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Adjusting to college life is no joke. It is the first time that most students experience a major life change. Naturally, with change comes a combination of growing pains and unfamiliar emotions, as well as excitement and eagerness. It is this fluctuation of emotions that makes the first semester of college seem unsettling. If you are a parent, your student may have experienced The W Curve.
The W Curve is a model or phenomenon, or a
path or pattern of stages that occurs when
one is introduced to a new culture.
Created in the 1960s to illustrate the
expected and unexpected range of emotions
experienced when adjusting to a new culture,
and readjusting to the native culture, The W Curve
has since been used to describe the nature of
transitioning to college from high school.
The W Curve explains the predictable nature of how students adjust to their new college life. The beginning of the semester is marked with anticipation, confidence, and elation, and is followed with periods of sadness, displacement, discouragement, and isolation. Then, there are more feelings like contentment and coalescence, followed by more feelings of displacement and fear. This variation of emotional experiences through The W Curve is recognized as normal.
Understanding the normalcy of The W Curve helps both college students and families approach the emotional roll-a-coaster of the college transition with more acceptance and grace.
In The W Curve model, the first of five stages usually begins when students recognize their refreshing new start. Everything is new: new people, new schedules, new sights and smells, new cultures, new self-awareness, new mental and emotional experiences, new-found-freedoms, new tolerances. From here, students experience oscillating emotions elicited from culture shock to final integration into the campus community.
The Honeymoon Stage:
As with all honeymoon phases, the beginning of something new brings about excitement and curiosity. The unknown and newness of this "next step in life" serves as a motivator for college students as they adopt an open mind and discover their new world. Students feel stimulated, enthused, and full of adrenalin as they meet new peers, try new events and activities, and look forward to this new status.
The Culture Shock Stage:
This stage begins at about weeks 3-6 when the reality (of what college is about) is acknowledged. “I don’t know if college is for me.” “I don’t know if I can do this.” As the newness wears off, students begin to realize the vision they had of college prior to coming to campus may not be the reality of college life. Daily life as a college student may feel overwhelming; students may feel academically inept; confusion, isolation, and a sense of not belonging may occur in this stage of college adaptation. During this stage, students may feel homesick, compare their abilities and skills to their peers, and may feel none of the excitement they experienced just weeks prior. Culture comparisons cause various uncomfortable emotions.
The Initial Adjustment Stage:
This stage begins in weeks 5-9 of college. Its most marked feelings are balance and control. Students realize that they are somewhere between their “old life” and their “new life,” yet they do not necessarily feel completely integrated into the college community. Students, however, stereotypically feel settled, accomplished, and confident in their abilities to do the work. They continue to make friends and feel like they belong. Feeling set in a routine and in-the-flow of things is common as students continue to successfully manage their independent life: situations, issues, challenges, responsibilities, and joys. This is the stage when students feel normal, well-adjusted, and in-control of their campus experience. Wellbeing levels are highest during this stage.
The Mental Isolation Stage:
Fall Break occurs changes things. From this point until mid-next semester students enter the “gray area” between feeling “at one” with the college life and still feeling alone. This stage lasts the longest (seemingly) because the integration has not solidified. There is ambiguity in that students have the title of college student but do not feel like a college student. The stress of not belonging brings about a sense of existing in “no man’s land.” There is some confusion about feeling uncomfortable on campus when students expect to feel settled after having lived there for months. Home visits may cause an emotional setback and homesickness may strike in this stage. Values and beliefs continue to be challenged as the “new life” continues to unveil realities of the college culture. Peer groups continue to shift, leaving students feeling alone. The feeling of co-existing with the campus community is interrupted with feelings of mental isolation. Students feel like they do not belong anywhere.
Acceptance, Integration, and Connectedness: (up)
This final stage of college adjustment feels like “the light at the end of a tunnel.” Students finally feel connected to people and places, and truly feel like a part of their college community. Late Spring is usually the time when students begin to feel like college is “their place.” Childhood homes finally feel more like a place to visit. College feels like "home". This is the stage of college adjustment when students feel the most balanced and secure, yet flexible with accepting that their two worlds are now “one.” Students accept the realistic existence of college, and can integrate the range of emotional, social, cultural, mental, personal, and academic experiences.
This transition to college is everything but normal. It is the first time in most students' lives where they manage all components of life (especially feelings and challenges) alone, for the first time. Successfully adjusting to college life through The W Curve of experiences builds life skills that will benefit students for the rest of their lives.