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Going to College

A popular student in her small high school, Katie started college expecting to ace her courses and be best friends with her two roommates. But things didn't turn out that way. Psych 101 — the course she thought would be a first-semester favorite — turned out to be a struggle. And her roommates were as different from Katie as the cafeteria's mystery meat was from her mom's pot roast.

Katie summed up her first semester as one of "changed expectations." Some things that she thought would be perfect turned out to be a bumpy road, but other things turned out to be much easier.

Katie's advice? Try not to have preconceived expectations of what college will be like. Be open to surprises.

Taking the Stress Out of College

Katie realized that the things she'd been realistic about turned out to be the easiest to deal with. She'd expected to find it hard living away from home, not only in terms of missing her family but also in dealing with practical stuff like washing her own clothes. Because she anticipated these issues, Katie found them less stressful.

Living away from home tends to be the toughest adjustment for first-year students. You've had a clear role within your family all of your life: the family comedian, the mediator, maybe the translator. These roles can help you feel like you belong somewhere. It can be hard adjusting to a new place and a new way of fitting in — especially if it seems like your family is doing fine without you.

You may feel homesick in your first weeks and months. The first thing to know about homesickness is that it's very common. In fact, just about everyone experiences it at some point in his or her life. It might not feel like it when you're in it, but going through homesickness helps us all grow stronger and builds our coping skills. Homesickness can force you to challenge yourself into trying new ways of meeting people. Try joining your campus gym and taking exercise classes or studying in public places like libraries and cafes.

Try to identify your feelings and fears, and talk about what you're going through. The sooner you deal with these issues, the sooner you'll feel better. If you are homesick, it can help to call, write, or email your parents, other family members, and friends from home to let them know how you're doing and to tell them you miss them.

Who else can you talk to? For starters, that person sharing the dorm room with you. Roommates can be great built-in buddies. As first-year students themselves, they're probably experiencing many of the same fears and worries that you're dealing with.

But what if you don't get along with your roommate?

Meeting Roommates & Making Friends

In some cases, it can be a good thing if you and your roommate aren't much alike. A different perspective on things may be helpful. In fact, it's probably wise not to expect that you'll be best friends with your roommate to avoid disappointment. Katie came to college expecting to be best buddies with her roomies. But over time it felt like the two of them made her the third wheel. With a switch in roommates and a change in attitude about what to expect, she ended up having a blast.

Not everyone can switch roommates, though. That's why it helps to start with the idea that you'll respect your differences no matter what.

If you and your roomie don't get along, it can help to find someone you do feel understands you — which should be easy on a campus with plenty of people. Giving new students an opportunity to meet is one idea behind freshman orientation. And many schools have student organization nights where all of the campus clubs gather and promote their organizations, so you can meet people with the same interests as you. You'll also meet tons of people in class or in your dorm.

If you're really having roommate or friendship troubles, make a stop at the school counseling center. All universities have one, and first-year fears are something the counselors know well. The counselors will either talk to you one-on-one or if there is a peer group for students who are feeling like you, you can choose to join it. Talking to others who are in the same situation can be comforting. You can also talk to your RA about any adjustment or roommate problems.

Some students turn to alcohol, heavy partying, excessive sleeping, smoking, or drugs to deal with their first-year problems. Unfortunately, students who resort to getting wasted all the time to cope with their new situation often find that too much partying brings lots more problems, like interfering with their ability to keep up with assignments, papers, and exams. In the worst case, it may mean getting in trouble with the college judicial department.

Staying Healthy Away From Home

Sore throats, sprained ankles, and wisdom teeth that act up are as common among college students as homesickness. It's very easy, especially in a dorm environment, to catch bugs like the flu. People come in and out of your room all the time, and some of those who are sick may pass it on. And who has time to go home to the doctor when they get sick?

With this in mind, universities have created health centers staffed with doctors, nurses, dentists — even nutritionists and counselors — ready to tend to your needs. Check out your student orientation packet or your school's website to find out more information about the health center and where it's located.

Insurance Plans

Some schools require all students to have nonemergency health care insurance. In these cases, the school usually offers a low-cost insurance plan that can be paid for at the time of registration and used worldwide. These plans often cover basic health care and injuries sustained in intercollegiate or club sports as well.

At other schools, however, health insurance is optional and not necessary to receive treatment at the health center. But there is a charge for medical services.

Before you go to school, look into whether your school requires health insurance and discuss with your parents what kind of health insurance you have, if any.

Emergency Care

Knowing about the health insurance you carry or the location of the health center is not all you need to stay well, however. You might need to get a prescription filled, or you might become injured and need emergency treatment.

When you get to school, check to see if your health center offers 24-hour medical attention. If not, make a point to learn how to access emergency medical care through a local emergency department or urgent care clinic. Write this information and any important phone numbers somewhere you can easily find them if necessary.

You should also find a pharmacy. Although some schools offer a pharmacy on campus, other students may need to venture off campus to find one. It's no fun to go hunting around for these things when you're sick — being prepared can really help!

Prevention Tips

It's great to be prepared if you get sick, but better yet, how can you prevent getting sick in the first place? The usual measures, like washing your hands frequently, also apply at college. But you'll also have to think about community bathrooms, shared computer terminals, and cramped living quarters, all of which make germs way too happy.

If you spend time in the school computer labs, it's a good idea to carry some antibacterial hand lotion in your backpack. When your roommate gets sick, use a germ-fighting solvent to occasionally wipe down shared things like doorknobs, telephone receivers, and remote controls.

And don't underestimate the power of eating well and getting a good night's sleep. As always, the best defense is a good offense.

First-Year Food

You've landed in a buffet-style eating universe and there's unlimited double-decker chocolate cake. Many college campuses have lots of fast-food restaurants within easy reach of dorms or classes. Why not have pizza for dinner every night? Plus, you'll probably find that ordering Chinese food or cheese bread with friends at 2 AM is a common activity after a night out.

Most students tend to eat more than they did when living at home, sampling everything and snacking late at night. Eventually, many gain weight (the "freshman 15").

Studies show that students on average gain 3 to 10 pounds during their first 2 years of college. Both girls and guys do more maturing during their college years, so some weight gain is to be expected. But people who really pack on the pounds may become overweight or obese, increasing their risk of developing weight-related medical problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. And some students may resort to excessive dieting or other unhealthy eating behaviors when they see the number on the scale creeping up, or because they feel stressed.

To help you maintain a healthy weight, eat normally and at regular intervals — usually three well-balanced meals and maybe one or two healthy snacks — at the same times each day. That way, your body knows what to expect. Pay attention to your inner signals and eat when you're hungry and stop when you feel full. Watch portion sizes and try to resist trips back to the buffet for additional servings.

But chowing down when you're bored, munching because your roommate has pizza (even though you've already had dinner), or snacking on chocolate simply because you're stressed, means you are overriding your body's natural signals. This tends to lead to more chaotic eating and weight gain.

So now you know when to eat, but how about what to eat? Eating right is all about balance. You'll want to eat foods from each group every day. If your meals include too many items from one food group, it's at the cost of nutrients from another. Eating from many food groups doesn't just give the body a well-rounded diet — it satisfies your mind's craving for variety, too. So don't worry about eating an occasional candy bar, just don't use it to replace a well-balanced dinner.

A final note about food: It's tempting to pull all-nighters with the aid of caffeine. But too much caffeine can cause anxiety, dizziness, headaches, and the jitters. Caffeine can also interfere with normal sleep. And you can become dependent on caffeine with as little as 100 milligrams a day, which means you may experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches and irritability if you don't get your daily fix. Most people know caffeine is in coffee, but watch out for it in energy drinks, soft drinks, iced teas, and over-the-counter medications.

First-Year Fitness

Staying fit is easier than ever at college — a good thing, because students should aim to get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise every day. You don't have to go out for a sport to enjoy an hour of Frisbee in the quad, a morning jog around campus, or a game of soccer with people in the dorm after class.

Get started by checking out what's offered at your campus recreation center. Many rec centers rent equipment and offer classes in everything from aerobics to yoga to self-defense. You'll probably have access to a school gym, which may include exercise equipment, a pool, or a track. If you're lucky, your school might have amenities like a rock-climbing wall!

And if indoor exercise doesn't appeal to you, some colleges and universities offer excursions within the area like horseback riding, yoga at sunrise, a ski/snowboard trip to a nearby mountain, or even white-water rafting.

Staying healthy isn't only about what you put in your body, it's also about what your body puts out. That means effort, energy, and exercise to keep you powered up during college.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2011

Related Articles
T    Beating the Freshman 15
T    Getting Exercise in College
T    Health Care: What Do You Know?
T    Healthy Dining Hall Eating
T    Life After High School
T    Roommates
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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