7 Tips for Parents and Teens Heading Off to College

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The month of August typically means one thing for students– back to school. Many of you may have students in your life and ministry who are headed off to college for the first time this fall. Going to college, especially away from home, is one of the greatest transitions many students and their families will ever experience. As a pastor who serves in campus ministry, I have found the following helpful for students and parents as they make the transition to college.

1) Give it a semester.

I often witness a common occurrence among new students who are in transition during their first semester. By Thanksgiving, they are convinced that they want to transfer schools. The transition away from home can be really difficult because things feel new and uncomfortable for the entire first semester. However, I have observed that a switch often happens after Christmas, when students return to school and see their friends. They find their college to be a place of familiarity and begin to settle in. Of course, there are other students who transition into college smoothly, and we can count that as a win.

2) Plug in with a local church and a campus ministry.

It’s important for students to worship and serve in the local congregation with members in the community where they live. Part of moving to a new place includes being able to find a church home. Helping students understand how to find a church on their own is an important skill that will bear fruit even past their collegiate years. Additionally, campus ministries are often tailored to students’ schedules and provide ways for them to delve into discipleship with their peers. I think it’s important to remember that there are various hybrids of campus ministries. However, for the most part, they are extensions of the local church, and we have to be careful to not teach students that a campus ministry takes the place of a local congregation.

3) Learn to balance school and play.

College is more academically rigorous than high school. It requires extra study time, diligence, and paying attention to details. Students are ultimately in charge of their study habits and play schedules. It’s difficult to raise a low GPA if it totally crashes the first semester. On the other hand, never going to IHOP at midnight is a tragedy. Learning to balance work and play early on is an important developmental step in becoming a young adult who knows how to honor God with his or her time.

4) Maintain healthy family relationships.

College is a time for students to explore and be on their own, yet advice from parents is still warranted. “Helicopter parenting” benefits no one, but a total lack of communication could cause either party to have a panic attack. Before students go to college, it might be helpful for parents to initiate a conversation with regard to mutual boundary setting as well as communication expectations. Some students might not need this, but some parents do. The opposite is true as well.

5) Redefine your understanding of the words “calling” and “vocation.”

All Christians have a primary calling and vocation: to love God. Often enough, we focus on making those two words equivalent to the terms “major” and “career.” While our callings and vocations are reflected in our chosen majors and careers for sure, I would say that these are secondary callings that flow out of our primary calling to love God.

6) Don’t fret over a major yet.

Speaking of majors, general education requirements are there for a reason, and students can wisely use an elective or two in their first year to explore their interests. While it is important to pick a major by sophomore year or so, assure students that they do have some time to explore potential majors.

7) Be open to new things.

College is the prime time for students to go “potluck” when choosing a roommate; to attend the spring break service trip; to take the Italian class in Italy; or to have a challenging conversation with someone with a different worldview. Experiencing new things presents an opportunity for students to develop and articulate their theology about God, humanity and the world, and that’s a good thing.

Do you have any advice that you would add to the list? As the summer ends and the new semester approaches, let’s commit to praying for the students and parents in our lives and ministries. The college transition can affect all members of the family, not just students. May the local congregation, especially, be a place of support and celebration as a new class of college students transition into school this fall.

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