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Separation Anxiety in College Freshman

Leaving Friends Is Major Stressor When Going to College

WebMD Health News

Aug. 12, 2003 -- There are numerous adjustments to make when going to college, but one of the biggest fears among college freshman is leaving old friends behind, according to a new study.

"Part of the adjustment process for first-year students involves grieving the loss of precollege friendships as they have known. This loss and separation often trigger emotional distress resulting in adjustment difficulties," Jennifer Crissman Ishler, DEd, assistant professor of counselor education at Pennsylvania State University, says in a news release.

Because peer groups are the single most powerful influence in personal growth during undergraduate years, universities have the responsibility to help first year college students adjust, says Crissman.

Crissman Ishler recently presented her research at the annual meeting of the American College Personnel Association in Minneapolis. She calls the stressful phenomenon of having difficulty letting go of precollege friendships and investing in new ones, "friendsickness." She says it hits girls the hardest.

Girls Most Affected

"Female first-year students have a difficult time letting go of their precollege friendships, a source of comfort and stability, as well as a link to the past," Crissman Ishler says.

For her research, she took information from 90 full-time, college freshman girls between 17 and 18 years old. The school had a first-year class size of 6,000 students. The volunteers took a required three-credit seminar in which they received five journal assignments and a final exam. While specific topics were assigned, students had the option to write about other issues bothering them.

After the semester, researchers logged the students' efforts during the first semester to maintain ties with childhood and high school friends while at the same time cultivating new friendships on campus. Researchers examined and coded results into several categories:

  • Precollege friendships
  • New college friendships
  • Comparison of the two types of friendships
  • Effect of friendships on college students during their first-year experience

Many students who felt separation anxiety spent a lot of time and energy trying to maintain ties with old buddies -- which in turn prevented them from investing in new friendships at college. These students feared new friendships would not have the same depth as precollege relationships, researchers say.

Making College Friends Helps Transition

Meanwhile, researchers found that students eventually realized that making new friends helped them adjust to their new environment. After a month or two on campus, freshman students typically started to embrace new friendships.

So what's the solution? Crissman Ishler says it is important for colleges to get involved in the transition process. The study notes that students who often experience loneliness and the associated grief often transfer the negativity to their school, leading them to believe that things would be better off if they were somewhere else, ultimately increasing their chances of leaving.

"First-year seminars are an ideal way to for instructors and students to create a community where students can discuss their experiences and feelings," Crissman Ishler says. "Orientation activities can aid in bridging the gap between high school and college, providing both an introduction to the school's academic life and opportunities for new students to meet and interact."

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