Nearpeer Connections

– Higher Ed’s Peer Engagement Blog –

Across the globe colleges and universities are finding effective new ways to improve enrollment, equity, and the student experience. This blog explores their work, connects the Nearpeer network, and shares emerging best practices on peer engagement. 

two students smiling together

Supporting New Students: Why We Need to Ensure Incoming Students Feel Confident & Comfortable

If there’s one thing that’s becoming abundantly clear going into the fall of 2021, it’s that this year’s crop of incoming freshmen will need a lot of support to help them feel comfortable leaving home, traveling to campus, and integrating into an entirely new social environment. Coming out of the pandemic, these first-time college students won’t be granted the luxury of simply “returning to normal” – instead, the Class of 2025 will just be emerging from more than a year in isolation when they’ll be thrust into navigating welcome weeks and orientations, managing move-in days and unfamiliar campuses, and juggling full schedules of intimidating courses and a bombardment of well-intended social events from Res Life, Student Affairs, and Campus Activities. 

Homesickness and anxiety are likely to be at record highs for this year’s first-time college students – as will their rates of melt and attrition. So, what can you do now to help your future freshmen have more confidence and less stress in their transition to college this fall?

A recent article in Healthline suggests that the key for a successful transition out of isolation is a type of “exposure therapy,” a technical term for a simple approach we can all take with our incoming first-years. Dr. Paraskevi Noulas, a psychologist at NYU Langone, explains that since humans are creatures of habit, the adjustment from isolation and back into normal social situations this summer, after a year of lockdown, will be just as challenging as the adjustment from normal socialization into isolation last spring. To help with this transition, Dr. Noulas suggests that our minds and bodies need to adjust and have a series of successful “exposures” to slowly regain confidence and lessen our anxiety. The exposures should be done “in a safe way, gradually, and with support,” she explains.

Leslie Adams, a mental health therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, adds that leaving our bubbles this fall “will feel overwhelming because it is a drastic change… [and] we will feel like we are struggling, like our senses are on overdrive, because they are.” Therefore, she reminds us that exposure therapy works best if we keep initial social interactions limited and allow small group interactions to build back up to larger group engagement over time. Adams also reminds us that each exposure is personal and unique: “Our re-introduction to socializing will be individual and require individual thought and preparation to get back to a comfort level that seems ‘right’ for [each] person.”

So, how can colleges provide safe, gradual, and supportive exposures to incoming first-year students leading up to the fall that will be individualized and allow for small group interactions? 

It seems like a narrow and challenging target to hit, but Harding University has figured it out.


Thomas Deschenes

Thomas Deschenes

Tom helps Nearpeer build partnerships with colleges and universities across the globe. Before joining the Nearpeer team, he spent over a decade working in higher ed, with roles in university leadership, admissions, enterprise learning solutions, online education, educational technology, and strategic partnerships.

He's also a celebrated Shakespeare scholar, prize-winning author, game designer, and documentary filmmaker.