Don’t let first-year university get you down

You may think you’re the only one feeling miserable, says this expert. You aren’t.
CREDIT: Janine Wiedel/Getty Images

Many kids arrive on campus only to find, “This is way harder than I thought,” writes Dr. David Leibow in his 2010 advice book for first-year students called What to Do When College Is Not the Best Time of Your Life. Usually, it’s a case of thinking, “I’m having trouble keeping up with my work. I don’t feel really close to anyone. I can’t fall asleep, then I can’t get up.” You may be looking around, thinking, “Everyone else is having the time of their life,” writes Leibow, a psychiatrist with years of experience treating college kids at Columbia University’s student mental health centre.

First off, you’re not alone. “Many of your fellow students go to the student counselling service or to private psychiatrists; they just don’t tell you about it. Which is a shame. Because it’s hard not to feel abnormal when you don’t know what normal is. Of course, it would be helpful if people were more open about what they really felt and thought. But, since no one wants to appear weak or inadequate, it’s unlikely a wave of honesty will sweep your campus soon.”

Homesickness is normal and so is feeling embarrassed about it, he writes. If you’ve come from a good home it makes sense that you’d miss the “cozy world of home” no matter how thrilled you were to leave your parents. In a section called “Two steps forward, one step back,” Leibow writes that “All human desire is riddled with contradiction: I want to eat two pints of cookie-dough ice cream but I want to stay slim so I look good in jeans. I want to outscore my best friend on the LSAT, but I want to be a generous person and root for her success as well.” With homesickness, it’s: “I want to become an adult and become independent of my parents, but I want to continue to have them as a safety net.”

His best advice is: befriend an adult on campus. An adult’s company will help correct the maturity deficit that exists in dorms. “Forming a relationship with a friendly professor, dean, adviser or coach can help make you feel more at home.”

To cope with a heavy reading load, Leibow suggests pretending you’re reading for pleasure. Don’t take notes while you’re reading an assigned book. Take notes later from memory. He gives the example of picking up Anna Karenina to read for fun in the summer. “You would probably be able to read it without putting it down.” But if you were assigned it by your comp lit professor, “there’s a good chance you’d be nodding off after a couple of pages.” Why? “Because when you’re reading something you’ve been assigned, you feel you have to learn every fact, theme and argument.” It’s exhausting. “Reading for pleasure makes it possible for you to absorb the important themes and overarching ideas of the book organically.”

To overcome laziness, Leibow tells students to think like a workhorse, not a thoroughbred. “These similes capture an essential truth. Like thoroughbreds, lazy people are very temperamental. They’re finely tuned. When all the conditions are optimal, they can turn in a good performance. But if anything is off-kilter—how much sleep they’ve had, how hungry they are, how quiet the room is—lazy people won’t get out of the gate. Workhorses get moving as soon as they’re put in harness and they keep going until the day is done.”

Set a routine and stick to it, he tells students. If you’ve established a schedule of starting work every morning at 10 a.m., you won’t have to ask yourself, ‘Should I work?’ You’ll already be doing it.”

“Getting organized” is just a time-waster, and not the same thing as doing work, he warns. “Get organized before you go to bed, and get down to work first thing in the morning.”

In university, “insomnia is virtually universal.” To block out dorm noise, Leibow suggests using a noisy electric fan over a white-noise machine. “Some white-noise makers simulate the sound of rain, the ocean, or the jungle at night. These sounds are never accurate and can become irritating.” Once in bed, try to imagine that you’re sleeping in the arms of someone you love, he suggests. “Don’t let this fantasy make you feel depressed or lonely. One day there may be someone who sleeps with you every night. In the meantime, you might also try your blankie or a teddy bear.”