(Orientation) Key to success for freshman is finding college niche

Cheryl Truman McClatchy Newspapers

What happens when a child leaves home for college? Does the child get the benefit of being sans parents? Will the empty-nested parents be traumatized? 
Or does everybody suffer a little and gain a little?
Betty Drew has had kids in her house for 35 years.
But soon, Drew, 53, will have an empty nest. Her youngest child, Charlene Leigh Drew, who recently graduated from Harlan's Cawood High School, will move to start life as a freshman at Eastern Kentucky University.

After five kids, Drew is worried about the empty house.
Charlene is excited to be starting college; she'll be rooming with her hometown best friend _ and, she says, there will be about half a dozen other buddies on campus. That's one of the reasons she chose Eastern, she says: She knew she would have a community of familiar faces on site.
It's that annual rite of late summer: Thousands of parents realize their homes are going to be emptier as their kids troop off to the mixed pleasures of college and dormitory life. Meanwhile, thousands of teens realize that Mom and Dad are no longer just around the corner. (That's true in most cases, but not all: Some parents who want to give their offspring the benefits of on-campus life will put them into dormitories even if the school is in the same city. However, we do still expect them to do their own laundry.) But most students are going to feel at least a twinge of homesickness at some point.

"We certainly hear that from students: `Oh my gosh, I really miss being at home,'" said Mary Bolin-Reece, director of the University of Kentucky counseling and testing center.
For some students, homesickness hits early _ triggered by, say, missing the family dog, a birthday or a valued event like the high school homecoming football game _ and vanishes quickly. Says Bolin-Reece: "For others, they'll have a very different experience. They'll start out gangbusters. Then it's not until later in the semester that they'll have that experience."

Some students, for example, can't make their first home visit until Thanksgiving. Not that three months on a college campus is a bad thing: While the time estimated to acclimate to college life varies, most agree that students should plan to be on campus without a home visit for at least the first month. (Others say six to eight weeks to grow fully acclimated to college life without resorting to the comforts of home cooking, unlimited cable TV, sibling spats and having your laundry delivered and folded by a parental unit.) Different students might take various amounts of time to figure out their way around, master schedules, start organizing a study routine, and learn that there are lots of other people and activities available for campus interaction.

For parents, the key is to be sympathetic but not smothering, or as Bolin-Reece puts it, "for parents to allow students to know that the support is there, but to challenge the student to be independent." There's a safety net available, but college students need to make and take responsibility for their own decisions. Parents can, however, ask students what they would do differently in the future whenever a particularly rotten decision _ bad grade, disciplinary misstep, overspending _ hits home. This is a good news/bad news scenario for both sides. Parents don't lose their kids, but they have to learn to pick their opportunities. Students don't lose a home; they just learn it's no longer their primary residence.

Says Charlene Drew: "My mom's kind of taking it hard. ... They're freaked out, but they know I have to go to college."


These tips for incoming college students and their parents come from Mary Bolin-Reece, director of UK's counseling and testing center:
_Top priority: Get plugged in someplace. College is your new home.
Get involved in a living/learning community, a residence hall or a faith-based community. Some students will find a set of friends with fraternity and sorority rush; some might take longer to find a niche.
The important thing is not to fall into the routine of dorm-to-class. A university is its own small town. Take advantage of its opportunities.
_Look at college as your job, and learn time-management skills.
As a first-time college student, you have an unprecedented degree of autonomy over what classes you select, whether you even show up for class, and how well you manage your time and effort.
But you also have a much higher reading load, more challenging courses, and no parent or high school counselor as a backstop when you don't get the work done.
What does your average work week include? Budget time for going to class, writing papers, putting in time with your adviser, keeping up with reading and work. Even plan when you're going to bed because most dorms have students coming and going 24/7 (and no parent yelling at you that 3 a.m. means lights out or else).

_E-mail. Most parents will have gone through college with the phone as their only lifeline home. Today's students have e-mail, cell phones with text messaging and MySpace.com.