Reframing College: Self-Discovery & Communal Connections

For my empathy interviews, I decided to interview 5 young women in various stages of the college transition process.

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Reframing College: Self-Discovery & Communal Connections

College graduation rates in the United States range from 42 - 55%.(US Department of Education). According to College, 30% drop out in the first year and 60% drop out due to the difficulty in balancing school, work and family. In Canada, although the rates of college completion are higher, the first year is the year when most students drop out, and the reasons are, “money troubles, discovering the program isn’t for them, struggles with deadlines and course work.”

This Teachers Guild Collaboration is a fantastic idea because we need to change the transition process to prevent those first year dropouts and to make it easier for students to get the help and support they need in high school and in college.

For my empathy interviews, I decided to interview 5 young women in various stages of the college transition process.

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Jamie (High School Junior)

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Daniela, High School Senior

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Eve, High School Senior

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Isabella, College Freshman

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Rosie, Recent College Graduate

I chose these particular young women  because I have known each of them since they were 12 years old or younger and I am lucky enough to be able to watch them become strong, articulate young women. For the most part, I am going to let the young women speak/write for themselves.

Fears (From High School to College and Beyond)

Jamie: ...even if you know what you want to do, sometimes the concept of college is... overwhelming, to say the least. It has all the implications of "you're going to be a real adult now", "this is the real world", etc., as if we don't already live in the real world.

Daniela: I’m worried I won’t interact well with others, as well as how I will do academically in classes. I’m scared that I won’t be able to adjust well.  I also fear that, as I will be studying in college I will not enjoy it and end up confused about what I want.

Eve: I do not want high school to end. I have more things I am anxious about than I am excited about. It worries me that I will not be seeing some of my friends for quite awhile and that I might lose the connections.

Isabella: Cost. Tuition is so expensive, and there are additional costs like books and healthcare that add up quickly. I knew if I wanted to go into public health, going to grad school in the future would be expensive as well. My parents could not cover my university costs, so I tried to find universities that offered scholarships.

Rosie:Who would I keep in contact with from my close-knit group of friends? What field did I want to go into?I was also talking about these fears constantly, so much so that it began to feel like that “word vomit” scene in Mean Girls; I could not stop the steady flow of anxieties spewing from my mouth.


Eve: At first I decided to pursue medicine in college, which was partly influenced by the family, cultural values and subtle expectations.  I am both an Arts and Science person but I lean towards the Arts. My family wanted me to become a doctor and told me that I could do art as a hobby. But as I studied for medical school, I discovered that I rarely had time to do other things, like my art. That is why I decided to talk to my family about how I really felt. It was an extremely complicated decision as my parents had already told all of my relatives that I would be studying medicine.  All the pressure was on me.  In the end, I was surprised that both my mom and dad supported my decision to pursue communication arts instead.  I am very lucky.

Isabella: In high school, it’s almost like you’re not allowed to fail – there’s often a curve, they scale grades, your teachers work hard to make sure students are doing their best.

It’s hard when midterms and exam grades come out, and they drop 10 or 20% from your high school average. It makes you doubt yourself, how smart you are, and whether you belong in college or not.

Because classes are short and only a few times a week, you have to do so much learning on your own. The idea that we have to “study” around 2 or 3 hours for every hour of class was difficult to grasp. You really have to take control of your own learning. The first year of college is really about “learning how to learn” – it’s hard to break bad habits from high school. You can’t afford to procrastinate in university and it’s not enough to just attend class.

Also, we spend so much time focusing on the time leading up to college, sometimes when we actually start university we feel like we don’t know what to do. It’s very easy to lose yourself in senior year and it’s easy to forget who you are.

Rosie: I thought I was fairly good at time management and yet my final papers never turned out as well as I thought they would.

I had friends who struggled with emotional and mental health problems in college and I knew of many others who struggled with the same. It wasn’t until my senior year when I took a class on social justice that I learned about the truly awful way my college dealt with leave of absences due to mental health and the hoops you had to jump through to re-matriculate.


For this part of the interview, I asked the young women various questions about the support they received from their high schools and colleges AND from friends and family. In no particular order, here is a list of the things their communities did (and are currently doing) to support them in the college transition process:

  • Volunteer Opportunities: Providing students with volunteer opportunities allowed them to have the experience they would need to get volunteer and paid positions in college. It also provided them with a good perspective on issues ‘out there’ in the world and increased their empathy.
  • School Clubs and Organizations: Participating in school clubs and organizations from debate teams, to service groups to student leadership gave these young women opportunities for public speaking, thinking on the spot, gaining confidence, independence and connections.
  • Sports: It’s easier to make friends and stay fit when students participate in high school sports and meet students from other states, provinces and countries.
  • Wide Personal Support Network: parents, friends, parents’ friends, friends’ parents, counselors, teachers, club advisors, office support staff, alumni, other trusted adults.
  • University Immersion Programs (before school starts): Some of the college students have been lucky enough to attend a college where there is a program before school starts for students to meet other student. The transition is easier with the bonding that this type of program allows, particularly for international students.
  • Friends (worth a point of their own):  Reminding you that you can't be fully packaged in a stack of papers, that there are thousands of colleges out there,  that they should reflect their accomplishments which prove that they are able to do great things and that the move to college will be another challenge they will overcome beautifully.

Advice for High School and College Students and the People Who Support Them

Jamie:I think people who work with juniors can help alleviate the fears I talked about in #4 by changing the focus with college applications from "a hurdle to jump through" to "a process of self-discovery" -- I think reframing it to be more about what the student hopes to get out of the next four years of their life is so much more encouraging.  

Daniela: Don’t underestimate yourself. If you are interested in a college, then don’t be afraid to apply, you never know what will happen. So many people are afraid of rejection and think lowly of themselves when in reality they might have that capability.

Eve: Those who help the seniors should never pressure them to study things that they do not truly want to pursue. This is because us seniors can be pressured into these decision, but realized later that they are not the things they want to do. Those who help the seniors should give them more emotional support instead of criticism. Believe in them.

As for the seniors, they should both work hard and rest a lot. This is important as working hard alone can lead to a breakdown and a period of anxiety. Also, be aware that life in high school is short, and once you go to college you won’t be able to gain back these experiences. Spend time with your family and friends. Participate in clubs and activities to find what you are truly passionate about and care about.

Isabella:   It’s okay to fail. Don’t compare yourself to how others are doing; everyone works at their own pace and some people figure out what study method works best for them earlier. Know you’re not alone; sometimes people who are struggling don’t show it. Also, university might not be for everyone right after high school – sometimes taking a gap year could be the best thing for you.

Reach out to friends, family or counseling services if you need help.

Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat healthy food, and find ways to de-stress.

Make an effort to keep in touch with your closest friends from high school. When so much is changing, and you’re in a completely new environment, it’s sometimes nice to have something stable to hold onto. Even if it’s quick FaceTime call every few weeks, or short messages, this is how you’ll realize who your true friends are. On the other hand, it’s also okay if you grow apart from your high school friends.

Be open to making new friends, get involved off campus, study hard, try different classes, go to school events. Stay busy and connected.

Rosie: My advice for those just entering college would be, friendships don’t happen overnight and the best ones come from some sort of mutual interest. Meaning, don’t despair if you haven’t found your best friend for life after two weeks but also don’t believe that it’s just going to magically happen. It might, but for me it took joining clubs to find my people. You have to put yourself out there, which can be terrifying, but in the end it’s so worth it.

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe what you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research. (Ex: Good advisors make a difference.)

These young women inspired me to work on an idea, that with their help, might make a difference for other students in the college transition process.


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Photo of Charles Shryock, IV

Wow, I love this post!  Such rich storytelling here, and in their own words, at different points in their unique journeys. So many opportunities for designing! 

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