Navigating Choppy Waters: Helping Students Identify and Cope with the Five Stages of College Transition

“Geez, Mom, don’t you realize I’m an adult now?” my daughter snaps when I question her about her afternoon plans. Later, I catch her reading in bed with her childhood teddy bear tucked under her arm. I’ve seen this ambiguity in varying shades with my other two children as they neared their high school graduations. My oldest daughter dealt with her uncertainties by acting out—we began to wonder if her unpleasant behavior was a means of coping with her impending college departure.

In Third Culture Kids, the late author Dr. Dave Pollock provides a transition model to help parents, teachers, and counselors understand the five stages that human beings encounter as they move through major life events. According to Dr. Pollock’s theory, my child is smack in the middle of the “leaving stage.” Here is some more information on the various stages to help you identify and tackle them as your student experiences each one:

Having received their college acceptance letters, students begin departing the first stage in the college transition process, which is the involved stage. The involved stage is characterized by belonging, participating, and making commitments. By giving up their roles as captain of the basketball team or student council representative, students begin moving into the leaving stage, which begins the moment we are aware of an upcoming change and is characterized by a loosening of emotional ties and distancing oneself from others. Leaving is a time of celebration (graduation parties) as well as anticipation of what lies ahead. Many students experience a mixture of sadness and rejection as their friends move on without them, and some are even in denial of the fact that they are, indeed, young adults who will be going out into the world semi-independently.

Often marked by stress and fear, the transition stage begins the moment a student leaves their former surroundings. This stage does not end until the student decides—consciously or unconsciously—to settle in and be a part of their new community. This stage can be overwhelming for students as they struggle to learn their way around and meet new people. The good news is that all college freshmen are in the same boat!

Once a student decides that they are ready to become involved in their new scene, so begins the entering stage. During this stage, students are still feeling uncertain, marginal, and vulnerable. They can be easily offended, fearful, ambivalent, and/or depressed. Finding a mentor is crucial during the entering stage—someone with more experience who can help them through this tricky phase. Parents and counselors must help students to choose the right associations as the wrong ones can be extremely detrimental to the student’s success.

Eventually students will begin to take on new roles and responsibilities and they will start to feel like they are a part of their community. Breathe a sigh of relief: At this point the student has reached the re-involvement stage where all is safe, secure and affirmed…at least until graduation!

Now that you know how to identify the five steps of college transition, you are that much better prepared to help your students and their parents face academic success. For more tips and strategies for negotiating each stage, read Leave Well to Enter Well: Tips for Easing Students’ Transition from High School to College.


This article was written by Tina Quick

Tina Quick has moved 18 times and has raised three daughters across four cultures and continents. Her international experiences led her to start International Family Transitions, a consultancy that helps individuals, students, and families who relocate internationally. To learn more, visit

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