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Transitioning to uni & college: gearing up for your new life chapter

by Tia

As the year draws to an end and Matriculants prepare to move from their school career to higher education, parents and students alike need to start preparing for the emotional whirlwind that accompanies this transition, an education expert says.

“The leap from high school to university and college life is often portrayed as an exhilarating jump into adulthood. Movies, TV shows, and even best-selling novels romanticise the college experience, painting a world of limitless freedom, midnight study sessions, impromptu road trips, new friendships, and transformative learning,” says Dr Linda Meyer, MD of The Independent Institute of Education’s Rosebank College.

“Yet amid the thrill of embarking on a new academic journey and the promise of fresh starts, it’s essential to acknowledge that this will be one of the biggest life changes young people will have experienced. Being aware of the challenges and what to expect – and prepare accordingly – will make a huge difference to the likely success of this transition,” she says.

The emotional rollercoaster

Dr Meyer says stepping onto a university or college campus for the first time can feel like entering an entire new universe.

“The move isn’t just about packing bags, selecting courses, and choosing the right dorm decor. More profoundly, it signifies a shift in one’s identity. No longer is one a school student, protected and cocooned within the familiar confines of hometown life. Instead, you morph into a university student, standing on the precipice of adulthood: independent and responsible for your own choices, actions, and consequences.”

This transition, while liberating, brings with it a complex mix of excitement, anxiety, hope, trepidation, and, sometimes, a touch of homesickness.

Why is this transition so intense?

The transition and its related challenges can be overwhelming for three reasons: independence overload, academic pressure, and social dynamics, notes Dr Meyer.

New students will likely experience independence overload, as university marks the first taste of complete independence. Suddenly, tasks that were perhaps taken for granted at home, like managing finances, cooking wholesome meals, or even mastering the art of laundry, can become monumental challenges which quickly compound. It’s a crash course in adulting, and the learning curve can sometimes be steep.

While trying to manage this new injection of independence, increased academic pressure will also enter the chat.

“The shift from a high school curriculum, where learning is often structured and spoon-fed, to rigorous university-level courses can be daunting. Here, the expectation is to be proactive, self-driven, and self-reliant. The pressure to excel, maintain scholarships, or even just keep up can weigh heavily on young shoulders.

As if that were not enough, students must navigate the new social dynamics at their higher education institution.

“Universities and Colleges are not just academic institutions. Campuses are social hives. They bring together a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds, ideologies and personalities of people trying to find their tribe while also trying to do their best academically. This diversity is the university’s strength, but it also means that navigating new social circles, understanding different perspectives, and building genuine, lasting relationships can be exciting and challenging.”

Gearing up emotionally

Taking into consideration all these new challenges, Dr Meyer advises the following steps to prepare for the new life as a young adult in higher education:

  • Open Conversations: Before making the move, talk to someone who’s been there – it could be a sibling who’s a year or two ahead, a friend who’s already on campus, or a mentor from school. Their experiences, anecdotes, and advice can provide invaluable insights and dispel some myths while also helping you build a mental roadmap of what to expect when you arrive on campus.
  • Set Realistic Expectations: Popular culture has, in many ways, romanticised university life. While there will be moments that feel like they’re straight out of a movie scene, there will also be mundane days, challenging weeks, and tough semesters. Understand and accept that everyone has their unique journey, complete with their own set of highs and lows.
  • Seek Support: It’s okay to ask for help. Universities are aware of their students’ emotional challenges and typically offer counselling services, student support groups, and peer mentorship programs. Utilising these resources can make a world of difference. No matter what your situation, they have seen it all, so don’t be intimated to seek assistance.
  • Embrace the Change: Change is the only constant in life. Instead of resisting the unfamiliar or longing for the comfort of the known, embrace the change. Every challenge faced, and every mistake made is an opportunity for growth and learning.
  • Self-Care: Mental wellbeing should never take a backseat. Self-care should be non-negotiable, whether practising meditation, indulging in a hobby, journaling reflections, or simply taking a weekend off to recharge.

“Despite the challenges and occasional bouts of self-doubt, the university or college experience is undeniably transformative. It’s a time of self-discovery, pushing boundaries, forging lifelong friendships, and acquiring knowledge that shapes our worldview. By being emotionally prepared and adopting a proactive approach to mental well-being, students can navigate this phase with resilience and grace, ensuring that the memories made during these years are cherished for a lifetime,” says Dr Meyer.

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