A dorm room is a weird place. Even the nicest, newest ones aren't really a home. The walls, windows, closets, and even pieces of furniture are somehow imbued with the residual hopes, anxieties, conflicts, and celebrations of the anonymous young strangers who passed through there in earlier terms. You can bring in as many familiar touches as you like—you will still pack it all up again in a few short months. It isn’t supposed to be a home, by design. Every resident of a dorm is there temporarily, and that’s a good thing. A dorm is a base camp: a place to set up temporarily while exploring a new world, learning ways through it, and attempting to reach its summit before moving on to other camps and other challenges.
“Dorm-as-base-camp” is a helpful metaphor for understanding the purpose of college in students’ lives because it emphasizes impermanence. College is a multi-year series of beginnings and endings. Even well-established college students are immersed in an environment defined by unfamiliarity. Their classes change every term. Friends come and go in and out to their lives. New relationships, intellectual challenges, and knowledge compete for their attention while they are simultaneously exploring new identities and speculating about the future. Transitions between those beginnings and endings are difficult, essential parts of college students’ learning and growth.
Students that I advise frequently report feeling confused, stressed, and isolated during periods of upheaval and transition; those struggles are to be expected because college is just like life, only more so—changes are complex, whether they are unwanted, shocking, hoped for, or predicted. Psychologists and counselors examining college students’ experiences note that change is neither inevitably traumatic nor generative. Professor Nancy K. Schlossberg has developed a theory of transition to describe how we handle change. In focusing on college students’ unique life stages, she and her fellow researchers note, “Times of transition can be positive experiences that involve movement toward one’s full potential, but they can also be negative experiences that shatter a student’s confidence or lead to disengagement from the environment (Goodman, Schlosberg, & Anderson, 2006).”
The impact and outcomes of change depend significantly on our understanding of what is happening and how we can respond. Fortunately, it’s possible to prepare, even for the things that we can’t see coming. There are ways to manage transitions for more learning and a gentler path to personal growth. The most important method is not an action—it’s a perspective. The things we do and don’t do grow out of our ways of seeing.
Students benefit when they can see changes as normal, manageable features of everyone’s college experience. We get better at experiencing change when we use the dorm-as-base-camp metaphor as a lens for interpreting this stage of life. That perspective becomes easier to adopt with practice. We can rehearse that healthy view when we think and talk about changes in the following ways:
Change is fluid, not binary. Thinking of it in black and white terms like before/after, good/bad, or pass/fail is a perspective that encourages people to underestimate their agency for coping with and learning from new situations. It is a process that must be experienced over time. Thinking of changes as slow transitions instead of sudden transformations makes it easier to recognize them phases that include moving in, moving through, circling around, and moving out.
The first impression matters. Dr. Schlossberg notes that people facing a change engage in “primary cognitive appraisal,” determining if the change is generally positive, negative, or neutral. Her findings indicate that if we choose to define it as a positive or neutral shift, we are more likely to actively work to cope with and learn from our shifting circumstances.
Define the relationship. Our relationship to any change exists in our own minds. Dr. Schlossberg also describes our “secondary cognitive appraisal,” the next level of defining a change, as inward assessment. Unconsciously, we ask ourselves, “do I have the skills, resources, and support to deal with this transition in a productive and healthy way? If I don’t have them, can I develop or find them?” The answer to the first question is up for case-by-case deliberation. With practice and guidance, the answer to the second question can always be “yes.”
Change is a permanent feature of every life. The evolutions and upheavals that we experience are not always fun or easy. If we attempt to avoid change or deny that it is happening, we are more likely to struggle with it. Students who have rigid, unrealistic expectations for how they will react to changes are more likely to engage in avoidance behaviors and struggle with managing changes.
The good news is that these evolutions and upheavals can be made meaningful (even if not pleasant) if we are capable of persevering through them and reflecting upon them. It’s also worth remembering that we have the chance to create some of the transitions that influence the course of our lives. Without change, we would be stagnant and stuck.
Holding too tightly to the familiar features of our worlds prevent us from growing. Getting more comfortable with change requires that we acquire strategies for responding to losing familiar people, roles and things and encountering new ones. When we start a journey, we make significant strides to develop those strategies. Deciding to attend college and establish temporary residence in base camps is a brave move that can make our lives bigger and brighter.
Sleeping in a base camp is not cozy. College transitions are not easy. That is okay. The worlds you can enter from base camp are worth it.
Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N. K., & Anderson, M. L. (2006). Counseling adults in transition:
Linking practice with theory. (3rd ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company.