For traditionally aged students, college may be the first time they live without parents or other family members, the first time they cook or manage their own meals, the first time they need to get themselves up for class, and the first time they have a schedule that is changeable and flexible with less structured time. In college, they could be living with roommates in residence halls who are quite different from them, demographically, politically, socio-economically, or religiously. While negotiating these shifts, students may be faced with the most difficult academic challenges they’ve ever encountered, or they may feel lost in a sea of 400-student lecture halls. Their support structure in their family and friends from home may be missing, so coping with these immense changes can be challenging. In AHE 599, First Year Student Programs and Philosophies, we took a close look at our own experiences of the first year of college and then spoke with first year students and observed first year classes in order to understand the transition issues that come with this difficult role change.
Transition is defined by Goodman, Schlossberg, and Anderson (2006) as “any event, or non-event, that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles” (p.33). Certainly, attending college is an event that changes an individual’s relationships with friends and family, the routine of secondary-school, the assumptions about the self and desires for the future, and the roles that an individual plays. In my own examination of my first year of college, I remember feeling uneasy because no one knew about my high school academic achievements, and I did not feel like I was being taken seriously. I was the valedictorian of my high school class, and I attended elementary, middle, and high school with many of the same classmates. There was no need to prove myself. In college, I felt I was seen as a young, blond, quiet woman, and I imagined others saw me as not very smart. To combat this image, the roles I played, in and out of the classroom, changed drastically.
Looking at the three types of transitions, going to college is definitely an anticipated transition, an expected change for which students prepare themselves. However, struggling academically could be seen as an unanticipated transition to more challenging college level work. Also, if students are not attending the college of their choice, this aspect could be seen as a nonevent, in that students wanted to go a particular place and that didn’t happen (Goodman et al., 2006). These different types of transitions can impact the situation. Some of the other factors that can affect the situation are the timing (Are students traditionally aged?), control (Do students perceive handling the transition as being within their control?), and duration (Are the struggles with transitioning to college seen as permanent or temporary?). Students struggling with transition issues need to take into account the second S, the self, including demographics, such as socio-economic status, ethnicity and race, first-generation status, and gender identity, and personal psychology, such as values and resilience. Being separated from family and friends at home, the third S, support, is often completely disrupted by transitioning to college. Because of this, higher education professionals need to create programming that supports students in the absence of traditional supports. Finally, teaching strategies to students who are struggling with the transition to college that change the situation or at least help students manage the stress they feel about the transition to college is important. In our final assignment for AHE 599, First Year Student Programs and Philosophies, I wrote a memorandum regarding shifting the thinking in supporting first year students from retention programming to student learning. This memorandum takes into account Schlossberg’s transition theory, as well as several other theories about persistence, retention, and student learning (Upcraft, Gardner, & Barefoot, 2005). You can access this text here: First Year Students Memorandum. In AHE 551, Programs and Functions in Student Services, I wrote a paper which focused on transition issues for a distinct population of students, student veterans. This text can be accessed here: A New Generation of Student Veterans.
A successful transition out of the institution requires career development throughout students’ academic experience. It requires that students have experimented and explored different career and life role options for themselves, through coursework, leadership positions, student organizations, internships and job shadows, undergraduate research, and part-time jobs. If students have not engaged in several of these types of activities, they are likely to be unprepared for the choices they will have upon graduation. They will also be less likely to secure meaningful employment. This career development in order to create transition ready new graduates is the goal of the program I have been co-developing in Career Services, called Career Trail. The Trail leads students through simple assignments to prepare them to investigate themselves with self-assessment, research the world of work by looking at job descriptions and the Occupational Outlook Handbook, develop personal marketing materials such as a resume and cover letter, and begin to establish a network of people who can help them find work in this changing world. The old ways of finding a job by sending a resume out to an address found in the newspaper are long gone, and a new market and challenging economy require a network to refer and recommend students as they transition out. The Career Trail is currently in a final developmental stage, although we hope to launch a pilot program soon.
I have helped students negotiate their transitions, both into and out of the university, as an academic advisor, an instructor, and a career advisor. In my internship in the College of Engineering, I was working primarily with first year, second-term students who were often having difficulty choosing which discipline in engineering to pick or if engineering was right for them at all. In the UESP, I advised incoming first year students who were undecided about major, some of them only a bit unsure and some of them extremely lost in the decision process. As a recitation instructor of ALS 114, Career Decision Making, I guide mostly first year students through a process to help them make some more definitive choices about future career, college major, and themselves. On the other side of the spectrum, many, although not all, of the students I work with in Career Services are nearing the end of their college experiences. They are working on their resumes, their cover letters, their graduate school applications, and their interview preparation skills. I feel quite fortunate that I have had the opportunity to see both ends of the spectrum in my time in the CSSA program, and I look forward to continuing to help students manage the transitions of college.