College kid wants to call it quits? (Photo by Rebecca Drobis/ For The Washington Post)

It’s wasn’t right away that my friend got that call from her college freshman. It was closer to the holidays when her daughter dissolved into tears on the phone and declared:

“I hate it here.”

Most kids stay put, but many won’t. In fact, 33 percent won’t. US News & World Report has reported this year that for reasons that run the gamut from loneliness to financial struggle, one in three freshmen do not go back for the sophomore year. In a column about the plight of the financially strapped college freshman the Boston Globe reported recently that only 59 percent of freshmen starting college in 2006 got their degree within six years.

It would be useful if some “readiness” profile could be instituted in high school to predict those students most likely to lose their footing. But some difficulty cannot be addressed until the right circumstances create it. What matters then is organizing a response that falls somewhere between booking a flight and reminding them of how they’ve coped with transition in the past.

I commuted to college from a suburb half an hour away and never lived on campus. I knew my kids well, but on the other end of calls like this I lacked the personal experience to know a transitional bump from a readiness issue. In the small town where we live, our own 33 percent was bouncing back and few parents were standing around saying “Well, I saw that coming.” Nobody sees it coming.

I read up. But supportive articles on the subject of homesick freshmen sounded the same and sounded passive: “sympathize” or “be positive” or “investigate on-campus counseling.” All valid recommendations, but like the advice I got as a young mother to nap when the baby naps, not very practical.

Or relevant. Our suggestions may be fitting for the kids we’ve always known, but transitional issues are about the people they are becoming in a place they don’t know, and yet know better than we do. For some, this is wildly freeing. For others, it’s like walking off a cliff to suddenly be their own caretaker.

But unlike financial issues which don’t go away with time alone, transitional problems – also part of that 33 percent – probably will. I can point to three things that mattered most in how my kids transitioned to life away from home, and they all had something to do with letting a little time pass.

First, though the solution might sound harder than the problem, college students themselves report that the most effective way of coping in the first year is to have friends. The fastest way to have friends is to become involved in an activity or club.

Our daughter, overwhelmed by the population at her city university, felt lost and invisible in her first few weeks. “Everyone” had their friends already, and what early attachments she formed were fleeting. Her campus life changed when she joined the school’s a capella club, and found her own “everyones.”

A second approach is to remain open, or at least not be closed, to an out. Telling your student-child that a difficult time will end is supportive, but it won’t resonate. Viewing a difficult time in finite terms, with a conclusion, can replace a struggling freshman’s panic with a feeling of control. Many kids can become very effective at dealing with short-term adjustment if an agreement can be reached to revisit the issue in late winter, when the transfer process normally begins.

Finally, while nobody likes a teary “hate it here” call, rash intervention only robs them of a chance to develop perspective – to resize their problems against bigger ones, or the ones they have been spared altogether. If college does nothing else in that first shaky year, it forces our kids to dissect their struggles in their own company away from the noise of us. What they decide about their woe, relative to bigger woe might change them forever.

Over lunch with me in the spring of her freshman year my daughter talked about friends who struggled financially, who had to drop out, whose grades fell short of scholarship requirements. “I thought I had problems,” she said, “But I’ll be able to come back next year. A lot of my friends can’t. That’s a problem.”

In the end, with a little emotional and geographical distance, our kids will earn more than a college education; they will discover that daunting issues are within their power to manage.

And, as they face the transitional challenges that wait – new jobs, relocation – be sure to remind them of those “hate it here” discussions. Lovingly of course, point out that new homes, where we become ourselves, usually start out as “here.”

If they can stay put.

Susan Bonifant is an essayist and novelist from Hopkinton, NH, who blogs about life after the last college drop off at Attic View. You can follow her on Twitter @SusanBonifant.

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