It certainly comes as no surprise that the first semester of college can be stressful. Oman, Shapiro, Thoresen, Plante, and Flinders (2008) noted that academic, social, and additional personal challenges make stress a major issue for college students. Specifically, entering first-year students often leave the comfort of home, the security of family, and the emotional support of friends to enter a world of higher education, which they may highly anticipate but know relatively little about. Stress during this time is not a new phenomenon. Sax (1997) noted more than twelve years ago that college students nationwide reported a strong trend in increasing levels of stress.
Fast forward to 2009. Nationally, unemployment rose to 8.5 percent with more than 3.3 million people losing jobs between December 2008 and May 2009 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). The stock market has taken a nosedive and affected portfolios and retirements, and those once-secure college funds have been used to pay mortgages or put food on the table. The cost of a college education has not declined in spite of the economy. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reports that during 20052006, the cost of undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public colleges increased 30 percent from ten years earlier; and at private colleges, costs rose 21 percent (NCES, 2009). Those numbers continue to climb. To add even more fuel to those economic flames, student loans and scholarship programs have decreased, as assets and cash flow at most institutions have suffered by the downturn.
Change in Emotions
Typically students arrive on campus with the usual mix of excitement, anticipation, and angst. Advisers serve to ease that transition from high school and summer vacation to academia and time management. During the initial session, the adviser has the opportunity to begin establishing rapport and underscoring the support base. Advisers have many tools for creating a helpful relationship. Laird (2007) noted that students respond in a more positive manner when a level of comfort exists. Office décor, desk position, respectful treatment of students, and an effort to get to know them are all useful and needed strategies.
Today's first-year students need even more of that connection. Though the usual first-year pitfalls exist, including course loads, roommates, and homesickness, the newer dimension is the economic stress that faces them on a daily basis. Some have left home situations that are financially tenuous. They may not have money for books and many, if not most, are desperately seeking part-time jobs to help them stay in school. All of these factors add up to mean that students are struggling, not just financially, but emotionally. Nearly 50 percent of college students report feeling so depressed at some point that they have had difficulty functioning, and 15 percent of those students actually meet the definition of clinical depression (American Psychiatric Association, 2009). The spiraling effect can lead to substance abuse issues, poor grades, and, ultimately, leaving school.
Adviser's Tool Box
Advisers already have many tools available, including some of those previously mentioned. Sometimes, however, taking inventory and adding to or updating what advisers already use may be in order. One of the first tools and perhaps the most important one is the initial greeting an adviser gives to that first-year student. When students walk into your office, are you glad to see them? They will know. At that moment, they should be the most important part of your focus, not your computer screen or that ringing telephone. Get out of your chair, greet them with a smile, and be glad they are there. Make sure to budget enough time for the meeting. If this is your first meeting with the student, plan on spending at least thirty minutes to an hour. This first meeting should not be rushed or hurried but rather relaxed and inviting. Use a personal interest survey. This can be a short four- or five-question prompt that guides the discussion and helps you get to know the student. What are his or her goals, dreams, and favorite television show or author?
Once the easy questions remove any initial awkwardness for students, advisers should take some time to discover potential stressors they may be facing. This can be as simple as asking if they are planning on looking for a job while going to school or if they are commuting versus living in the residence hall. Are they recipients of any scholarships? These can add an additional burden of grade requirements for students. Do they have any siblings? Sometimes these kinds of questions can open the door to discussions about what is going on back home or pressures to return to the people they miss. These are just a few of the possible questions with which to gather information about students and make those connections.
Make sure to find out what the student does for relaxation and fun. Essentially, this is key to helping them deal with stress before it becomes overwhelming. Rice, Kang, Weaver, and Howell (2008) noted anger, stress, and ineffective patterns of expression and coping are risk factors for developing disease. What is the student doing to relax? How is he or she balancing everyday pressures with the bigger pressures of life? Finding balance among those everyday task requirements and life demands, and actually having some personal fun time is essential for first-year success. Balance does not necessarily mean equal time, but it does mean acknowledging that there needs to be time to release and recharge.
It is also important in any discussion concerning stress relief that possible recourses are varied and healthy. Though advisees may not volunteer that they are hitting the local bars or eating chocolate chip cookies to relieve stress, advisers can certainly go down the path of identifying less healthful choices as they discuss options for stress relief. The point is to make sure students have outlets and that the outlets do not potentially create further stress.
College can be a wonderful opportunity to experience growth and challenge. Advisers play a key role in helping first-year students transition into the university setting to begin those processes. The current economy has added another layer to the challenges that these new students face. As advisers, our task is to identify resources, update strategies, and offer guidance to help students overcome some of those hurdles. Meeting with students, asking them key questions, and spending time to truly listen can all lay a firm foundation toward helping first-year students find success. Remaining mindful of the critical nature of the advising role and continuing to hone professional skills are imperative aspects of the position.