First-year students have settled in, and the fall semester will be over before students realize it. They are looking forward to celebrating the holidays, seeing friends, and avoiding homework. Parents are excited to welcome their students home and hear every detail about how the first semester has gone.
Holiday breaks can lead to expectations, and expectations can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication; this is why an IEC checking in with first-year students and their families in early November is a good idea. As an IEC, you have worked hard with these students, and their families, to find a great college fit. You have helped these students and their families navigate the college search, brainstorm essays, and complete applications, and congratulated the students when they were accepted. Before holiday breaks is the perfect time to follow up and ask how the students are doing, answer any questions, and offer encouragement to both the students and their families.
Here are some holiday break insights that IECs can share with both families and students to help them best prepare for the first long visit home.
Both the family at home and the student at college have changed, but it’s easy not to mention it in phone calls or texts. Maybe the student’s room has been converted into an office, or there’s a new pet or even a new house. Remind families to let their student know this before they come home for the holidays and invite their student to share how they feel about it. Have a plan for the student to have a place to “land” and find the comforts of home they may have missed. Parents should be ready for a student with different clothes (probably dirty laundry), new life habits, and unique opinions.
Families want to know all the things about their student, and the student may not be ready to share all the things. This is especially common over Thanksgiving break because it’s usually right before finals, and families want to ensure that students are prepared and confident about their first round of college final exams. Be respectful of the student’s boundaries and understand that these boundaries may have been part of a coping mechanism they used while living in a community space. Ask open-ended questions and give your student time to think and respond.
The student may want to spend all of their time with their friends from home; it doesn’t mean they haven’t missed their family. It’s easy for misunderstandings to happen when everyone wants equal time, and equal time may not represent the same thing for everyone. Encourage students and families to talk about this before the break. Will the student have a curfew while home? What other house rules will stay the same or change?
Relationships, Old and New
If the student and their high school significant other have continued their relationship after going to different colleges, they will want to catch up on lost time. This is normal. The pattern of high school relationships is often a joyous reunion at Thanksgiving and then a breakup during the winter holidays (sometimes called “the Turkey Drop”). It is the evolution of high school relationships when two students are not attending the same college. Share with your families that this may happen and the student will need their support and care, even if they indicate otherwise. The student may have a new significant other that they are over the moon about and want to spend some of their winter break with that person. Remember that young adults live in the here and now. Remind families to be open to this request and communicate clearly, even if it wasn’t their plan for winter break.
The student may be struggling academically and has not talked to their family about their struggles. They may be aloof when questioned about how school is going because they don’t know how to share that they are worried or unsure. For families, this can be off-putting and frustrating. Don’t assume the worst. Ask if there is anything they learned after their first round of college finals. If the student is taking finals after being at home, send along a care package of goodies for them to power through to the end.
Encourage families to offer positive reinforcement and encouragement. The student may have decided on a different major, changed roommates, or colored their hair. This is a time when young college students are trying to find their identity and purpose in life. Remind parents to reassure their student that they love and care about them.
Asking for Help
Use this time together to evaluate whether additional help is needed, whether it’s college-based resources, tutors, therapists, or a college achievement coach. A college achievement coach helps the student navigate their first year of college and offers insights to families on what they can do to help.