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The “Emotional First Aid Kit” for College

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By Kaitlyn E Kelly (narrated by Aria Edwards).

Co-Founder of PositiviTeens®

University of Notre Dame, Class of 2026

Image reference: Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

CONGRATULATIONS, YOU DID IT! Maybe you are preparing to push off to campus for the first time in a few weeks, or maybe you already are on your way and feeling a bit anxious about life transitions as a new college student. By now, you have completed 12 or 13 years of schooling, taken entrance exams, survived countless courses, participated in multiple extra-curricular activities, and authored multiple admissions essays. As a co-founder of PositiviTeens® webinars and workshops, I have had the honor of speaking with hundreds of high school students preparing for their first year of college. The questions students ask most often during our workshops relate to emotionally preparing for university, especially if you are moving away from home.

The best tools in your “Emotional First Aid Kit for College” involve clarification of expectations because they not only prepare you for this big transition, but also become guideposts to help you establish healthy boundaries. Here are some tips for preparing for this exciting new journey as a college student.

  • Clarify the expectations you have for yourself about college. This means being mindful of what your personal goals are for this first year, not only the next four years. What do you expect to reap from this experience in terms of academics, personal growth, sports or extracurricular activities, and social life. While you think about your expectations, clarify if those are really your own or, perhaps, those expectations superimposed upon you by parents or even society. Consider if your own expectations are realistic and where those expectations are coming from. Why is this so important? Because very often your unhappiness and distress in college will arise from situations where your expectations did not sync with how things really turned out, or how other people behaved.
  • Make time for a discussion with your parent(s) about their expectations versus your expectations about college. Keep in mind, that the expectations your parents have for you might be very different than the expectations you have for yourself. Clarify what your parents expect of you in terms of your academic life, communication with home, work life, and social life. Again, many potential disagreements and distress can be avoided if you honestly share your respective expectations about the college experience. This is great way to address unrealistic expectations and to prepare in advance for mindset shifts might have to make.
  • Clarify expectations about finances with your parent(s) before you head off to campus. One of you, or all of you, might have very different expectations about the costs associated with attending college. This also means being upfront with the amount of money you anticipate needing to meet those expectations you have about your living expenses and social life – not just the cost of attending college. Helpful Hints: The expenses that students often under-estimate in terms of actual cost include transportation (including Uber), the cost of online downloads for courses, joining clubs, eating out, and social events. If you attend university in major urban area, these costs can be higher than you anticipated. Be prepared by budgeting for expenses.
  • Social stressors tend to be the greatest challenge during your first year of college. Expect to change friend groups and try to become socially agile throughout your first year, as well as beyond. It becomes easier if you prepare in advance to create a varied social support network, not just one friend group, during the first year. Likewise, do not expect your roommate to become your “best friend”. Instead, prepare for your roommate having their own friend group, and also prepare for those times they may not include you.
  • Establishing “boundaries” are tools to build a positive roommate relationship. The personal boundaries you do establish with your roommate will be largely based on the expectations you have for each other. Think about the “house rules” you want to establish to make your shared space one that aligns with your needs for respect and wellbeing. For most students, living in a dorm is the first time they will live away from home. Be curious before being upset.
  • Do prepare for needing support at some point and know what kind of counseling or health services are available on campus. There are some estimates that 40% of college students will at some point feel so anxious or overwhelmed that they can’t even go to class.  While the mental health crisis among college students is well known, the majority of students today still do not seek out help  campus counseling services

Understand that often times discomfort is a signal to grow, and that growth arises from this discomfort. So, be open to seeking support through times of distress and know how to access that help on campus before you actually need it. During welcome week activities, you will most likely receive information on accessing emotional support and healthcare services on campus. Even if you do not think you will need it, knowing how to get help is going to prove important at some point. If not for yourself, maybe for a friend.

  • Get involved early with extracurricular activities, clubs, and campus organizations. Why? Because this is one of the best ways to meet a wide variety of students and get that much needed social support during your first year. Also, many leadership positions later on in college are filled by students who joined during their first year. This is your opportunity to get much needed experience in leadership or community involvement that you will want for internships or jobs.
  • Go to college with a purpose, not by accident! One of the biggest mistakes students make is taking a “let’s see what happens” or a passive approach to the university experience. If you have your sights set on a destination or specific goals, it will be easier to identify opportunities and to make the right decisions.
  • Do not depend on your assigned advisor to give you advice! Fact: Most academic advisors today serve as gatekeepers for courses or requirements, and do not actually “advise”. Also, be prepared for your assigned advisor to change over the next four years, or even the first year. For advice about your major, internships, research opportunities, and other important academic decisions, establish a relationship with a teacher you like or a department chair.  Everyone in college should have a mentor to help with important decisions about the college journey – it does not have to be the one assigned to you.  Work to make connections with those faculty members who can serve as a mentor, providing you with unique insights and solid advising.
  • Do make friends with students who are a grade or two above you at college. Older students have insights on the teachers and courses that are popular, as well as the ones to avoid. They also provide important perspectives about navigating life on campus that your same aged peers do not yet have. Joining clubs, student government, or volunteer/service groups are great ways to meet students ahead of you in college.
  • Be prepared for people trying to reinvent themselves during their first year at college.   For students in the post-pandemic era, this is especially true. Why? Because many incoming college students missed out on developmentally important life experiences due to having been socially isolated during high school. So, be prepared for someone who might be heavily invested in seeing you as an audience for their drama, or to even invent some persona to impress you. Don’t take it personally, yet do realize that everyone has their own way of coping with the stress of life changes. Some people just do it in a way that will annoy (or even hurt) others.

Final tips before sending you off? Be kind to yourself and remember that college is not a competition. It is a great time, however, to get out of your comfort zone and be open to new experiences that will lead to an abundance of opportunities. Do not be afraid, be excited!

Free EBook:

3 Exercises On Purpose. 

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