'Don’t sweat it': College students share the advice they would give their freshman selves

Making the transition from high school to college is a big change for both teens and their parents. So what is it really like navigating college as a new student?

In an interview with Matt Forte on the BUILD Series stage, three current college students at New York University — Wade Cushner, Nettie Jones and Liz Schilling — shared what that transition was like for them, as well as the social and emotional challenges they faced when they first started college.

Liz, who is studying film and TV at NYU Tisch School for the Arts, was “over the moon” when she found out she had gotten into her top school. However, the acceptance letter came with a catch. Since Liz had applied early and undecided as her major, she was unexpectedly placed at NYU’s London campus instead of the one in Manhattan. “So I was very excited, but also very nervous all of a sudden,” she says.

Nettie first applied to local colleges near her home and chose Eastern Illinois University. But after attending school there for two years, she realized the small town — “where you literally know everyone” — wasn’t a good fit for her. So she applied to and was accepted at NYU. “It was the only college I applied to,” she says. “I was living on the edge.”

Having their kids leave for college was also an adjustment for the parents. Nettie says that her mom was supportive of her attending Eastern Illinois since it was only two hours from her house. New York City — which had higher tuition and was a “huge change” — was another story. “She actually sat me down and she’s like, ‘You need to actually make sure that this is the right thing for you,” Nettie recalls her mom saying. Her mother also made sure Nettie knew that switching to NYU meant taking out loans to pay for pricier college. “She helped me talk through everything,” Nettie says. After Nettie’s mom realized it was what her daughter really wanted, she got on board.

With the surprising news that she would be attending college out of the country, Liz’s parents were “not happy” at first. “It was disappointing because they knew it was what I wanted more than anything in the world and yet they were not excited for me at that time,” Liz recalls. After many conversations over two weeks, Liz’s parents came around. “They decided, ‘Okay, you’re a very independent person. If this was any other kid we would say no. But we know this is your dream school and we know that you can do this and you’ll be okay.’”

Watch the full video of the college students’ panel discussion below:

Once Nettie, Liz, and Wade left for college, though, they still stayed in close touch with their parents.

Wade shares that he called home frequently, especially during his freshman year. With his older brother already away at college, Wade says he was conscious of the fact that his mom, who now had only one teen living at home, was trying to adjust to eventually becoming an empty-nester.

Like Wade, Liz is also close with her mom and calls her frequently from college, including FaceTiming with her while in London. Liz says the distance has only improved their relationship. “I think it took me moving away to really solidify the best parts of our relationship,” she shares. “And now my mom is my best friend.”

Another common thread the students shared was the fear that you’ll be alone and won’t make any real friends when you start college. “Then you realize, like, ‘Oh, everyone is in that position,” says Liz. After going from a smaller university where many people knew each other to college in New York City, Nettie says she had to put herself out there more to meet people.

After going through the ups and downs of freshman year, the students also shared the advice they would give their younger selves if they could. For Nettie, who found herself overwhelmed and stressed over “all the little things” throughout the beginning of college, she would tell her younger self: “Don’t sweat it.”

Liz points out that the fear of being alone when you first start college can make some people try to make friendships happen even when they aren’t a good fit. “You’re trying so hard because you’re so afraid of not having anybody at all,” Liz says. “Something that I probably would have loved to have heard from someone older than me is, ‘Hey, if you have one or two, like, really solid friends that’s enough and you’ll find more people.’”

She adds: “Be more yourself and know yourself a little bit better to find new friends” — ones who are “good people” that make you feel good about yourself.

On a similar note about friendship, Wade adds that when you’re starting college, know that those new friendships — even with people you become close with right away — can come and go. “As time goes on, just be open to the way those things evolve,” he says. “The people that are really important to you and that you connect with will stay around.”

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