Transition & Mentoring

First-Year Students

First-year college students typically encounter normal developmental challenges around at least some of the following issues:

  • Living with roommates
  • Homesickness
  • Developing a new network of friends
  • Managing dating relationships at Luther or over distance
  • Academic demands
  • Finding a major
  • Time management
  • Money management
  • Stress
  • Decisions about alcohol or other drug use
  • Changing relationships with parents
  • Changes at home

For students used to having their own room at home, sharing a small space with one or more roommates can be a definite challenge. This is particularly true if there are significant differences between roommates around such issues as quiet/noise, schedule, the balance and timing of social and study time in the room, music preferences, order versus messiness, overnight visitors, alcohol use, or sharing of appliances, food, and other items.

Working out differences or conflicts with roommates can be a good opportunity for learning valuable life skills like direct communication, assertiveness, compromise, consideration, and conflict resolution. Resident Assistants and Hall Directors/Area Coordinators are available to help roommates address and hopefully resolve differences and conflicts.

While some students hope that their roommates will become close friends, as long as roommates can live together in a relatively harmonious way, they need not be friends. Often close friendships are built in other ways.

Most first-year students experience some level of homesickness in the early weeks of the semester. For some, these feelings are more intense and last longer. Students who are homesick benefit from making connections with other students on their floor, in their classes, or via activities or organizations in areas of interest.

It is important for students to remain on campus for most weekends during the fall, rather than going home, since many connections are forged through spontaneous weekend social gatherings. Most students stay on campus on the weekends.

With current technology, it is easy for students to stay in close contact with friends from home. However, it is important that students not spend so much of their time with these connections that they fail to build new friendships at Luther. Residence Life staff on the first year floors work hard to help first-year students build connections here.

Managing a long-distance dating relationship can sometimes be difficult for first-year students. It is not uncommon for a dating relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend from home to end at some point during the first year in college.

Such an ending can be hard, especially if your student did not want the break-up to occur. It may be helpful to your student to talk through a relationship ending with a friend, a supportive RA, or a counselor.

Prioritizing tasks and activities, balancing work, study, social, and private time, and devoting adequate time to sleep, exercise, and good nutrition are often major challenges for first-year students. Some students have done quite well in high school with minimal or no studying outside of class and have not developed the study strategies and discipline necessary to succeed in college level classes.

The staff in the Student Academic Support Center assist students to develop strong learning strategies as well as skills in prioritizing tasks and managing their time efficiently. Sometimes first-year students need to adjust their academic load or drop a class. For most students, their first semester will not be their best semester academically, given the learning curve involved in adjusting to college level classes. 

The Lifetime Wellness Program offers a variety of opportunities for students to develop healthy lifestyles. A number of Luther offices and programs work to encourage all students to make healthy decisions about drug and alcohol use and to consider social activities that do not revolve around alcohol. These efforts particularly focus on first-year students, since we know they often experiment with alcohol use in the early weeks and months of college.

Some first-year students worry about choosing a major. Others come to college with a specific major in mind, but find that that classes in this major are not a good fit with their interests or abilities. It is normal for a first-year student to be uncertain about a major or career path.

The Career Center offers excellent information about the career planning process and the stages of this process that are appropriate for first-year students.

Money management is another common area of struggle for first-year students, especially in terms of credit card use. It is wise to have a frank discussion with your college student regarding general money management and use of credit cards in particular.

Stress is a frequent problem for many college students. The American College Health Association conducts a national survey annually of thousands of college students across the country, the National College Health Assessment.

In 2012, a random sample of 485 Luther sophomore and junior students completed the NCHA. Out of 30 different factors, students cited stress and sleep difficulties as having the greatest negative impact on their academic performance. At least once in the previous 12 months, 91 percent of respondents felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, 83 percent felt exhausted (not from physical activity), and 51 percent experience overwhelming anxiety.

Residence Life, the Wellness Program, Counseling and other college programs help students learn strategies for diminishing and coping with stress. Please see the National College Health Assessment website for a wealth of information about student health issues.

Happenings with family and friends at home continue to be important to most first-year students. Significant changes or stresses at home are likely to impact your student. Such changes might include: parental job loss, financial struggles, a move, separation or divorce, health issues, or death of a family member or beloved pet.

If events at home are serious enough to significantly interfere with your student’s ability to manage academic work or they need to be away from campus briefly, you or your student may contact the Dean of Students Office at (563) 387-1020 for assistance with academic adjustments.

The Counseling Service helps first-year students connect with the appropriate resources to address the common developmental challenges outlined in the preceding material. This may involve counseling in our office and/or referral to other campus or off-campus resources.


Your relationship with your college student will no doubt be in transition, especially during the first year. Your level of direct involvement in your student’s life and in how your student manages various challenges and struggles will probably change. Through mentoring, you can empower your student to make good decisions and act responsibly.

Your role as a mentor is not to solve your student’s problems, but to provide support, encouragement, and information, so that your student can explore alternatives and solve his or her own problems. Mentoring takes more time than offering advice or a quick solution to a student’s dilemma or decision.

But unless the situation involves serious issues of health and safety that require immediate intervention, mentoring can be a very effective way to parent your student through the many ups and downs of college life.

Here are some essential skills for mentors, taken from a great resource called Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years by Helen E. Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller:

  1. Engage in active and reflective listening without evaluating or judging. Listen without trying to “fix” the problem. Try not to moralize or catastrophize the situation. Wait (patiently, if you can) for your student to articulate thoughts and feelings. Check your understanding by reflecting back what your student seems to be expressing. 
  2. Avoid common roadblocks to effective listening: warning, threatening, providing solutions or “shoulds,” criticizing, blaming or shaming, preaching, interpreting, lots of questioning and probing rather than listening (the “third degree”).
  3. Use open rather than closed questions (that can be answered with just a yes or no). Open questions encourage the flow of dialogue and help you engage your student in more meaningful conversation. They help your student reflect on his/her own experiences and come up with his/her own solutions to problems. Examples for first-year students: “Tell me about some of the guys on your floor you’re getting to know.” “What’s choir (or another activity) like so far?”
  4. Avoid “why” questions; they are communications stoppers. You come off sounding critical, even if you are just genuinely curious.
  5. Rather than jumping in with solutions to dilemmas, use “I” statements to express your concerns. If you quickly offer a solution, your student is likely to hear your statement as a warning or ultimatum and to get defensive and clam up. Consider using an “I message” instead. Rather than “You’d better figure out a way to get more sleep or you’re going to be a wreck for mid-terms!” try “I’m concerned about you when I hear you’re getting so little sleep. Being so tired must make it really hard to concentrate.” With “I” statements, you have a much better chance of your student hearing you. 

When you actively mentor, give less advice, and allow your student to have ownership of decisions, they will probably be more likely to seek your involvement in future decisions.

As you work on this mentoring role, remember that you do not have to be the only mentor in your student’s life. Just by sending your student to college, you have placed them in one of the most mentor-rich environments possible.

Encourage your student to take advantage of the many mentoring relationships possible with professors, coaches, music directors, organization advisors, residence life staff, older students, pastors, work study supervisors, and others here at Luther who welcome the opportunity to mentor students.


For sophomore students, the excitement and newness of the first year has probably worn off. On the other hand, most sophomores have learned valuable lessons about how to manage the various challenges of college and are ready to use these skills to build successful academic, co-curricular, and social experiences during the sophomore year. Your support and mentoring continue to be important and valuable.

Some of the challenges of the first year are likely to continue during the sophomore year, although your student will probably have enhanced skills for dealing with them: distance dating relationships, academic demands, time management, money management, stress, or changes at home.

Some challenges are more specific to the sophomore year. In the social arena, friends from the student’s first-year floor may have dispersed to various residence halls around campus. Connecting with these friends requires more intentionality and may not happen in the midst of busy schedules. Hopefully, the student’s closest friendships will continue into sophomore year and will provide a sense of continuity and connection.

However, some sophomore students re-evaluate friendships from their first year and decide they want to develop different kinds of friendships. Students who had a hard time finding a comfortable social niche during their first year may continue to struggle with friendships during their sophomore year. If your sophomore student wants to build new friendships and is unsure how to tackle this challenge, seeing a counselor might be helpful.

Sophomore students often begin to get a clearer sense of how successful they are likely to be in their academic work and in co-curricular pursuits such as athletics or fine arts. Some students will have to grapple with a level of achievement that is less than what they hoped for when they began college. This can be disappointing and hurtful to the student’s self-esteem and sense of identity. Again, it might be helpful for a student struggling with such issues to talk with a counselor.

Sophomore students also usually feel a greater level of concern about choosing a major and beginning to define a career path. Please see the Career Center web site material on the Career Planning Process for ideas about how to support and mentor your student around these issues and what the Career Center can offer your student.


Juniors are usually settled into a major and are beginning to give serious thought to a career path. Please consult the excellent Career Center material on the career planning process for information and resources specific to juniors. Many juniors have also made a significant commitment to one or more co-curricular activities and may be moving into leadership roles in these organizations.

Juniors are taking more courses in their major areas and may feel more concern about doing well in them. Juniors who are strongly considering graduate or professional school are often concerned about attaining a grade point average to be a competitive applicant. In the midst of all of these commitments and demands, getting over-extended and experiencing the resulting pressure and stress is a real danger.

You may well have opportunities to mentor your student to set limits, prioritize, use sound stress management skills, and take adequate time for exercise, good nutrition, and sleep. Students who wish to study abroad for a semester usually do so during the junior year. 


The upcoming realities connected with graduation and another major life transition begin to loom large for most seniors. The many decisions and tasks connected with planning for life after Luther can feel overwhelming and daunting. Concerns about getting into graduate or professional school, finding a job, or pursuing some other desired path may become intense.

The financial realities of supporting oneself and paying off student loans are often quite concerning. Students in committed relationships may struggle to find a way to live in the same city or region or may have to grapple with a long-distance relationship. Some students become engaged and start planning weddings.

Other students are surrounded by friends in long-term, serious relationships and wish that were also true for them. While all of this is occurring, students still have all the same significant demands from their day-to-day lives here at Luther. Your support and mentoring remain important for your senior student. If your student seems to be experiencing significant ongoing stress and anxiety, a referral to counseling may be advisable.