Helping your new college freshman survive first-year challenges

My fifth and youngest child is off to college this fall, and I'm confident we'll both survive his freshman year. I wasn't so sure eight years ago. I feared that nobody would properly feed my firstborn when he was well or care for him when he wasn't.

But when he came bounding home for Thanksgiving - bearing mugs, T-shirts, and pennants for the family and bubbling about dorm life, a girl from Scarsdale, and the fundamentals of broadcasting - I knew that I'd lost a boy and gained a college man. And a cool one, who planned just to drop by for Christmas before going skiing in Vermont.

Homesickness, roommates, and money problems top the list of freshman challenges. All are surmountable, and your student will undoubtedly find a lot of help at school to get him or her over the hump between home and college. By encouraging your freshman to work out problems on campus, you are encouraging independence.

A severe conflict may require a roommate switch, but the majority of living problems - centering around shared possessions, study and party hours, or simply having another person in the room all the time - are solvable .

It isn't a realistic economy for your child to share textbooks with a roommate, even if they are both taking the same course and the books cost $30 each. When it comes to tests, exams, and research papers, both will need the books at the same time.

But it may be easier to share a book than a cashmere sweater. Families have different attitudes toward clothing. The child from a large family and used to a shared pool of passed-down possessions might continue to consider the clothing in the room joint property. The child who has been raised with a strict sense of ownership of possessions may feel angry or puzzled.

Roommates get off to a good start when they lay down ground rules for living as soon as they unpack. Urge your child to explain his or her feelings about possessions before there is a problem. Incidentally, encourage your freshman to leave half of the wardrobe back home. College rooms, bureaus, and closets are small, and if the college is over-subscribed, your child may discover that a double room has been turned into a triple until Christmas.

Many mothers report that the only time they hear from their college kids is when they are hungry or broke. Money slips through the fickle fingers of freshmen, who spend it and lend it, then suddenly realize they can't come home for Thanksgiving. Although you may bail your student out the first time, there are part-time jobs available on campus. Working in the cafeteria or the library because of an overdrawn bank account can teach your child more about money management than any lecture you might give.

Before your child leaves for college, be sure the art of balancing a checkbook and understanding a bank statement is understood. Each year thousands of kids hit campus believing the last figure on the bank statement represents the money they have to spend.

And don't forget a laundry lesson. You can always tell the kids who weren't taught at home. They wear pale-pink T-shirts.

If your student is going to take a stereo or other valuable equipment, mark it with an electric engraver and register a photocopy of the operating manual with the campus security office. He'll have a better chance of getting it back if it is stolen.

Bring a desk lamp (every dorm room needs one, and nobody tells you) and a bright bedspread to take the chill off the room on arrival day. Indian and Mexican printed cotton spreads, called ''tapestries'' by the college crowd, are used as bedspreads, curtains, and wall hangings.

Check out whether the rooms have rugs. If not, bring one with you. You'll feel better if you don't leave your child in a bare cinderblock room.

Once you've said good-bye to your freshman, it's time to start baking cookies , writing letters, and making those Sunday telephone calls. Despite all the changes your child will be encountering, he or she needs to know you are there and available to talk.

Soon it will be Thanksgiving, and your student will be home with posters and paraphernalia, rock music and two friends with guitars, and a suitcase of dirty laundry. He'll probably also need to borrow your car.

Hug him and love him and welcome him just the same, because he'll feel it if you don't. A common complaint of college students is that they feel in the way when they go home for vacations.

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