How to have a strong first semester

BY CORIE LYNN

Image is a stock image from prior to social distancing and mask protocols 

The fall semester of college is a semester of excitement as university activities resume, students reconnect with friends and move one step closer to graduation.

For campus freshmen, the excitement can double as stress as they transition onto campus. Because of the transition, new students can find themselves facing emotional and mental challenges they have not previously experienced.

“Most of the time,” said Sadie Spurlock, mental health counselor and case manager at FHSU’s Kelly Center, “freshmen students are moving out of their parents’ houses for the first time, creating and abiding by their own schedules, forming new relationships, and taking greater responsibility for their health and activities.”

This fall, students will find themselves under extra pressure as communities across the United States, including that of Hays, adjust to a new normal due to COVID-19.

Spurlock explains that typical college activities, from planned events to studying with peers, have changed to account for safety.

“This year, it’s a bit more quiet,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, it is just a reflection of the season that we are all finding ourselves in. In addition, many students may be more urgently concerned about their health and the health of their family members than what they normally would, which could be an added stressor.”

As stress mounts, from schoolwork and navigating a socially distanced college experience, the question of mental and emotional health arises. How do students, especially freshmen, take care of themselves and combat the challenges in a healthy way?

According to Spurlock, the answer is involvement in campus life, through virtual or in-person events, and connection to peers. Talking about anxieties surrounding courses and health will help students realize other people have the same concerns.

“I would also recommend that students do mental health ‘check-ins’ on themselves and their friends. What is going well? What is out of balance? Is there an area that I could use some help in?” she said.

Because of the importance of connection, Spurlock notes that isolation is a sign that a student might need help from friends, family or mental health resources. Students should also be aware of hopelessness, lack of motivation or interest and preoccupation with fear in themselves or their friends.

“The best way to address these warning signs is to simply ask about them. Let their friends know they’ve noticed these things and that they are concerned,” she said.

Freshmen who find themselves needing a little extra support are encouraged to visit the Kelly Center, where they can find resources ranging from personal counseling to tutoring and testing services to academic accommodations.

“The majority of our services are free to students,” said Gina Smith, director of the Kelly Center. “We also have helpful handouts and videos on our website to address various mental health needs. We will also be offering various group Zoom sessions on mental health topics in the coming weeks.”

One key to a strong freshmen year is to pay attention to and take care of mental and emotional needs. While doing so keeps students healthy, Smith also notes that tending to these needs makes the college experience more enjoyable.

“There is additional stress on everyone right now with Covid,” she said. “Therefore, it’s more important than ever to reach out to others and engage in self-care activities to cope with stressors and find ways to enjoy daily life.”

Like Spurlock, Smith also emphasizes the importance of connection. For students struggling with social distancing and relationships during the pandemic, remaining in touch with those around them helps combat these challenges.

In addition, Smith reminds freshmen that FHSU is host to plenty of faculty and staff willing to support them and help them adjust to their new campus lives.

“I would encourage students to take part in campus activities, consider checking out the Kelly Center website to see if they are interested in any of our services,” she said, “and to reach out to their family members, coaches, advisors or other significant individuals in their lives to help them adjust to college and address any problematic areas in their life.”

For Spurlock, that form of connection is a part of self-care, which she explains comes in many forms — though is more than bubble baths or drinks from Starbucks.

“It could be exercising, eating healthy, creating a helpful sleep environment or limiting time on social media,” she said. “I would encourage students to take an inventory of how they spend their time and consider if it is helpful. What brings joy and what causes stress? It’s all about balance.”

Spurlock’s final advice for freshmen as they begin their first semester is to take the uncertainty and strangeness of university in stride.

“Lean into the fact that it doesn’t look like what you had hoped for,” she said, “and to acknowledge that the feelings that come with that are real. It’s OK to be disappointed, and it’s normal to be stressed in this situation. But it’s also helpful to continue to hope for the future.”

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