Transitioning to College

Excerpted from Delivered From Distraction

Usually, no one warns parents-or prospective students-about the dangers of college in advance, nor proposes specific steps to avoid those dangers. To avoid the dangers of college, information and preparation make all the difference.

First of all, parents and teenagers alike should know in advance how totally different a college or university is from home. The most glaring difference is that in most homes there is someone, like a mom or a dad, who deeply loves and checks up on the high school student every day. No one loves you at college, and not many people check up on you ever, let alone every day. At home, someone makes sure you don’t watch TV or surf the Net all day and all night. Someone makes sure you get physical exercise. Someone makes sure you eat right and don’t abuse drugs or alcohol (more or less). At most colleges, no one sees to any of this.

At home, many people care about you. Parents, siblings, extended family, friends, parents of friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and various others take notice when something is amiss and they speak up. For example, these people make sure that weeks do not go by during which a student does not attend school; they make sure that vast quantities of beer do not get consumed without anybody noticing; they make sure that personal hygiene does not totally disappear; and they make sure that emotional problems get taken seriously, even if they can’t always be solved.

At most colleges and universities, little of this happens. Most have weak student-advising systems and even weaker systems for the delivery of mental-health care. The services that do exist provide crisis counseling, brief psychotherapy, and the dispensation of medication.

A student who is not suicidal, not in crisis, not severely depressed, and not in need of medication but who “merely” feels lost, confused, unhappy, and is not making much of the college experience will not receive the support he needs until serious damage has been done, as in Eric’s case and thousands of college students every year. The ones who make the headlines commit suicide-colleges and universities have seen a rash of suicides over the past decade-but the great majority do not do anything nearly that drastic. They do veer off course, stop taking good care of themselves, cease to get physical exercise, get into drugs and alcohol, have sexual experiences that upset or traumatize them, lose their excitement for life, fall under the influence of friends or even teachers who undermine their best intentions, and lose ground in life at a time when they should be gaining ground, building confidence, skills, friendships, and enthusiasm. Parents and students should know in advance that going from home to college means going from a place of dependence and high supervision to a place of independence and low supervision. It is a jarring, albeit longed-for transition, one that students who have ADHD are particularly ill-equipped to handle.

Parents and students ought to prepare for this transition methodically, instead of simply letting the student jump into the college environment literally overnight, hoping she can swim.

I remember wasting my freshman year of college. That I had ADHD but didn’t know it only made matters more difficult.  I went from a boarding school where there were rules, structure, and a faculty who cared about me and watched over me to college, where there were few rules, little structure, and no faculty I could find to guide me. So I slept late, drank too much, skipped classes, played bridge late into the night, and changed from being the enthusiastic, engaged, achieving twelfth-grader I had been to a lackluster, underachieving, lost freshman in college.

Some people call this a rite of passage. I call it a waste of time-at best. At worst, this “rite of passage” leads to tragedy. Kids entering college, especially those who have ADHD, are not prepared for the freedom they suddenly acquire. They are not ready for the abrupt withdrawal of adult supervision and guidance, as much as they say they want to be free of it. They are not prepared, overnight, to run their own lives. So, they regress. They create Animal House. Happily, most survive the experience and years later look back fondly on what fun they had.

But a closer look reveals many stories of serious setbacks, and some lost lives. In order to thrive, most students need more guidance than they receive at college. Without such help, they can make bad decisions.

What saved me were members of my family really pressing me on what I was doing, what my plans were, what I wanted to do after I left college, and how I was spending my time. Oddly enough, it wasn’t my parents who did this for me, but a cousin named Josselyn, who was a few years older than I was, and her husband, Tom, an orthopedic surgeon. Josselyn wouldn’t leave me alone, pestering me and pinning me down, forcing me to look at issues I wanted to avoid-like what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

I also found a teacher who helped me, William Alfred, a professor of English. All students were required to do an independent study in their field of concentration with a person the college called a tutor. The department assigned tutors to students, or a student could ask a specific faculty member if he would be willing to be his tutor. William Alfred was a beloved and revered professor. As an English major I was eligible for Alfred to be my tutor, but I didn’t think I stood a chance of getting him. Josselyn kept on me to ask him anyway. So, after one of Alfred’s great lectures, I went up to him and blurted out, like a smitten teen asking for a date, “Professor Alfred, would you be my tutor?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Come by my house at five and we’ll talk about it. Thirty-one Athens Street.” And he breezed out of the lecture hall, his fedora cocked forward on his head. That man was to change my life.

I met with him one-on-one in his cozy den once a week for the next two years. I read more than a hundred plays under his guidance and discussed them with him. With his help, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the religion of Samuel Johnson. I studied as hard as I ever have, trying to live up to the great privilege of studying English literature under this legendary professor.

Between the lines, Professor Alfred was teaching me life. Even though he was well acquainted with sadness, Alfred loved life, and he encouraged all his students to go at it full force, not holding anything back. When I considered going on to graduate school in English he quickly interjected, “Oh, no, don’t do that. You’ll end up hating literature.” Unlike some professors, he didn’t want me to follow his path. He wanted me to find my own. When I told him that I dreamed of becoming a doctor, he lit up. “Yes, a doctor! You would be a very good doctor. I will come to you in my old age!”

William Alfred and Josselyn and Tom provided exactly what I needed, what I had not found in my freshman year: structure, guidance, accountability, and inspiration.

Coaches at the Hallowell Center can help provide this structure, guidance, accountability and inspiration too.

© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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