13 August 2015

4 Ways to Help a Brand-New College Student (From Near or Far)

Going to college seems to be a much more dramatic event for my family than for the typical American one. That's because we know, as we send Anna off on her 9,000 mile journey--that she won't be home for Christmas. Or Spring Break. Maybe not even next summer break. Work and life and the sheer expense of plane tickets from one side of the world to the other means that for people like us, college means a gigantic separation. Anna has lived in Malaysia for 11 of her 18 years. For all intents and purposes, she just moved to a foreign country without having any parents to love, support, and guide her there, and is simply supposed to figure out adult life in a new world without mom and dad. Fun stuff, right?

But the college transition isn't always easy even when you're only moving an hour or two away. For many of these teens, it's a very stressful time of life, when they're making decisions that are going to affect their future, their careers, and their finances for decades to come...without the benefit of a ton of life experience under their belts, and sometimes without family nearby to help out, either.

Here are five ways that you can encourage a brand new college student during this back-to-school season:

1. Give them practical life advice concerning college.

Especially if you've been in college yourself recently. I'm not talking about inspirational books of quotes for high school graduates. I'm talking: tell them about There's no way they can know the extent to which a truly bad professor can make life miserable until it's happened to them--ratings websites make it easier to choose wisely and prevent unnecessary misery.

If you're good with money, don't be afraid to invite a teen who you're close to to sit down and think through their college budget. I believe that 20-somethings today are suffering from hopeless college debt scenarios in large part because people in their lives thought it was too awkward to have real conversations with them about money, and simply assumed that 18-year-olds must be ready to live with the financial mistakes they make right now for the rest of their adult lives. Sure,they're adults, and you can't stop them from making really bad choices if they really, really want to, but you can at least offer wise counsel like, "Hey, don't take the maximum loans the government offers you--take the minimum that will cover what you need, and live on oatmeal and free food for the next year."

Make sure students know their rights. Sometimes, as a student, it's kind of easy to feel like you have no rights, that the professor is an almighty being who holds your academic future in their hands and you just have to put up with all their caprices. Not all students know that universities have to make considerations for students with disabilities. My brother is hearing-impaired, and Mom got him signed up with the academic services office at his school, and he was told what options he had as a hearing-impaired person in order to make sure that he could comprehend all of his lectures. Early on in his school career, he started class with a professor who refused to allow him to take the measures that his college had guaranteed would be allowed for him, even after being shown the letter of permission from Academic Services. My brother, being like any typical student, assumed the professor's word is law for his classroom, figured he just had to deal with it, and the matter would have ended there, but for the fact that our grandpa, a lawyer, found out about the situation, contacted the school about this professor who was refusing to follow the school's own policies, and the matter was settled in Isaac's favor. If Isaac had been on his own, without a grandpa to walk in and introduce himself with, "Hi, I'm Mr. S's lawyer..." he could have been in for a rough semester. Make sure the college students in your life know that no college staff member has the right to mistreat them simply because they are young and somewhat powerless.

2. Give them actual stuff. Or money.

Remember college? I do. I remember not having either a credit card or enough cash to buy a $1.99 burrito at Taco Bell one night, so Angel lent me $2. I made sure to pay him back, though, because I was a strong, independent 17 year old who made $33 dollars a week ironing clothes.

People stepped in for me and gave me stuff that met my everyday needs. My grandparents housed and fed me for free for 5 semesters. One relative gave me a bunch of bottles of shampoo and conditioner. A few semesters in, I was crushed by the news that, without warning, I needed to buy a $100 calculator for the one math class required for a Mandarin Chinese major. Someone stepped in and bought that calculator for me.

A lot of times, people have high school graduation parties and announcements, and that's a good time to give kids money that will help towards their future. Sometimes, third-culture-kids like my sister Anna don't get the benefit of graduation parties (graduation parties aren't a "thing" in Malaysia, and she has no parents in America to throw her one), so they're kind of heading in on their own.

Remember these college students, and spot them some cash, or fill up their tank with gas, or give them a couple tubes of toothpaste or invite them over for a meal or take them out for a movie. Hey, if you have your own business or need housework or snow-shoveling or something of that sort done--give them a steady job. In an economy where jobs are difficult to come by for those who haven't much experience or education yet, that would be a much-appreciated gift!

3. {For those whose students are moving far away} Don't forget that attending the goodbye party isn't the end of your relationship.

Call. Skype. Post photos on Facebook. Write letters. Find ways to provide ongoing support for your college students, to remind them that just because they have moved, doesn't mean that they've lost the home and community they grew up in.

Get creative. There are lots of ways to provide ongoing support and contact from home--choose one that will speak to your individual college student. For me, because Anna and I share so many of the same favorite TV shows and books, I started a Pinterest board just for her and have been pinning one new "inspirational" quote per day to make her smile. Of course, our own version of "inspirational" might be a little on the quirky side and might grow to include a lot of things said by Shawn Spencer or Lemony Snicket...but that's totally fine. She's been writing me already to tell me about how much she looks forward to the daily quotes--and warning me not to get lazy and quit! :)

The point is, find some way to continue to remember your college students on an ongoing basis. Refuse to let them be 'out of sight, out of mind.'

4. {For those living near to college students who have moved away from their own families, countries, or communities} Realize that these kids, to all intents and purposes,  have lost the daily presence of a lot of important people in their lives. Keep eyes and ears open for ways to meet the need for community for college students who have lost their own.

These days, people travel all over the world for the purpose of getting an education that will meet their needs, But education isn't the only need. We all need community, too.

For my first Christmas without my family, my aunt made sure to get me a stocking full of presents and included me 100% in their family celebration. For my first Chinese New Year in America, another aunt and uncle put dollar bills into homemade red envelopes so that I wouldn't have to miss out completely on ang pow. Angel and I had a Nigerian friend who graduated college at the same time as Angel. His family wasn't able to come from Nigeria to the USA for his graduation, so Angel's parents 'adopted' him for Angel's graduation weekend, taking them both out for a special celebratory dinner, acting basically as if they'd had two sons graduate at the same time.

Look out for college students during holiday breaks, and make especially sure that international students have somewhere to stay when the college shuts down. Get to know what their own national holidays are and don't let them spend their important holidays in isolation and silence, if at all possible.

Remember the function that most good parents play in the lives of their children, and see if you can perform any small part of that role for college students whose parents are too far away to be of much use. In the next few weeks, Anna's gonna have to learn how to drive on the right side of the road, take a driving test, get her license, attend college orientation, get herself set up with a bank account, and learn how to navigate a new town, along with a brand new set of cultural expectations and rules. I wish I could be there to help her through those hurdles, but with both me and her parents way too far away, I hope that her new community, and the family she has on that side of the globe, will recognize the fact that it's their responsibility to welcome her and help her learn the ropes of American life.

Have a soft heart for those heading off to school this fall--especially for those who, at the same time, are losing the community that loves them. Third-culture-kids like my siblings and I are lucky in the fact that, while we didn't grow up in America, we all purposefully chose to attend college in a state where much of our extended family lives--and our relatives there have worked hard to help pave the way to successful, if not easy, college experiences.

But remember, family doesn't have to mean blood. Keep your eye out for new college students popping up in your own realm of influence over the next few weeks--and see what you can do to help!

Do you have any stories of people who came alongside and helped you during your own college transition?

Anonymous said...

This is such a great post! I love that you're keeping a Pinterest board for your sister -- specified social media is one of my favorite ways that I keep in touch with friends (Pinterest boards, tumblrs, shared blogs, etc).

I'm still living in the college town in which I grew up and attended university, and my family continuously "collects" (as my Dad jokingly refers to it) international students. For someone who went to college right in her own backyard, it's pretty neat to have made super-close friends with people from the UK, Brazil, Australia, France, Malaysia, Taiwan, and beyond. (We did also throw a Canadian Thanksgiving for a student from Vancouver...)

Lily Fang said...

I loved reading this post for two reasons--the advice, and your stories. As a current college student, I definitely agree with many of these. Staying in touch via Skype has been so valuable for me--I call my parents and my best friend once a week, and I always feel refreshed afterwards. For someone who's also gone hundred of miles away for school, I also have experienced that loss of community feeling--home is really not the same once you've graduated and left. It was as if I was no longer part of anything, and it was weird to see everything go on as normal. The little gestures really make a huge difference!

imperfect idealist

Kay R. said...

i agree with all of this. I didn't have a credit card either - actual stuff or money is gold to a college kid. Also yes, goodbye isn't Im not seeing you ever again. Beautiful post :)

Unknown said...

Great suggestions for supporting kids heading out on their own. I wish Anna good luck . I'm sure she'll get the support she needs to succeed.

Anonymous said...

These are great tips! Definitely sharing them with my family who was two off to college this semester!! Thanks for the post!

GiGi Eats Celebrities said...

If a college student comes to me for advice on how to adapt, I tell them straight up how to do it! I am very realistic about this new phase of life!

Jacquie said...

Love the ideas here! I have my oldest leaving for college next week (going far away) and we're thinking about ways that he & his sister can keep in touch on a daily/weekly basis. Wish he had a Pinterest account :)

Daisy @ Simplicity Relished said...

This is SO good. I just spent time with a girl who is going off to college this fall, and I'm going to try to keep up with her during this year. I think the first year can be tough on everyone-- adjustments abound!

Catherine Short said...

These are great points. Oh college. I remember having the desire to leave the nest but also not quite brave enough either. I ended up going to three different schools, but for my freshman year I was 45 minutes away. I can't imagine what your sister is feeling!!

Giftie Etcetera said...

Great tips. My godchild is heading off to college in the spring. I'll remember these things.

Unknown said...

Such great tips! I'm really looking forward to the new semester and new students arriving, and with my contact being mostly to international students, these are great things to keep in mind!

Karen said...

Great ideas and practical advice, which is exactly what new college students needs. This is such a huge adjustment for them, particularly if they are going away to school. Even if a young adult has had a solid upbringing it can still be a tad unsettling. One benefit they have today is the ease of communication with loved ones at home. Good luck to all of them!

Farrah said...

Aww, I love this post!! I didn't move that far away for college, but I did move across the country for grad school and med school, and all of these are so, so true. It can definitely be really hard being away from family/close friends/all the things you've ever known, so practical advice, monies, and kindness go such a long way!