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Psych professor studies student adjustment

The results of a Loyola University Chicago survey from the 2009-10 school year show that getting involved in school-run activities helps students have a better personal adjustment to college, increases physical health and leads to a greater feeling of attachment to the university.

While this finding demonstrates that school involvement often results in a smooth transition, it’s still natural for students to take some time to adjust to college. Whether they find themselves overloaded with homework or feeling the pangs of homesickness, each student’s struggles are unique.

Dr. Colleen Conley, assistant professor of psychology, knows this firsthand. Conley is part of a university group that meets weekly to discuss student adjustment and well-being with the help of the First Year Survey, now in its second year.

“The goal of this study is to see how Loyola can better serve the needs of its students,” she said.

While all first year students took the survey during Welcome Week, as well as at the end of their first and second semesters, Conley said that second-year students will also have the option of taking a survey at the end of their second semester.

She hopes the data from those students’ surveys will help the members of the research group understand how students change from year to year in areas such as social drinking, identity development, resilience and perceived level of support.

Conley sat down with the Phoenix to talk about the challenges students face coming to college, as well as to give students some tips and tricks for how to make their transition successful.

Phoenix: Can you tell me a little about what you’re researching and how the idea to research this topic came about?

Colleen Conley: My research has always centered on the common theme of development and transitions at various time-points in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. I have an interest in college students because it’s a really formative period of time when students are encountering some important life issues in terms of independence, and it’s a risk period for certain mental health issues.

My research examines what puts certain people at risk during these transitional periods and what protects other people. I try to look at some of the positive aspects and how we can promote some of those factors at Loyola.

P: What are the two biggest challenges college students face today?

CC: Stress is right up there. Not only does our data show that, but other groups’ research has shown that stress can interfere with academic performance. Drinking is another challenge for college students. I think it’s somewhat normative for college students to experiment with drinking, but drinking is associated with so many personal and social problems. Our research shows that rates of drinking climb substantially over the first year, and the hope is that by sophomore year students reign it in a little bit.

P: Are these challenges different than the challenges our parents faced?

CC: It’s hard to say, because quality research on personal adjustment across the college transition is relatively recent. I think there probably are a few things about our society today that contribute to more stress: higher expectations, more students going to college so it’s more competitive, but this is just speculation.

P: What can students do to feel less homesick?

CC: One thing we found from our assessment is that students tend to report a decline in their perceived levels of support from family and friends over the first semester. My guess is that it’s because you’re moving away from your family and friends, and you don’t have that constant support. Because of that, it’s important to maintain contact with friends and family back home, but also to move forward with making new friendships at Loyola. Make the most of it and invest in the relationships you have in front of you. These are the people who are going to help you through the next four years.

P: What are the tools and resources Loyola offers to help students adjust to college life?

CC: One aspect of what we’re looking at is programs and services at Loyola that might be having an impact. Our assessment has focused specifically on learning communities at Loyola, but we could also look at STARS (Students Together Are Reaching Success) and other programs. We’re really trying to build those up. We’ve found that students in learning communities report more interaction with their peers about academic issues and have more interactions with faculty and staff outside the classroom. They also have higher levels of growth in terms of personal and intellectual domains, such as becoming more aware of different cultures, developing their own values and ethical standards and finding information on their own.

P: Are there pressures unique to Loyola?

CC: I haven’t noticed any major difference in the data yet, but my impression is that, because this is a Jesuit university, spirituality might play a bigger role. This year, the survey has more questions about spirituality so that we can see how that plays a role in student adjustment.

P: What have you found is one of the biggest misconceptions first-year students have about college life?

CC: My speculation is that the biggest challenge is learning to manage their time and activities independently. They go from being with their parents, telling them what to do and when to do it, to having to schedule their time on their own. There are all these different opportunities, new friendships, a more demanding course load and a lot more responsibility for meeting deadlines and managing time.

P: What can students do to help manage their time?

CC: It helps to break things down into smaller, more manageable chunks. If you have a big paper due at the end of the semester, break it down into smaller parts. For example, write your intro by the second week and swap drafts with a classmate by a certain week. It makes the assignment go a lot smoother and you can meet your deadline without feeling as overwhelmed.

P: What are some ways students can deal with the stress of college life?

CC: It’s important to be balanced and set aside time to work hard, but also set aside time to play. Students think they have to study from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. and then they’ll go on Facebook for four hours and feel bad that they didn’t study. Budget in free time and social time, but also schedule studying time and make sure you have a balance. Treat yourself with sleep, exercise and eating well.

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