We’re excited to announce a recently accepted research paper that was made possible through a collaboration with colleagues at Penn State and the University of Houston. Working with Dr. Erika Hernandez, post-baccalaureate scholar Karen Talley, and Dr. Julie Dunsmore, our lab addressed questions on the importance of social relationships during the college transition.
A large percentage of US adults do continue their educational training following high school, with approximately 40% of adults 18-to-24-years enrolled in undergraduate institutions (i.e., 2- or 4-year colleges) or graduate programs (see the National Center for Education Statistics). Thus, the experience of transitioning to college is pretty common. This transition experience often involves students moving away from their hometowns and their loved ones, sometimes experiencing prolonged distance from family for the first time. This transition also involves new demands at the new college setting–needing to establish a new friend network; navigating new academic and professional development challenges; and establishing one’s autonomy and independence. For students who are able to meet these challenges, they are more likely to succeed at college, both in the short-term and with later outcomes like successful graduation.
Our study considered the importance of connecting with others–both those back in the hometown and those on campus–as important predictors of first-year students’ adjustment and psychological health. We were interested in the ways incoming college adults focused on their relationships with others and goals about connecting with others as they recounted their college transition experiences. We expected that students who tended to focus more on relationships would have greater adjustment overall. We measured this in two ways: 1) we measured broad mentions about interacting with others and building relationships; and 2) we measured more specific mentions of recent successes or setbacks in connecting with family, friends back home, and new peers on campus. We figured these two measures would provide different insights about relationships–how students generally focused on relationships with others (a reflection of their personality) and specific instances of success and setback in their social lives (a reflection of recent social situations).
In studying reports of students’ adjustment to college (belonging on campus, homesickness) and psychological well-being (positive feelings, negative feelings, life satisfaction), we found that both of these measures of relatedness in students’ life stories about the college transition were important across multiple time points over the fall semester.
In particular, we found that students showed different patterns in the ways they discussed successes and setbacks in their social relationships. One group that stood out initially reported more concerns about missing family and friends back home as well as new opportunities to make friends on campus. These students initially had the poorest scores in college adjustment and well-being, BUT they also reported the largest improvements over time.
This work showcased the importance of multiple expressions of relatedness and affiliation in people’s life stories. These findings motivate us to further consider the nuances in young adults’ life stories, and broader contributors to students’ functioning and health.