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It’s that time of the year when high school students are poring over college prospectus, debating advantages of one over another, comparing the combination of subjects, credit hours offered and hostel facilities, among others, as they prepare to start a new chapter in their lives. For those who have already made that decision, the next step would involve mentally preparing to live away from home, away from family and friends, in a new place, a new environment. 

The transition from school to college is an exciting one that can leave some teens confused marring the new phase in their lives that ought be an enjoyable as much as educational experience. Harshita Singh, who is soon moving to the UK for an arts foundation programme, said, “I keep asking myself whether I'll be able to settle into this new phase in life in a new place, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and getting used to a new lifestyle.”     

For Anugraha Vinayan, who completed high school this year and is going to pursue psychology in Canada, “Studying abroad is going to be exciting yet stressful because I will have to not only adjust to a new education system but also the country’s rules and regulations.”

The fears and apprehensions before going away to college often revolve around adjusting to the new place and culture. Aravind Venkatraman, who has just completed first year of a computer engineering programme at North Carolina State University, remembers worrying about how he’d cope with adjusting to a new lifestyle miles away from his family and friends.

While adjustment issues vary among individuals, those who have gone through a similar phase in their lives speak of homesickness being one of the most difficult parts of the transition. Additionally, the degree of the problems faced by these students change as they move on to their second or third year. Most agree that the second year is easier than the first, with familiarity – in terms of academics, lifestyle and friends - playing a big role.

Najd al Raisi, who is studying physics and cultural anthropology in Canada, said, “In my first year of university, everything was the opposite of what I expected. I had the lowest grades I’d ever scored, and I was having a hard time making friends.”

Najd was unfamiliar with the way the system worked. “Lecturers didn’t care if you show up to class, and nobody will make sure you’re taking the right classes. All the responsibilities are solely your own. I struggled to get used to university classes; it required more time commitment and new methods of studying.”

Others in a similar boat have relied on new found friends and keeping in touch with their parents and old friends to cope with homesickness and culture shock. “Most of the time, the basic adjustment issues such as food, water shortages and power cuts in India lead to frustration. Whenever I was frustrated, I would call my mother and cry my heart out,” recalled Sneha Narayanan, now in second year at Christ University in Bangalore, India, studying commerce.

Only naturally, students have to deal with homesickness more in their first year than the second and devise their own ways of getting over it. Priya Rajesh, a student of psychology in the US, visited her new friends’ homes in order to feel less homesick, while Najd, who will start third year this summer, said, “I am used to dealing with homesickness now.”

Wiser from the experiences and lessons learnt in her first year, Prarthana Ananth, who is studying fine arts in Chennai, India, has these words of advice for those preparing for college life. “Sometimes it is better to give in and accept things the way they are rather than sticking to your ways.”

It’s not, however, just students who are anxious about the new phase of their life. Parents worry how their children will adjust to community living, cope with academics, differences in cultural and climatic conditions and emotional issues such as staying away from close friends and family, besides having to interact with new people. Sumant Shankar emphasised the need to prepare children for community living in hostels, staying in touch and speaking to them almost everyday. “Giving advice whenever they ask for help is one of the ways we can help them adjust,” he added.

Another parent, Bhavana Mistry – whose daughter is in second year - said, “It is also important to look out for behavioural changes in your children to make sure they are not dealing with mental health issues that need to be addressed professionally.”

Sameer al Musalmy’s advice to his son who went for higher studies in Greece was simple: “I asked my son to be patient as students usually forgot to be patient during such times.”

With growing awareness of the adjustment issues, college counsellors and clinical psychologist are often sought after and are increasingly playing an important role in the well-being of students. According to Anuia Phule, a clinical psychologist at Hatat Polyclinic in Wadi Adai, four out of every ten students she sees are for adjustment issues. “One of the major issues that I have come across is isolation and loneliness. Students who move to India from here feel different from the students who are born and brought up in India. They often feel outcast and are judged on their lifestyle and conduct.” Handling many aspects of life independently can become challenging that can lead to feelings of anxiety and loneliness, she added.

 For college counsellors and professors, irregular attendance patterns, backlog in assignments, deteriorating physical health, lack of motivation and use and abuse of substances such as depressants are telltale signs of students struggling to adjust to their new environment.

Of the students showing these signs, Sairaj Patki, a professor of psychology at FLAME University in Pune, India, observed that while milder cases can be estimated to be 40 per cent of the total student population - with the percentage rising to about 60 per cent just before and during examinations - extreme cases needing special attention could be about ten per cent of the total student population.

By the time students are in their second year, the issues are resolved in most cases with only faint memories  remaining of the earlier struggle. “You get a feel of the place, you make new friends and acquaintances and you kind of make peace with the fact that this is your life now,” said Aditya D Nair, who is studying chemical engineering in Jaipur, India. “Giving yourself time to adjust to your new life is important.”

Asked how she plans to adjust to college life in Glasgow where she’s going to study theatre and English literature, Samyukta Shankar said, “I’ll be the best version of myself that I can be and put myself out there.”

Contributed by: Hiranshi Mistry

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