Counseling center provides resources, relief for stressed first-year students

The transition to college can cause ‘emotional stress’ for incoming students

Jordan Cohen

First year student Kacie Carter is fed up with constant alarms.

“The fire drills are getting out of hand. I was subject to four fire alarms, so that really needs to stop.”

Alarm bells aside, the first weeks of college can be particularly stressful. Orientation week, or O-Week, is packed full of activities, but sometimes the constant stream of events can be overwhelming.

“It was exhausting to say the least. I wasn’t a huge fan of O-week, but I did like the activities at the end of each day. I thought it was cool that they mixed them up,” Carter said. “But I did feel like the number of meetings and how long everything was […] too much.”

The stress of a new school year, particularly for first-year students, means new patients in the Counseling Center, where the four clinicians and doctoral students on staff help students cope with what can be a painful transition.

The reasons for this emotional stress, says Dr. Kirk Luder, a psychiatrist for Washington and Lee’s Counseling Center, come down to two basic conflicts.

“The first is dealing with the grief of separating from your family, from your friends, from your home.”

And the second has to do with forming new relationships.

“A big part of this, especially for new college students, is finding new friendships. Are you going to be accepted? Are you going to find your people? Are you going to have people to be close to?”

Dr. Christy Barongan, another clinician at the Counseling Center, echoed the centrality of relationships to what can be a bumpy beginning to college.

“Whether it’s family issues, or having a boyfriend or girlfriend who they’ve left behind or who’ve they’ve broken up with before they got here, or getting along with their roommates […] or just trying to meet people who they feel like they are close to.”

Luder said he believes that being separated from these existing relationships can cause grief, and that not properly coping with this change can cause an overwhelming feeling of loss.

“[First-year students are] ready to go, that drive for independence is really strong, and they’re excited about it,” he said. “They don’t really pay attention to the magnitude of the loss, which, for most students is really the biggest loss they’ve ever experienced.”

Another major stress for first-years is social pressure. In particular, the pressure of establishing oneself in what can be a very competitive social environment.

“The thing, I think, that really sets W&L apart is it’s just a more socially demanding place,” Luder said. “The student body here is very highly social, there’s an emphasis placed on being socially successful, that is, I think, much more than any other school that I’ve ever seen.”

The demands of social life, particularly the competitive nature of social life at Washington and Lee, can leave students feeling acutely hurt, Luder said.

“Students who feel like it’s taking them longer to establish a place for themselves socially or who feel like they’re not really popular or high status are more likely to feel it in a painful way here than they are at a typical college.”

Social status aside, students are not alone in coping with the stress of the first year.  Luder, a faculty sponsor of the peer counselors program, says the peer counselors provide a meaningful line of defense against the stress making the transition.

“Our goal is to have a peer counselor have a close relationship with every incoming students to be able to provide a friendly face and a way to help the student get socially connected,” Luder said.

The Counseling Center is always a resource as well.

“For students that […] are having enough symptoms of anxiety or depression or homesickness that’s it’s really interfering with their function, of course we have University Counseling,” Luder said.

Regardless of the resources used, Barongan said she thinks the key to overcoming the mental stress of the college transition is time.

“Some of it is really just time,” Barongan said. “You can tell people what something is going to be like, but they can’t really know until they go through it.”