The Oxymoron of a “Smooth Transition” in Residence Life

Going to college is often viewed as an exciting time for students who are leaving behind everything they’ve known to begin a new journey into emerging adulthood.  This time can also be a source of fear and stress for that very same reason.  Entering a new setting involves learning the culture and its expectations, new ways of being, and needing to find your community.

Take a moment and think about a time in your life when you have gone through a huge change or transition.  Think about the emotions and thoughts that came with that change.  Idid you experience difficulty?   Did you share that with anyone?

When you have an upcoming transition, you may hear folks say they hope your transition “goes smoothly” or “goes well”. When you share that you are leaving for a new job role, it is usually met with excitement and a going away party!  That statement and those gestures connected to transition, while intended to bring hope, can potentially hide the fact that transition is hard.

Is it possible to normalize that difficulty and transition often are packaged together?

In our professional roles, each year we plan for the anticipated difficulties that students may face by planning numerous events and programmatic experiences.   We work to support the academic mission of the institution, but we also want students to feel that they belong.  As student affairs professionals we know that transition is difficult. 

We also have staff who are new to our campuses and to their roles.  Depending on the training they received they may feel well prepared or under-prepared. New professionals and graduate assistants are possibly experiencing imposter syndrome.  This can lead to questions of: Can I do this? Am I smart enough? Will I say something that will expose me as a fraud?   For entry level staff there could be the questions of: How do I explain this job to my family? or Why did I agree to live on campus with 18 year olds, again? 

At this moment in time we are surrounded by multiple humans who are experiencing transitions.  What are we doing about it?  Before you get overwhelmed with this daunting realization, I want to share two stories that demonstrate how we can support our students and staff as they work through what may feel like a pretty difficult moment in their lives.

Back in 2010 I worked at Sonoma State University–a beautiful campus.  During move-in week a student staff member came to get me and said a mom was desperate to talk to me.  There are many things that ran through my mind of what it could be so I mentally prepared myself for the worst.  I put on my “concerned, yet prepared to apologize and fix it” face as I approached the mom.  The mother shared that they drove their daughter to college and now the student wouldn’t get out of the car.


Okay, Crystal, they did not cover this scenario in training!

I walked over to the car, alone, and introduced myself and then I shared some theories. Yes I totally shared the literature about the importance of the first six weeks and also Astin’s Theory of Involvement.  I asked her about her decision to come to college and also why she changed her mind now that she was here in the parking lot.  I asked her about interests and her intended major.  I listened as she poured out her hopes and fears to me, a random university staff person.  After some time had passed, the got out of the car having agreed to try college for six weeks.  Back then I didn’t consider the financial implications of only going to college for six weeks and then leaving, but thankfully she stayed the entire year.  I was a complete stranger to this student and without any coercion on my part she decided that she would try it.

The second story, was at a different campus where I worked, UC Berkeley–Go Bears! I had an opportunity to lead a training session on transition for our new Resident Directors. The group that had been planning onboarding and training at that time were aware that we had several new folx coming on staff and we wanted to normalize transition. We wanted staff to have words for what they may feel as they began a new job, in a new place, and with new humans.  So, more theory!  We talked through Nancy Schlossberg’s Transition Theory.  It was powerful to witness folx working through the various stages and emotions that come with such a life change.  We shared the theory’s Four S’s–situation, strategies, support, and self. Going through these 4 areas provided awareness, normalization, agency, and a disarming of sorts. I also had a reference point throughout the year to use in my one-on-one supervisory conversations.  

In the first story, I listened to the student as she expressed her concerns about this big life change. I offered some advice based on some theory and some personal experiences from my college days. And I then asked the student to trust me and try it out for at least 6 weeks while being fully open to the possibility of a no.  (Disclaimer: I highly recommend gaining an understanding of the financial implications of telling someone to just try it out.)  The second story was about being proactive by creating space to say, “Hey, this is a huge life change and we want to help you through it.”  In both scenarios, it was about naming the change, acknowledging that new can be scary and hard, and then providing points of connection and resources.  The most important piece was letting folx come to their own conclusion of how they wanted to navigate their big life transition.

Early on I asked you to think about a moment of transition in your life.  Now, I want you to think about a time when you helped someone through a transition.  I hope that my sharing of these two stories of helping someone during a difficult time change their mindset around anticipated transition move from daunting to doable.

Change and transition is happening all around you.  What are you doing in your community to acknowledge this and also provide help and resources on a large scale and a small scale like the stories that I shared?  For staff,  it could be as simple as asking how things are going.  For graduate students, ask about their classes and networks of support.  And for our students, identify signs of homesickness and loneliness early. Help them build capacity to navigate roommate conflicts and build community. 

While April showers do bring May flowers, we can provide the umbrella. Cheesy, yes, but I hope you get my point!  Have a great fall and remember to be a resource and a connector. 

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