Whether they are full or part-time, handling several classes or only one, living at home or staying in a dorm, college is a new situation for teenagers. They are beginning to be treated as adults. Responsibilities appear. They are now expected to keep track of their schedule, learn time-management, know when it is appropriate to drop a class, how to complain about unfair grading, and how to find help when problems arise. Some kids handle these changes well, but some become stressed and overwhelmed.
Marina's first college semester was one class, English 101. Readers of my blog might remember me talking about it last year. My serious young student looked at her syllabus for the class and was already overwhelmed. How would she get everything done? We spent a lot of time calming her, reminding her that these were guidelines, and explaining that she should take the work one assignment at a time. But every assignment began with tears and fears before she could set to work. A lot of her worries reminded me of my own beginnings at college. I was extremely studious, entered the honors program, and worked very hard at my classes. But unlike my experience, Marina was younger and coming from a nontraditional schooling experience. She felt like she needed to prove that she belonged there. Because she only had one class, she believed she had to be perfect in it. I didn't realize it right away, but she also felt she had to show that she was well educated. She was representing the homeschooling world. This was not a problem I was familiar with.
Of course, she did very well in the class. She received high marks on her essays. She did well during class discussions. The professor was so impressed by her, she suggested Marina apply for the honors program. Marina would tell me about students that barely showed up for classes, handed in assignments late, and never participated in class. Before one class, she commiserated with other students about the amount of classwork. At one point, the class successfully managed to push back a deadline on an assignment. You might think all of this would have put things in perspective for her, but we still had many breakdowns before the final class in December. She got her "A" for the class.
The following semester, Marina would take three courses. And there would be meltdowns again as she adapted to a bigger schedule. But since she opted for two classes she actually wanted and only one required course (the dreaded algebra), she had a much better time. Essays still intimidated her, but she seemed to enjoy her classes much more. This term has been more rigorous, with four classes--honors English 102, honors Psychology, Nature of Mathematics, and Art History. Marina is adjusting again, and we are doing what we can to help by listening, advising, and cheerleading.
This is the one piece of advice I would give to any parents or relatives of a homeschooler beginning college: be supportive and listen. How?
- Instead of saying you're sure they'll do fine, tell them they will get through this. It takes emphasis off of any grades. I don't want my daughter to think I would love her any less because of a grade.
- Let them know you are there for them, whether they need you to read through their paper or just to offer a shoulder to cry on. Hug often.
- Empathize. If you have a degree and remember your own college days, share your own struggles and how you overcame them.
- Offer advice and support, but let them handle the calls, the emails and problem-solving. This is hard. I can't tell you how often I wanted to talk to the professor or make the calls, but this is an opportunity for her to learn to deal with issues and stand up for herself. I may stand in the background and help her figure out what to say and how to say it, but that is where my contribution ends.
- If they are living at home, make sure they eat properly. When Marina is caught up in her work, she can forget to eat. This isn't good if she is 5'2 and only 115 lbs. Especially if she was 120 at her last checkup (why yes, this just happened). Poor nutrition can exacerbate problems like depression and increase susceptibility to illness.
- Praise their successes, like when they do well on a test they were worried about.
- And please, please don't tell them you had it harder in school. That makes them feel more inadequate with their own struggles. In retrospect, it is easy to see how unimportant it was to worry over classes I can barely remember now. Luckily, I also remember how important those classes were to me at the time and how eager I was to do well. This is my daughter's world right now, and I hope I can help her have as good an experience as possible. It's the journey, after all, and this is just another chapter in the adventure of her life.