Even years later, I can still remember the pure, unadulterated fear I felt on my (second) first day of high school after transferring from an all-girls school to a co-ed one my sophomore year. Walking down the hallway, I was hit by the distinct smell of teenage boy, a mixture of too much Axe body spray and sweat, and immediately began to question my decision.
My first period class didn’t help much: The teacher made me awkwardly introduce myself to the class, who had been going about their business until I showed up during a random week in October. Then we watched the end of “Of Mice and Men,” a particularly morbid film to start the year off on. I left the class shaken, an image of the innocent Lenny character being shot in the head imprinted on my mind; would I, equally vulnerable (or so it felt) in this new environment, meet a gruesome social death as the strange new kid?
Of course not. I ended up with a great high school experience, but it took a lot of work, effort and mixed emotions to get there. Entering a culture midstream can be an extremely isolating experience, no matter how old you are when it happens. As a transfer student, you can’t help but feel permanently behind, whether it’s in classwork, routines, school traditions or more personal areas of life, like relationship-building and friend-group forming.
Though I haven’t had experience as a college transfer student, I had transfer-student flashback when I started at Ball State freshman year. I was in a new state, with no friends or even any random, slightly familiar faces around. I wanted nothing more than to hide under the covers and wait for Christmas break.
Of course, that strategy wouldn’t work. After much trial and error, I have formed a few hard-earned, time-tested strategies for breaking into a new community as a transfer (or homesick-freshman) student—they’ll work for even the most nervous and introverted of readers!
1. Say yes to discomfort and new experiences.
There’s no doubt that being the new kid in a sea of friends who already have years-old inside jokes is uncomfortable. You can feel like a burden that no one wants to take on, a guest who showed up to the party four hours late. While entering a new environment can be painful, learning to cope with change productively is an important part of growing up.
Instead of taking social anxiety as a cue to hide, don’t run from the discomfort you feel. Embrace it, and use it to fuel your determination to break through those walls and meet new people. Try an organization you never would have considered, or join in on a game of ping pong even if your hand-eye coordination is terrible. If you prepare for your discomfort and meet it with positivity, with bravery, you’ll have a much greater chance of adjusting.
2. Be okay with wasting time and making mistakes.
As a transfer student, it can be hard to get the lay of the land without making some mistakes along the way. My first week of college freshman year, I went to a poetry club meeting, only to find out it was slam poetry club—an art form I have endless admiration for but less than zero talent in.
I am traditionally pretty meek and quiet around people I don’t know, so when I was “encourage-forced” to perform an impromptu original slam poem, I wanted to melt into the floor. I came home from the meeting discouraged, but determined to keep searching for a club on campus I enjoyed. Though slam poetry was definitely not my jam, it was still worth taking the time to investigate and get out of my dorm room.
You should also remember that though you want to adjust quickly, taking the time to find the right part of campus for you is important. When you feel uncomfortable, it can be tempting to latch onto the first stable group you find, even if it isn’t exactly what you want. Don’t be afraid to course-correct if you don’t like the first club you join or the first set of floor mates you meet. Taking the time to find lasting connections and communities you’re truly excited will pay off as a much more rewarding college experience later on.
3. Get involved with something you’re passionate about.
Joining a club or organization on campus is a familiar, over-done piece of advice for freshman and transfer students, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Clubs, organizations, teams or service projects naturally bring you together with people who share similar interests and talents; it can be a lifesaving shortcut to quality social connections. Finding a passion project and sharing it with others keeps you moving in a forward, positive direction.
More importantly, however, when you invest in your campus through a club, service activity or organization, you start to develop a personal stake in the college community. My situation improved vastly freshman year after I joined the paper and started getting article assignments. The work and meetings made me feel accountable to others, and interviewing teachers and students made me feel more connected to campus. If you feel like you’re making a difference, you’re more likely to feel a sense of belonging in the flow of campus life.
4. Be patient with yourself.
Give yourself a break! You have to go into a new environment, whether as a freshman or a transfer student, knowing that change won’t happen all at once. Campus probably won’t feel like a home away from home until you’ve given yourself time to form relationships and connections with the people who live there, and that can take time. Be patient with yourself and feel good about the progress you make each day, even if the steps are small.
During turbulent times of change, it’s also important to stay close to your support system. On hard days, don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family from home—let’s be honest, some days, we all just need our mom or dad, even if it’s only for a ten-minute phone call. Try to stay on campus during weekends, but don’t feel bad about scheduling visits home to make it through a long semester. If you’re really putting effort into assimilating into campus life, the process can be exhausting, and will only be effective if you take time to recharge around the people who already know and love you.
Above all, remember that any period of growth is painful, but necessary to your development as an evolved, independent human being. When the going gets rough, remember that you are probably surrounded by people with the same worries and fears as you. You are not alone! From one former scared transfer student to another, I wish you the best of luck.