5 Tips To Help Your Current or Future College Student Thrive

Below is the transcript from the conversation I had with my dad, when I called home from college to let my parents know I was not thrilled with my experience during the first semester.

Me: I'm not really happy. I don't think I like it here. My roommate is not like my friends at home. The environment isn't what I expected.

My Dad: Oh, I remember that feeling too.

Yep, that was the beginning and ending of our conversation about my uncertainty during my first weeks (or possibly months...I don't quite remember) of college. While it was the end of the conversation, I still had to work through the unsettled feelings until I successfully came out on the other side. I was reminded of this feeling when I unearthed some old notes for a talk that I did for incoming freshman when I was an orientation leader at UC Berkeley many years ago.

Speed ahead decades later and the same feeling of uncertainty seems to swirl around in the minds and hearts of many freshman today. While the feeling is similar, the response is often quite different. More and more I am hearing about students getting into the college of their dreams (or the one just short of their dreams) and, after not feeling like it's the right fit, they transfer at the semester or year-end.

My years of working in higher education along with my background in Life Transitions Counseling and Positive Psychology has me looking at this HUGE life transition through a unique lens. Whether you have a disgruntled freshman, or an over-the-top excited high school senior who just go into their target school, these 5 tips will hopefully help normalize feelings and prepare your student for success in what likely will be their first significant life transition.

  1. Validate feelings about uncertainty and normalize the experience. When we do anything new, particularly leaving absolutely everything and everyone you've ever known, it will be stressful and it will take time to build a comfort level. In working with clients experiencing life transitions, I notice it takes a good 6-9 months to begin feeling grounded - yes, that might mean the full freshman year before connecting to the school! True connections are not something that you can put on fast-forward.
  2. Whether your child is mid-way through freshman year or heading to college in the Fall, doing an "expectation check-in" can help get some grounding in reality. To help us prepare for an experience, our brains will draw on any information possible to create a mental picture. Often this picture comes from Hollywood or social media where what we take in can look like 24 hours of nonstop fun. While, yes, college has many fun moments, the majority of the day consists of real life moments which don't always feel like a party. Helping to prepare the brain with a more accurate picture can be very helpful to reduce stress and disappointment in transitions. Asking your student what their vision for college looks like and what they hope to get out of the experience is a great start.
  3. Knowing and using one's strengths is a significant component to over-all wellbeing and life satisfaction. Having your child identify and use his or her strengths throughout the college experience can help with navigating through tough patches. Leveraging one's strengths can be helpful with studying, selecting meaningful campus involvement and building new solid relationships. For a free strengths assessment, visit www.viacharacter.org.
  4. Encourage your child to create a self-care plan. When times get stressful, a self-care plan is more important than ever AND it is usually the first thing to get dropped. If your student is not loving college life, ask what he or she is doing to take care of him/herself physically and emotionally. Getting a wellness plan in place BEFORE school starts, is a great way to start the new semester or new year.
  5. With our brains natural tendency to see the negative, help your student re-direct to what's working and what's going well. The simple question of "what went well today" or "what went well this semester" can create a positivity spiral. Encourage your child to seek experiences and people who spark some joy and stimulate the flow of positive emotions. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson's theory of "Broaden and Build" confirms that "experiencing positive emotions broadens people's minds and builds their resourcefulness in ways that help them become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine". 

If all else fails with these 5 tips, you can always go back to my dad's one line - "Oh, I remember that feeling too." That may be all your child needs to re-direct and figure out how to make the situation work. I can't imagine how different my life would have been had I packed up my bags and returned home. After that first semester, I returned to school and jumped in with both feet, got involved on campus and built my community (yes, even my roommate became one of my closest friends freshman year). I ended up not only loving my experience at Cal, but staying on for many years after working for the University.

The most important lesson? By shifting my mindset, I took an experience that wasn't initially working for me and created it into all that I had hoped for and more. Thanks, dad, for not giving me an alternative!

Mindful Stepping Used To Encourage People To Visit Bellevue!

At a recent convention, "Visit Bellevue" paired Mindful Stepping Decks with personalized "Visit Bellevue" socks to encourage visitors and businesses to come check out all that Bellevue has to offer! I'm excited to see visitors strolling the City with their decks in hand! 

“The Mindful Stepping cards have been our most successful promotional offering to date!  Our clients love receiving something that improves their personal quality of life and paired with our Visit Bellevue Washington socks it makes the perfect gift to remind people that Bellevue is a great place to be.  Thank you Ilene for creating such a fabulous experience for our clients!"

Stacy Graven, Executive Director, Meydenbauer Center and Visit Bellevue Washington


The Hidden Benefits Of Procrastination

When you are flooded with things to do (or decisions to make), stress levels are high and you feel like you barely have time to breathe, what is your natural response?

  1. Head down and keep plugging away
  2. Talk to others about how swamped you are
  3. Write and re-write lists to remind you of what you need to do
  4. Stop everything and jump on a paddle board

If you are like most people, your answer is probably one of the first three (or a combination thereof). After all, this is what we are conditioned to do if we want to be responsible, productive, respected and (perhaps most importantly) not viewed as a slacker.

So why, on earth, would I pick #4 when my list of work deliverables is significant AND my personal demands are equally abundant as we prepare to relocate our family to another state.

The purest and most authentic answer is, I chose to get on a paddle board because it was 90 degrees in Seattle and it was just too tempting not to get out on the water. The longer answer is, yes, I felt a strong pull to go play AND I also knew that taking a 60 minute mid-day break, comes with invaluable productivity and creativity inducing benefits.

When we get stuck and our brain is on over-load, taking a breather and changing our scenery is often the best cure to move you forward. Indulging yourself in what you might otherwise consider "procrastination" can also have beneficial lingering effects as you continue to savor and reflect on your "play" - reintroducing those positive emotions long after you are done with the activity. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Still not convinced that taking a fun mid-day break will move you forward? Consider Barbara Fredrickson's Broaden and Build research and theory - 

"Positive emotions, like love, joy, and gratitude, promote new and creative actions, ideas, and social bonds. When people experience positive emotions, their minds broaden and they open up to new possibilities and ideas. At the same time, positive emotions help people build their personal well-being resources, ranging from physical resources, to intellectual resources, and social resources" (Fredrickson 2009). 

The next time you are flooded with things to do, stress levels are high and positive emotions are low to non-existent, it might just be the perfect time to do something fun and start broadening and building. Your creativity, productivity, work and general well-being depends on it!

It's The Small Stuff That Makes A Big Life

Inclusive. Fierce. Funny.

These are the three words that stick out in my mind as I continue to reflect on a memorial service that I went to this weekend for my accountant who died much too young from cancer. It's crazy how a one hour service listening to the beautiful thoughts of her family members (including 6 kids) can put life in immediate perspective. 

When you are in the "thick of life" and just getting through each day, it is sometimes hard to step back and realize you actually are doing just fine. You are making an impact (often without awareness), you are touching lives, and the things that feel so little (like bringing family together for both the regular and holiday dinner or driving your kids from here to there) do make a difference. 

A big difference.

I am certain this woman had no idea of the significant impact that she made by simply being a mom, wife and sister who gathered family and friends at any opportunity, fiercely approaching life through continuing to grow and learn, and putting smiles on the faces of those around her just by making a silly joke. She was described as "Possessing the ability to bring out the best in every individual. Her true talent lay in the capacity to bring people together." I can't think of more admirable qualities.

When you start to doubt yourself, or wonder if you are living as big as you could, take a deep breath and soak in each and every life that you have touched and continue to touch. Your imprint is likely much larger than you realize. You, too, are making a difference. 

A big difference. 

I am convinced it's the small stuff that makes a big life.


I am excited to go live with my Mindful Stepping Site! While creating a website is SO out of my skillset (and I ALWAYS work with my fabulous designer Sara) I was determined to try to create this one on my own! Glad I embraced the growth mindset and made it happen - it feels great to know that I could do it. Well, I almost did it on my own. A shout out to Lucy for walking me through a few of the tough things that I just couldn't figure out! Deeply grateful for your time and patience!

My next printing of Mindful Stepping should arrive today or tomorrow...can't wait! If you don't yet have a deck, you can now buy one on this fully functioning e-commerce site!

Look forward to hearing where your cards take you.

Happy stepping!


P.S. What do you want to learn that is totally beyond your skill set?