When your student experiences a change of heart

By Lucy Ewing

At first, it sounded like homesickness. Then there was clearly some “grass is always greener” stuff going on. Our son, a freshman pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at a big university, began hinting at second thoughts. He planned to pursue an acting career…should he have gone to a conservatory for a Fine Arts degree instead? Wasn’t that where all the “serious” acting students were? How was he going to prove himself to his peers, and the industry?

The phone calls got more intense, and finally he came right out and said it: “I’m thinking about transferring.” Whaaa? You’d think my husband and I would have been prepared, and certainly there had been plenty of anxious (and creative) reading between the lines.

Instead, like other parents who find themselves in the same situation, we were in shock. How could this be? After an exhaustive (as well as exhausting) college search and application process, wasn’t our son’s final choice supposed to guarantee happiness and success?

It turns out, the “perfect fit” school doesn’t always fit perfectly.

According to the “switchers” I consulted, many things can lead to students feeling like fish out of water: disappointment with classes, mismatches with the student body, feeling like just a number, suffering long-lasting homesickness, and even the realization that they’re partying too much with the same faces from high school.

Meanwhile, the parents who are listening as supportively as they can to these tales of woe find their heads spinning. What about the scholarship? What about the housing deposit? What about the credits? What about the proud announcements and bookstore logowear? How do we get all that stuff from the dorm back home? Does this mean starting all over again?

It may and it may not. A change of heart during freshman year represents a critical junction for a family, and it’s undeniably painful to be on the receiving end of phone or Skype conversations with an unhappy student.

The situation does have a silver lining.

The very fact that a student is considering a switch shows a raised degree of awareness. Something isn’t right, and he wants to fix it. Parents are wise to capitalize on this motivation and require their student to play a very active role in evaluating the options. It’s one way to make sure he is serious, and if he does indeed transfer, his deeper investment can help ensure success the second time around.

“I chose an out-of-state university because I wanted the freedom, fresh start, and excitement of living in a new city. But by the middle of my first semester, I was really struggling with the decision of whether or not to transfer to the state university 15 minutes from my home in Colorado. I missed my family and friends (and the weather), felt overwhelmed by the pressure of my classes, and I hadn’t yet found a place at my school in Texas. Ultimately, and with the help of my parents, I decided that the potential for growth at the school I’d chosen was more valuable than the safety of Colorado, and once I made that decision, I was able to view the university as another home. Going to college out of state has been much different from what I expected, but I am so glad I stayed.” 

Catherine, sophomore

Here are a few change-of-heart happy endings.

Transferring schools meant Eric would lose a full scholarship at a coveted oceanside college. His parents told him they’d support his decision, but he’d have to seek out new scholarships and obtain finanical aid, which he did. Moreover, his new university in the Big Apple gave him an early foothold in the entertainment industry, a move that has paid for itself many times over.

When Amanda realized she was lost in huge lecture halls, she was on her own to seek out alternative campuses. She fell in love with a small college on the west coast, got permission from her parents to apply, and says it was “the best decision I ever made! After the switch, I became highly motivated and confident. The atmosphere, academics, and activities were perfect for me, and in the end I graduated with top honors.”

Avery was aware he wasn’t taking full advantage of the opportunities at his local university and felt like his friends were “dragging him down.” His parents were skeptical he’d turn it around at his new campus five hours from home, so they required him to co-sign on his college loan. Says Avery, “I was able to meet new friends, join student organizations, and find a job, all because I’d decided to change schools. I truly saw the impact of my decision and, with perseverance, the light at the end of the tunnel.” His mom, for her part, noticed that her son “matured more with the long distance” and she was thrilled by the change.

Most parents encourage students who are considering a transfer to complete freshman year at the original school. In some cases, though, the situation may seem dire.

If your student is very unhappy, and depression persists, a different timetable may be necessary. Taylor’s parents initially told him he should tough it out for a year, but eight weeks in they could tell it was serious. They started making arrangements for a switch mid-year, and scheduled some flights home in the meantime.

In other cases, a change of heart does not lead to a change of campuses. Fall of freshman year, my son started the application process all over again — new letters of recommendation, new applications, new essays, and demanding auditions.

He was accepted to some programs and we spent spring break flying around the country touring the schools. However, after a close look, he ultimately decided he wanted to stay at his university. It was a time-intensive, $2,000 reality check. But he didn’t miss a beat back on campus, and graduated in three years, a nice rebate.

Whether it’s a false alarm or the real deal, transfers can be managed. Students often value their new environment and opportunity even more.

If you genuinely believe it’s the wrong place for you, don’t be afraid to look into switching. 

There’s no point forcing yourself to stay somewhere you’re miserable. College is all about discovering your passions and values. Explore all of your options!