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Education Review: Surviving freshman year

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Erin Sullivan had two weeks until her move from Connecticut to the District for her first year at Catholic University. Like most freshmen, she was jittery about the transition: Would she get along with her roommate and make friends? Could she be as heavily involved as she was in high school? Would she ever decide on a major? Could she handle life in the city after growing up in a suburb?

Then, Sullivan’s parents asked her and her two younger brothers to sit down for a family discussion.

“They were like, ‘We are getting divorced,’ ” Sullivan said. “They just told us, and no one wanted to talk from there.”

Sullivan ran upstairs in tears, lay on her bed and tried to figure out what it all meant. She was already worried about college, and now this.

She suddenly had a whole new set of unknowns: What if her brothers couldn’t deal with this without her? What if she had to transfer to a school closer to home? What if her parents fought in front of her roommate? And where would she live during breaks?

The questions ran through her mind as she packed and rode the train to Washington with her mother. Her father drove separately.

The first day was easier than she thought it would be, and her parents got along so well that her new neighbors assumed they were happily married.

The first few weeks also went smoothly. Sullivan made the cut for an a cappella group and volunteered in the community with fellow freshmen. All of the girls on her floor would routinely hang out.

“It’s the honeymoon phase,” she said. “Everyone loves each other. Everyone loves everyone on the floor.”

Then, the summer camp feel began to wear off. Obligations and homework began to pile up, and Sullivan realized her roommate would never become her best friend. She kept getting pulled into drama at home.

“I felt guilty being away,” she said. “My brothers would say: ‘It’s so unfair you’re away at school.’ I told them: ‘Believe me, I’m dealing with it here.’ ”

Although her new friends likely weren’t able to tell, Sullivan didn’t feel like herself. She ate pizza for too many meals and didn’t have energy for the gym. She cried a lot.

Then, she returned home at Thanksgiving. She walked into the house and burst into tears.

“I didn’t want to be home. I wanted to be back at school,” she said. “It just felt so weird. My family was so different. It was like two different families.”

* * *

The members of the incoming Class of 2015 have been lectured on the value of a college degree for most of their lives. But getting that degree has never been more expensive, especially at a time when some families are dealing with unemployment, cut wages and other financial hardships. Record numbers of freshmen are arriving on campus already stressed out, and campus resources are stretched thinner by demand.

After enduring the college application process, some students then feel pressured to succeed at everything: making friends, earning high grades, keeping scholarships, getting internships, leading clubs and posting happy photos on Facebook. They want the “perfect” college experience that leads to a dream career, even in a bad job market.

“I was just so worried that I would fail and screw up my whole life,” said Danielle Piroutek, 19, a rising sophomore at Catholic University from rural South Dakota who struggled with intense homesickness her first year. “People at home were asking about me, how I was doing. I didn’t want to let them down.”

The rigor of college classes can be daunting, but often the most challenging problems students face in their first year are social or emotional. If students are happy and comfortable in their new environment, studies show, they are more likely to do well in class.

Most students deal with at least one major disappointment or setback their first semester: rejection by a student organization, a failed test or marked-up term paper, heartbreak, fights with friends or homesickness.

In 2010, more than 10 percent of students at more than 300 four-year institutions sought some sort of counseling, according to a survey of counseling center directors. These students are seeking help with issues including depression, sexual identity, eating disorders, sexual assault, anxiety, and drinking or drug dependency.

“We’re seeing students reaching out,” said John Dages, director of the George Washington University counseling center, which has seen at least a 20 percent increase in traffic in the past couple years. “Even if it’s a minor issue, I’m glad they’re reaching out.”

Many students work through these problems during a handful of appointments with a counselor, but some face issues that need long-term treatment. Not getting help increases the chance a student will take time off from school, transfer elsewhere or drop out.

The stakes are high. Making it through the first-year of college dramatically increases a student’s chances of graduating. Nationally, less than 60 percent of first-time students who start college graduate within six years, a statistic college presidents, education advocates and even President Obama are working to change.

In the past few years, many colleges have ramped up their freshmen orientation or created programs aimed at helping students through the ups and downs of their first year. A recurring message: Freshman year is difficult for everyone. You are not alone.

“They need to have these issues normalized. They need to realize that everyone is going through this,” said Jonathan Mattanah, a psychology professor at Towson University who studies freshmen adjustment issues.“If you can keep students hooked into the community and more socially connected, they will do better.”

* * *

As a high school student in Montgomery County, Staci Armezzani had a high-powered group of friends whose parents pushed them to succeed. She fought to prove herself and break the stereotype of being the ditzy cheerleader.

Her parents were proud when she did her best, even if that didn’t mean perfect grades. “But that wasn’t good enough for me,” she said.

Armezzani’s top pick for a college was the University of Maryland, College Park, which rejected her. She got into Penn State, where her dad had almost gone when he was her age. Her football-loving relatives were equally excited, and she received piles of Penn State gear for graduation.

“All of the people around me, who meant the most to me, were all excited about Penn State,” she said.

It wasn’t until Armezzani moved to campus on a Friday afternoon in August 2008 that she realized Penn State was not where she wanted to be. The campus was massive, and far from her family and boyfriend, who still had one year of high school left.

Her roommate spoke limited English, and Armezzani spent her first night crying and talking to her parents on the phone.

A residence hall staffer encouraged Armezzani to wait until classes started on Monday. But concerned that she wouldn’t be able to get her tuition back if she waited, Armezzani told her parents on Saturday morning that she had booked a Greyhound ticket.

This quick change of plans upset her parents — and her younger sister, who was attending a birthday party that day. They worried she was making this decision for her boyfriend and not for herself. They had a long discussion.

“That’s when the truth started to come out, that I had put a lot more pressure on myself than they ever had,” she said.

Armezzani took “Penn State” off her Facebook profile and enrolled in classes at Montgomery College. She told a few friends that she had moved home, and their response was usually, “Why?”

After a year of community college classes, Armezzani transferred to Maryland. It was her original dream school. And yet she was miserable.

Like many freshmen, Armezzani was in search of a better college fit. But each time a student transfers, he or she becomes a new student on a strange campus. And without the camaraderie of a freshman class, it’s easy to again feel disconnected.

“For better or for worse, transfer students are not like freshmen, in that they are wide and varied” in their needs, said Britt Reynolds, a director of undergraduate admissions at Maryland. “Freshmen are much more alike.”

Transfer students have often already had a freshman experience elsewhere, he said, or they are nontraditional students who don’t want their orientation to include a sleepover in the dorms.

As a first-year transfer student, Armezzani hadn’t bonded with the rest of her class in dorms and learning communities the year before. She lived in an apartment near campus and didn’t have many friends other than her boyfriend, who had just started at Maryland. She thought about rushing a sorority, but found the Greek system overwhelming. She didn’t want to drink or party, but that kept her from doing anything social. She went home nearly every weekend.

Unlike at community college, her classes were held in huge lecture halls where the professors didn’t know names and students sat in cliques.

“Transfer students aren’t any different than freshmen,” she said. “Out of every different group of students that Maryland has, transfer students are the ones who go unnoticed, who are most likely to fall through the cracks.”

(Although Armezzani believes that Maryland could do more, admissions officials say they already have many programs in place to help transfer students. There’s a program that lets students take a class on campus before formally enrolling, plus pre-transfer advising, an intense one-day orientation and ongoing events.)

Armezzani contemplated dropping out. But her mother, who didn’t finish college, urged her to stick with it and reminded her of the opportunities a degree would open.

Armezzani requested an academic counselor to help build her confidence in difficult classes and decided to get involved with at least one activity during her second semester. She picked student government, which was looking for students to help with communications, her major at the time.

As she started to build friendships with her fellow student leaders, she began to feel less like an outsider. Then, right before spring finals, she broke up with her boyfriend. It sent her into a tailspin. Her mom booked her an appointment with a therapist.

“It wasn’t because I was depressed or because I was suicidal. It was because I had no one else to talk to,” Armezzani said.

Her second year at Maryland, Armezzani lived at home and commuted to campus. But she finally had friendships, a leadership position in student government and reasons to stay in College Park until 2 a.m.

She got involved with peer education classes for transfer students, where the most frequent question is how to get involved. During the summer, she coaches a community swim team and urges parents to not send their children too far from home unless they are truly ready.

“At 18, they might not be ready to go away,” she said. “If I hadn’t had that year at home, I probably would have fallen into the swamp of ‘maybe college isn’t for me.’ ”

One night this summer, Armezzani told a group of friends about her first two years of college. She’s at a point where she can joke about her 24 hours at Penn State.

“One of my friends said, ‘I would have had no idea that personality existed in this Staci that I now know,’ ” said Armezzani, who is now 21 and plans to graduate with her class in May with a criminal justice degree. “I never thought three years ago that this is where I would be or that I would be so happy.”

* * *

In a darkened auditorium at George Washington University late on a June night, a party rages as the refrain of a Lil’ Jon song blares: “Shots shots shots shots shots! Everybody!”

“What’s gotten into Justin?” a student wonders aloud as the drunken host staggers around, tries feeling up a woman he used to date and pressures his roommate to pop an Adderall.

It’s all a skit, written and performed by students to show incoming freshmen situations that will likely come up.

By the end, the roommate’s heart raced from the Adderall, an intoxicated character had his stomach pumped, another faced legal charges for using a fake ID, students were busted for smoking pot in the dorms, and Justin had cemented a reputation as “that guy” who parties too much.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” a character says. “You just have to learn from it.”

On most campuses, freshman orientation has become a standard requirement and a carefully choreographed production that can last days. It’s often just the kickoff to a year of programming for students and their parents.

There are summer programs aimed at helping students build friendships and independence before school starts. Virginia Tech takes some incoming students to a nearby 4-H camp for three days of canoeing, hiking and talking about what’s to come that fall. American University invites some freshmen to move to campus a week early to do service work around the city.

Living and learning communities have boomed in popularity, as schools group students in dorms according to their academic interests or backgrounds. Usually these students take at least one class together and attend campus events as a group, linking students’ academic lives to their social lives.

Some schools extend orientation through the first semester with a required one-credit course that teaches study skills, shares access to resources and answers questions.

Sometimes, that education happens outside of the classroom. At the University of Richmond, a group of deans takes a pile of pizzas to the freshmen residence halls on some Friday nights early in the semester to answer a variety of questions, including how to get football tickets.

At GWU, each first-year student is assigned a “Guide to Personal Success,” a faculty member or upperclassman who is available to answer questions, listen to problems or meet up for lunch.

“We’re trying to make a big school feel small,” said Dean of Students Peter Konwerski.

At GWU’s freshman orientation, the skit about the perils of drinking ends with the message “make good decisions.” There are skits about roommate conflicts, sexual assault, safe sex and the diversity of race, political affiliations and sexual orientation.

One of the final skits is about depression. A student stands before the audience and says: “Everything in my life is going wrong, and I can’t figure out why.”

The student lacks motivation, sleeps a lot and is suddenly antisocial. She is frustrated that her dad just lost his job and quickly gets mad at her roommates.

“I just feel like no one understands what I’m going through,” she says, before agreeing to seek help. Her friends and family collect pieces of a shattered heart and patch it together.

* * *

When Erin Sullivan returned to Catholic after Thanksgiving break, she finally took the advice of a friend and called the campus counseling center. Rather than just talking to friends during her worst days, she realized it might help to talk with someone during the okay days, too. She wanted to get back to her old self.

“I just realized this isn’t who I want to be,” Sullivan said.

Once a week, she met with a counselor who mostly listened but also offered advice: Realize you are not the one who has to deal with this. Don’t let this define your college years. Your parents sent you here to learn, not to worry about them. Focus on your relationship with your dad and your relationship with your mom, not their relationship.

“It was like having a conversation with my parents or my friends, but there weren’t any opinions,” said Sullivan, 19, who is headed into her junior year. “It was just nice to have someone to talk to.” And it helped her get back to her usual self.

Toward the end of Sullivan’s freshman year, she applied to be a residence hall assistant. This school year, she oversaw a floor of freshmen girls, mitigated roommate flare-ups and told students not to be ashamed to book a counseling appointment.

Her parents’ divorce was recently finalized, and, as she mentored students only a year younger than herself, Sullivan reflected on her own challenges.

“When they would sit in my room,” she said, “I would be giving them this advice, and I would think, ‘Wow, I should take this advice.’ ”

Jenna Johnson writes about campus life for The Washington Post. She can be reached at johnsonj@washpost.com.

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