The Transition To College: Show Up

I stare out the long side window of our Volkswagen Vanagon as the fields of tall corn rush by, my mind alive with anticipation and trepidation. Would I measure up? Would I find connection? Would I succeed? I distinctly remember the trip with my parents to drop me off at college. The dining hall would not be open for hours, so we interrupted the drive toward separation with a last lunch at Friendly’s. As I sat in the faded vinyl booth slurping down the final sips of my chocolate Fribble shake, my father said something that has stuck with me to this day.

Show up. Given the significant investment they were making in my college education, he asked that I attend every class. He predicted, correctly, that many of my peers would skip classes, sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. My parents’ minimum expectation was that I show up, and it became the mantra for my college experience. It was also the charge I gave to my son thirty years later when he headed off to college last year.

If you are a student beginning your college journey later this month, let me pay my parents’ advice forward to you:

Show up to class

Newsflash: College is not cheap. The reason you are there is to learn, so go to class. Look at it this way: if you are attending a private 4-year college, the total cost of attendance (COA) is likely well over $70,000. If you divide this out by credit hours you will realize that you are being charged around $200 per class period. If you want to figure out the exact amount, you can use this tool to compute your hourly cost based on your school’s COA. Don’t waste your money, privilege, or opportunity by skipping class.

Show up to the activities fair

This might take place during new student orientation or in the first few weeks of classes. Show up and sign up. Consider joining a few activities that you have participated in previously and at least one or two in which you have no experience. You can always cut back later so err on the side of signing up for too much initially. The research on student engagement, retention, and success is irrefutable, not only for thriving in college but also in career opportunities. The “what” doesn’t matter–you could join an intramural sports team, try out for an acapella group, run for student government, sign up for a service club, connect with an affinity group, or maybe all of the above. Regardless of what you do, don’t delay because it will just get harder once the year gets going and everything is more established.

Show up to office hours

There is a reason why faculty set aside time to meet individually or in small groups with students. They want to get to know you and build rapport. This is a great opportunity to clarify questions you had from class but also provides a way to make connections, deepen learning, and open doors. Make this a priority. No matter how many students are in the course, your efforts to develop a relationship with your professor will be noticed and you will find that your investment in your education is enhanced.

Show up to meals

On a fundamental level, it is important to nourish your body and mind with a balanced and healthy diet. Meals in the dining hall are also opportunities for social and intellectual connection. Don’t just grab food and head back to your room to scroll mindlessly through TikTok or YouTube–your life is probably already dominated by social media. Choose at least one meal a day to shelve devices, gather with friends in the dining hall to break bread, share stories, and build connections.

Show up to campus

Most college campuses offer a vast array of activities and events. Sporting competitions, concerts, gallery openings, theater, speakers, rallies–at no other time in your life will you likely have easy access to such diverse opportunities. Get out there and expose yourself to new interests and experiences. With so much to do, remember the words of poet Charles Bukowski: “Only boring people get bored.”

Show up to support

College can be hard and you do not have to go at it alone. Part of the reason that it costs so much to attend is that schools have allocated significant resources to student support and success. If you need academic or other accommodations, reach out proactively to access the tools you need to thrive. If you are struggling with relationships, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, see a counselor. Lean on your faculty advisor, residential life staff, campus ministry, and other supports to see you through difficult times. In high school, these resources might have come to you, but in college, you will need to seek them out.

Show up to your surroundings

Whether you are going to school down the street, or hundreds of miles away, seize this opportunity to explore the greater community. You will have a better sense of place if you connect to the area outside the campus gates. This might mean volunteering, frequenting a coffee shop, or getting to know the cultural and historical background of the town. Gather a group of friends and go for a hike or to a local museum. Embrace your surroundings.

Show up for your family

No matter how you define family, you likely have a parent, grandparent, guardian, or other supporter who is missing you, thinking about you constantly, and pulling for you from a distance. This may be your first foray into adulthood and independence but it doesn’t mean you are on your own. Set a day/time every week or two to connect with your family on the phone or online. Share your joys and challenges and show them how grateful you are for this opportunity and their support.

Speaking of family…some advice for parents and other supporters at home:

Don’t show up

At least not unannounced. We need to allow our children the space, both physically and emotionally, to be independent and resilient. This means creating some distance and resisting the compulsion to manage everything. I am a member of a Facebook group of parents of college students and I am often astounded by the anxiety-fueled posts about how to solve problems for students. As a school counselor, I long chastised the urge to rush in and fix. That was when it was all theoretical, and then my son went off to college and now I get it. There is an animalistic instinct to protect and solve. We do them a disservice, however, when we give in to this instinct. While it can be hard to stand by as they struggle, this is part of the process and the greatest gift we can give our children is to let them show up on their own. I have spent enough of my career helping launch students off to college to know that the young people who end up being most successful are those who have the space to do this.

Ease up

This is a huge transition for your child and you. It will inevitably be rocky and certainly not linear. It is good to set high expectations and to communicate with our children but we also must accept that they will fail. Them showing up is just the first step, and will not always look perfect. They might not (probably won’t) come home after the first semester with a 4.0 GPA. They may miss that scheduled weekly Sunday evening call. They may forget to send their grandmother a card on her birthday. Allow some grace and know that it is not for a lack of care but hopefully, because they are leaning into the experience.

So as you load up the van or the EV and prepare to head off to college, remember that the first step to collegiate success is to show up. Believe it or not, despite some late nights and other distractions, I did attend every class in college. Maybe it was initially because I promised my parents, but soon it became a commitment to myself, my learning, and my future. What will it take for you to show up in the ways needed to make the most of this investment in you?

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