Starting university or college is an exciting time. As you enter a new phase of your education, you get to learn new things that interest you, be more independent, and meet new people. While all of this is new and exciting, the transition to university can also be overwhelming and confusing. The new campus can be difficult to navigate, you may not know anyone when you start, and you may be far from the comforts of home and your loved ones. Even though starting school is new and exciting, it can also be quite anxiety-provoking and you might find yourself saying, “what did I get myself into?”
While the transition to university life can feel overwhelming and even isolating at times, take comfort in the fact that this is incredibly normal. In fact, it is so normal that a great deal of research has been done on the topic of transitions in the context of student development and university life. Adult developmental theorist, Dr. Nancy Schlossberg developed transition theory, which gives a framework for understanding how we are affected by transition and factors that influence our ability to cope with transition. Schlossberg’s theory is hugely influential in the work of student life professionals.
Schlossberg identified 4 areas that influence how we cope with a transition: situation, self, support, and strategies – also known as the 4 S’s. By assessing how you are doing in these 4 areas, you can see where your strengths lie and find opportunities to try new coping skills. Try asking yourself these questions to better understand how you are managing in these 4 areas.
How am I understanding this transition? Am I seeing it as positive, negative, or neutral? Do I feel like I have control over this transition? Is my identity changing with this transition? Have I ever experienced anything like this before?
What qualities do I have that are influencing how I relate to this transition? Are there gender, age, socioeconomic, and/or ethnic/cultural characteristics that make this transition easier or more difficult? Do I feel like I can handle this? Am I optimistic about this change?
Where can I receive support? Are the people in my life supportive? Can I access support from my community and new institution? How are my support networks changing with this transition?
What can I do to cope with this transition? Can I take action to modify this situation if I need to? Am I able to control how I feel about this change? What coping strategies can I use to manage stress?
Knowing that these 4 areas play a significant role in how you cope with a transition, you can try to build up our strengths in each of these areas. As you enter into university life, there are many new resources available that can support you through this transition and enhance your coping skills. Here are some ways that you can try to build coping skills in each of the 4 S’s:
Reframe how you see the transition to university. If you feel negative about starting university life, try and think of it in a different way and see how it feels. For example, try thinking of this transition as an experience that is helping you to learn more about yourself and to manage change in the future. Whenever you start getting into negative ways of thinking about the transition, remind yourself of this new, more helpful way of thinking. Saying it out loud to yourself or writing it down as a coping phrase can be helpful.
If you feel like you are not in control of your transition, seek out information and resources to help you feel more in control. At a new university where the large institution can feel overwhelming and you can feel anonymous and isolated, it can be helpful to learn more about some of the services available at the university. Check out the university website or speak to someone who works at the institution to learn about your academic department, student services, and/or student life.
Normalize your feelings, whatever they might be. Whether you feel sadness, loss, loneliness, or any other emotion, know that it is completely normal to feel this way at the stage that you are at.
Focus on your strengths. Everyone has a unique set of strengths that can be useful when managing a difficult transition. It’s important to pay attention to them and not to dismiss them. Reflect on past experiences and write down some of your strengths that have helped you in the past. When we focus on our strengths, we have more confidence in ourselves to be able to tackle challenges.
Reach out for professional support. Universities and colleges have counselling and mental health services available to students to help them deal with a wide variety of challenges. As well, you could seek support from outside resources, such as TranQool. Sometimes, the help of an objective and supportive person can be incredibly helpful to get through a challenging time.
Stay in touch with friends and family. Your friends may also be struggling with the transition to university. Maintaining your existing support networks can be important, as these people can also help you through challenging times.
Get involved on campus! There are many student groups and clubs available at universities and colleges that cater to different interests and hobbies. Getting involved is great way to start building your support network and planting new roots in your new environment.
Reflect on past useful strategies. What have you done in the past to cope with difficult situations? If you have some healthy coping strategies that worked really well in the past, it’s time to put them to use!
Brainstorm new strategies and try them out. New strategies could include: taking a daily walk through campus, journaling, calling a friend, or making a study schedule. Try out a few new strategies for a week and see how they work for you.
Finally, it’s important to remember that while the transition to university can be difficult, there will be a time when you begin to feel settled and more at-home in your new environment. This transition does take time, and enhancing your areas of coping can help you to feel more settled.
Kay, S. & Schlossberg, N. K. Transition guide: A new way to think about and manage change. Available by download.
Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A., Guido, F. M., & Quaye, S. J. (2016). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.