College life prompts a lot of questions about serious topics, including transitioning to college life. We took the opportunity to address head-on some of the most common questions we hear with the help of the people at Longwood who work most closely with these issues.
Below we address the topic of transitioning from high school to college through a conversation with Dr. Emily Heady, Longwood’s senior director of student success and retention.
Explain what your office does here at Longwood. What is your role?
There’s been a first-year experience office at Longwood for many years. But we have broadened the mission of our office over the past few years to reflect best practices in higher education and to meet the real needs we are seeing on campus. Now, we are not just first-year experience but we fall under the broader umbrella of the Office of Student Success. We work with the admissions office on the front end to make sure students end up in the right programs and to connect all our incoming students with resources as quickly as we know there’s a need. Then once a student is here, we work hand-in-hand with the Center for Academic Success, which does our tutoring, as well as financial aid and the registrar. Together we work to marshal the university’s resources to help students succeed here and ultimately graduate.
One of the signature programs our office oversees is the peer mentor program. Peer mentors are upper-level students who assist freshmen and new transfers with making connections and finding the best ways to succeed at Longwood. Each incoming student has a peer mentor assigned, and each will also be placed in a coaching group based on their preferences and interests. Coaching groups—headed up by a Longwood faculty or staff member who loves connecting with younger students—kick off during New Lancer Days, which happens in the few days leading up to classes starting. The coaching groups meet throughout the first semester and serve as a safe space to ask any questions.
Nationally there’s a lot of focus on getting into college, but we don’t hear as much about the transition. Why is it important that a student have a successful transition to college?
The transition is hugely important because it’s about personal development. There are two main aspects in terms of acclimating to college life: the academic transition and the social transition. At this point in time, especially, students are coming to Longwood with a wide variety of high school experiences. Some were able to stay in traditional classrooms, and others have been studying primarily online. That has both academic and social implications for our students so we want to be sure that we communicate very clearly about what the path to success at Longwood looks like.
One of the main reasons the transition matters for a student is that you want him or her to stay on a four-year timeline. If you get off on the right foot—and stay on the right foot—then you finish in a timely fashion with less debt and hopefully the degree that you intended to seek when you came here. In terms of the social transition, college is most students’ first experience living on their own. It is their first experience with a roommate, and they have to figure out how to get along. They are not used to navigating relationships without mom and dad there to help them.
If you were to list the three biggest obstacles students face in transitioning to college, what would they be
What resources are available to help parents during the transition to college?
We have a Parents Council, which is an advisory group and a good way for parents to stay involved and connected to what’s happening at Longwood. We also have a parents blog that has some really good information and helps parents with what they need to know and expect. I did a Q&A with the blog on midterm grades that has helpful information for both parents and students.
What are some things parents should do—and should avoid doing—to help a student transition to college?
One piece of advice I give to parents is to let your child transition. Don’t do the work for them or keep removing obstacles from their path—then the student never learns to do things on their own. We encourage parents to let their children—to some extent—figure it out for themselves. This is the most important four years of development that a student will go through. It’s important to recognize that development is a process and that sometimes it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s a lot of work. If a student owns that process and learns from it, that’s a student who is going to make it through all four years and is going to have a great professional career.
I’d also say it’s important for parents to allow their children to explore their passion areas. If that happens, they are much more likely to end up working in a field they care about and be happy with their professional career. We really don’t want parents to pick the major — each student needs to do that.
Explain why the coaching-group method was implemented by Longwood as a way of easing the transition to college life.
The coaching model is one we have adopted to better address the needs of our students. It’s a more dynamic and more personalized way of communicating information and helping freshmen make their first college connections. The coaching group is the first support layer that students will have when they get to Longwood. Each group has about 15 students who are placed together because they like similar things. Coaches send out relevant information each week and are able to answer questions and connect students with the appropriate resource if they need more help. They are Longwood’s way of making sure each student has a supportive community beyond what’s provided in the residence hall and academic classroom.
What happens if a student struggles to make friends, or with the college workload, or with academics in general? What support systems do we have?
Longwood really understands that there’s a human element to support systems—it’s all about building relationships. A student may get along really well with her or his academic adviser, but dislike her or his resident advisor (RA). If students have found a personal connection with someone who can help them, then we will use that person to get them connected with resources instead of sending them to multiple offices.
In each residence hall, we have RAs on each floor. We also have residence education coordinators (RECs) who can help navigate larger issues that an RA might not be able to handle. Besides that, we have the Office of Disability Resources, we have Counseling and Psychological Services, and we have the Dean of Students office. All of those offices are part of the support network that’s very, very good at helping students figure out how to get the help they need quickly. Most of the time when I get a call about a student who may need additional support or resources, I already know about that student. That means things are working the way they’re supposed to.
What is Longwood’s Care Team, and what does it do?
The Care Team is a group of representatives from various offices across campus who meet regularly to identify students who seem to be facing obstacles on the path to graduation, whether it be in the academic, social or personal realm. The Care Team meets every week to discuss how we can get students the resources and support they need in a way that’s quick and confidential. We have the most involved and responsive Care Team that I’ve seen anywhere. Most of the time students have no idea they are on the Care Team list, and that’s exactly how we want it.
What happens if a student gets in academic trouble the first semester?
College courses move at a faster pace than high-school courses, and sometimes students can struggle to keep up. New freshmen are placed on academic probation if their GPA falls between a 1.0 and 1.99. Anyone placed on academic probation after his or her first semester will be set up with a special advisor who can help the student through the probation process. We have mandatory meetings with these students where we talk about whether they have the right schedule and are taking the right classes. Our goal is getting that GPA above a 2.0. About half of our students who are put on academic probation their freshman year go on to be successful in the following years, so it’s by no means a situation that a student can’t recover from. Students who have a GPA below a 1.0 after their first semester are academically suspended and cannot return for the spring semester.
What if a student had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in high school? What disability accommodations can be made?
More and more students are coming with documented disabilities and in need of academic help—not just at Longwood, but at colleges and universities around the country. Most of these students have attention deficit or something invisible like anxiety, which are fairly easy for the faculty to accommodate. However, a student may be used to getting a certain level of support at the K-12 level that we aren’t able to provide on a residential campus. So we have a conversation about what reasonable accommodations look like. Academic accommodations are modifications to academic requirements or procedures that are necessary to ensure that qualified students with disabilities receive equal access to education. We have to have the appropriate paperwork in order to accommodate the student. Students can apply for services before they arrive at Longwood or any time during the semester. All services that are considered academic accommodations are free, and, once the student is accepted as a qualified person with a disability, he or she does not need to reapply for services. However, students are required to request the academic accommodations they want to utilize each semester.
Do you have any final words of advice for parents and students who are preparing for an upcoming transition to college?
This is a very emotional time for both parents and their children, so there can be a tendency to overreact and to overthink things. My best advice is: Don’t sweat the small stuff, and give it time. Acknowledge this is an adjustment period. There will be ups and downs, and students may fall off course. Probably not everything will go exactly the way you envisioned it would—but that’s OK. It’s part of the journey. It’s also important to understand that there are plenty of students who rebound and succeed after a less-than-ideal transition to college life. We see a lot of resiliency in our students.