Thrive on Campus//

The Surprising Factor That Helps Students Better Transition to College

A researcher reveals her unexpected study findings, and what they mean for both students and families.

Courtesy of  LuminaStock / Getty Images 

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

I remember my transition to college as if it were yesterday. All summer I was excited about leaving home and felt I was ready for new adventures like hanging out with cool new friends with whom I would eat pizza at 3.00 a.m. after a night out. But, my excitement evaporated the day I arrived at college. The smallest things seemed overwhelming, like how to find my way around and wondering if I was the only one who had not ordered books yet. Meeting so many new people made me nervous about whether I would fit in. My high school friends attended other colleges, and on top of that, I had just experienced my first break-up. My parents had never attended college and were not able to help much, so I felt completely lost most of the time.

My experience is not unique; many students feel overwhelmed as they transition to college. The big changes that happen in a student’s life can exceed his/her coping abilities. Even though college freshman are considered adults, they are actually still developing — the brain is changing until the mid-20s — and students are learning about autonomy, or how to live independently, and who they are. College freshman are also still honing how to feel and interact with their peers and how they can form friendships and relationships. With everything they have on their plate before they even enter a classroom, college can be a risky time for students’ emotional health, with some researchers and clinicians saying there is a “mental health crisis” facing college students. Arizona State University students are no different, and ASU students experiencing anxiety and depression at similar rates as the national averages reported in ACHA-NCHA II data.

We just published a study in Developmental Psychology looking at how incoming ASU freshman experienced the transition to college and how their relationships with parents and peers impacted their daily mood. How we designed the study was unique and let us track week-by-week changes in mood over the first six months of college.

We enrolled 174 incoming ASU students during July orientation sessions about college. The student participants completed brief surveys, called ecological momentary assessments, that were delivered as a text message on their phones. The ecological momentary assessments came twice a week every Wednesday and Sunday night, for 28 weeks. We started following the student participants during summer and continued until their first semester ended in January. Through the ecological momentary assessments, the students reported their daily positive or negative emotions. The positive emotions we measured were attentiveness, excitement, and happiness. The negative emotions were feeling nervous, irritable, upset, depressed, or lonely.

The positive emotions started to decline right after the college transition, but the negative emotions, which were low overall, did not change much on average. The declines in mood we found seemed more embedded in the decreases in positive emotions rather than changes in negative emotions.

Even though the decreases in positive mood were interesting, we expected them given the current alarming rates of anxiety and depression in college students. The most important finding from this study was unexpected: The students’ mood was associated with their social relationships with parents and friends.

On the ecological momentary assessments, the student participants also told us how much time they spent with parents and friends on a particular day and also how satisfied they were with the relationship at that moment. The student participants answered questions about negative relationship experiences that day, such as: Did you have a conflict or a problem? Did you feel pressured?

We found when the student participants told us they were enjoying and/or feeling satisfied with their relationships with parents and friends, it boosted their positive emotions that day and buffered them against negative emotions. But, when they reported conflicts or problems with their parents or friends, it made them experience more negative emotions that day.

Pressure from parents was special; it strongly predicted increases in negative emotions directly after the college transition.

My colleagues and I designed this study to understand what college students experience as they transition to college, with the end goal being to support all students experience success in college. So, what do these findings tell us about thriving in college?

When I ask my students what thriving in college means to them, their answers often include terms like academic skills, planning, grit, and studying. Sometimes somebody will mention coping skills or personality traits like extraversion (my students are psychology students after all). My guess is that parents would give similar answers to students.

Did you notice that none of the answers included relationships?

We naturally do not think that social relationships can benefit academic success in college. Yet, the relationships with parents and friends were associated with the daily mood of our student participants, and we know that negative mood is detrimental to academic success.

Open and respectful communication, which involves support, validation, and active listening, is the key to healthy relationships. Feeling pressured by anyone, but especially by parents, enhanced the negative mood in our student participants. Pressure is tricky because it is closely related to support. Parents might think they are encouraging their child, but students might misinterpret the message and experience it as pressure. Preventing miscommunication is also difficult, but the first step is to keep lines of communication open during the transition to college. Parents can support their child by using open and non-judgmental prompts, such as “Tell me about your day,” and by practicing active listening. Giving their child undivided attention and including brief positive reinforcement statements like “sure” and “yes” and even pauses in a conversation will allow a student to explore their thoughts and feelings.

Healthy relationships with friends boosted the mood of our student participants and showed the protective role that friends can have. Just like scaffolding supports a building as it is built from the foundation up, friendships can provide scaffolding opportunities for college students to experience supportive communication and platonic intimacy. Another important social relationship that comes into play during the transition to college are romantic relationships. We did not look at romantic relationships in this study, but one can imagine that healthy and supportive romantic relationships can have similar protective effects on mood. My @HEART lab at ASU is currently investigating how romantic relationships impact mood and academic engagement in adolescents and college students.

I think this study is important not just because of what we found but because it is also an example of a university working with experts for their students. From the beginning stages of this study, we worked closely with the ASU administration in Educational Outreach and Student Services. They provided us with resources and funding and set us up at the orientation sessions in July, which made enrolling such a large number of student participants easy. Then, based on what we found, the university changed how it operates.

Aaron Krasnow, who is the associate vice president of ASU Counseling Services and Health Services, told us that the findings from our study reaffirmed a general belief of the university that it is important to make sure the entire family feels connected to the school.

“Because this study showed families are the primary support systems for our students, we will continue to invest in educating parents and families so that they understand the context of the transition to the university environment,” Krasnow said.

My colleagues and I are now working on ways to intervene before college students start to experience declining moods, but I think other college campus environments can immediately benefit from this work. Promoting the simple idea that nurturing relationships — with parents, friends, and even romantic partners — can help all students, even those who feel like they do not belong, flourish as they navigate the transition to college.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

Rogers, A. A., Updegraff, K., Iida, M., Dishion, T. J., Doane, L. D., Corbin, W. R., Van Lenten, S. A., & Ha, T. (advanced online publication). Trajectories of positive and negative affect across the transition to college: The role of daily interactions with parents and friends. Developmental Psychology. doi: 10.1037/dev0000598

The ASSIST study was funded by ASU Educational Outreach and Student Services, the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, the Department of Psychology and the REACH Institute.

Adam A. Rogers, lead author, was a graduate student in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics and is now at School of Family Life, Brigham Young University, Kimberly Updegraff and Masumi Iida from the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, Scott Van Lenten from the ASU Department of Psychology, and Thomas J. Dishion, Leah Doane and Will Corbin from the REACH Institute and the Department of Psychology also contributed to the study.

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