laurie Gray Evans, Deborah Gardner, and Aaron Sterba, as well as 10 advanced graduate student counselors.

“There are a number of offices and resources available through Student Affairs that exist to help our students throughout their university experience.”

For more information to ease the transition to college life, please see the First-Year Survival Guide.

Parents or students could contact the Student Affairs department or the Dean of Students office to identify available resources, Birky says. Students could speak to a Gryphon, an athletic coach, a compassionate professor—all of whom could help the student connect with available resources to deal with anything from improving study skills to talking through adjustment issues.

Students could also contact the Counseling Center directly to speak with a professional who is deeply familiar with the issues and concerns that commonly impact students.

Many, however, fear being branded as unstable if they reach out to a counselor. “I’m not crazy,” is a common response to the well-intentioned suggestion to seek help, Birky says.

“The fact of the matter is that we see many students here for a variety of reasons,” he says. “A student sitting in our waiting room might be just as likely to be an athlete working with a sports psychologist on peak performance, or another student doing work on a psychological study. It could be someone else who is coming here to help sort out decisions about their academic or a career track, or someone working toward more comfort in their social relationships. There is no typical kid.”

There is also, he adds, no stigma.

“Even the most successful students—the ones who seem to excel in every area of their lives—have, at times, shared these feelings of loneliness, isolation, fear of failure,” he says. “There’s a kind of confidence and strength that helps people reach out and be open to guidance and mentoring. That’s what we’re here for.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, August 22, 2007

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