Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Advice for new college students, parents

August 20, 2014

Q.I’m leaving for college soon. My mom reads your column, and I had your classes in high school. Can you give me some hints for my first year at college? I want to succeed. I’d also like some hints to share with my mom so she doesn’t feel so lousy. She breaks into tears over everything we do. Buying stuff for my dorm resulted in full-out sobs. I’m going to miss her and my family, but I’m ready for independence. She’s a good mom. Can you help her feel OK about me leaving?


Mary Jo’s response: I’m happy to help. I attended college long ago, but I sent three children off to school, so I can relate to your mom. It’s a bittersweet experience; pride and love liberally mixed with confusion over the swift passage of time and an avalanche of memories. Your mom will be OK, and you will adjust.

I did some research to prepare for my response. You’re wise to consider ways to thrive at college. American College Testing states one in every four college students leaves college before completing their sophomore year. Nearly half of all college freshmen drop out before completing their degree or finish their college experience at another school. Those numbers are significant. Hopefully, you’ve selected your school with care. Here are some hints to help you make the most of it:

1. Stay sharp academically: You’re starting with a clean slate. The study habits you develop and the decisions you make this year will set the tone for your college experience.

2. Attend orientations: Meet new people. Step out of your comfort zone. Icebreakers and social events may not be your style, but friendships you develop now will open doors.

3. Familiarize yourself with campus: You may sleep in and need to rush to a class. Know the shortcuts.

4. Learn compromise: Get to know your roommate and the people in your dorm.

5. Get organized: In high school, your teachers and your parents may have reminded you of assignments. Your choices now will be your own; with independence comes responsibility. Develop time management.

6. Find a place to study: Know your learning style. If you prefer a study group, make those connections early.

7. Buy your textbooks: Choose used, new, or ebook – your professor selected these books with care. Read them.

8. Go to class: Attending your classes may sound like an obvious decision, but frankly it is key. I found a joke on Facebook that resonated with my professor role. A student asked his college professor if important information was covered during the class he missed. The professor’s response: “No, we just sat here waiting until you returned.” If you miss class, you miss out.

9. Get involved: Discover what you enjoy on campus and volunteer. Join a group, but be selective. You may not find your “people” right away.

10. Figure out money: Learning to budget is a great life skill.

11. Stay healthy: Know where the campus clinic is located. Exercise and eat right. It’s not weird if you don’t drink.

12. Be kind to yourself: Homesickness doesn’t mean you won’t like college. Insecurity can be normal. College is a huge change. Give yourself time to adjust.

13. Have fun while seeking balance: College isn’t all work, but you need to work hard if you plan to play hard. Remember why you’re there.

14. Keep things in perspective: You don’t need to declare a major right away. Explore likes and dislikes. Discover what you love.

15. Take time for you: College days move swiftly. Find ways to relax.

Your mom will work through her feelings. The first weeks may be challenging for you both, but you will be involved with new and exciting experiences while she is adjusting to your absence. She will walk past your empty bedroom and wonder how you reached 18 so quickly. Parenting is unique to each family, so I won’t presume to tell your mom how to feel. Accept her sorrow with the knowledge that it will ease in time. Here are a few ways your mom can feel better:

• Seek happiness or at least contentment. Sending a child to college is a success story. Trust your young person.

• Stay involved. Parents matter. College students still need adult guidance.

• Don’t hover: Be there, but not obsessively. Give your young person some space. Lessons learned in college are vital, and parental buffering doesn’t help independence.

• Expect change: Your child will evolve, but not as much as you fear. Trust the foundation you’ve given and enjoy your college student’s emerging adulthood.

Good luck to you and your mom!

Have a question? Connect with Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski at



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