Navigating pitfalls of college social life

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Severe anxiety, panic attacks and "obsessive thoughts" convinced Kai Roberts that he needed a break from college.

Mr. Roberts, a business administration major at Carnegie Mellon University, opted to take the fall 2012 semester off and vent his personal struggle using poetry that became a hip-hop album, "Carnegie Cafe."

The opening track, "Celebration," ends with the refrain: "Party, college ain't what it's cracked up to be on TV. Or maybe it's just me."

"I just wanted to show people that there is light at the end of the tunnel," said Mr. Roberts, a 21-year-old from Beltzhoover who is scheduled to graduate next year. "It gave me the opportunity to reflect on myself as a person, to think about life and my future steps, and to look at college from a broader perspective."

Like many students, Mr. Roberts had a tough time adapting to the freedoms, demands and opportunities of college.

"I really struggled with managing my time, the pace of college life," Mr. Roberts said.

The transition from high school to college can be treacherous, with the pitfalls of partying too much, homesickness, loneliness and a failure to take advantage of positive opportunities on campus landing students in trouble, school administrators and students say.

Michael J. Cleveland, an assistant professor at Penn State University's Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center who co-authored a paper on first-year student drinking, said studies have shown the transition to college also can be associated with major increases in alcohol use over a relatively short period of time and can establish "high-risk drinking behavior."

That's why many universities make a major push during orientation and registration with programs on the dangers of drugs and alcohol and organization fairs to broadcast the array of clubs and groups that students can join to stay busy and meet new friends.

Larry Sebek, associate vice president in the Office of Student Affairs at California University of Pennsylvania, said the university "front-loads" the first six weeks of the semester with activities to keep new students busy.

Mr. Sebek said California, which has an enrollment of about 8,200, has tweaked hours for campus buildings and events to meet student demands. The student center has a 143-seat movie theater to show second-run films and has added late-night events, from tarot card readings and rap artists to video game tournaments and bingo, to fit the biological clocks of undergraduates.

"When some of us are looking to go to bed at 10 p.m., they're looking to do something," Mr. Sebek said.

Cal U also looks to "peer leaders" to educate students about drugs, alcohol and perceptions of college life versus the reality.

"We're not here to preach to other students about what to do or not do but to show them how drugs and alcohol affect them," said Stephanie Southerland, 22, a triple major in criminal justice, forensic science and psychology from Carnegie who is one of 21 peer educators in California's Options@CalU, an alcohol and drug prevention program.

Incoming students also need to know that they don't have to feel pressured into partying, administrators and students say.

"We let people know it's OK if you don't want to drink or do drugs," said Ms. Southerland. "There are a lot of students at Cal U who have never drunk and don't want to."

For incoming students eager for what they might think will be an all-out bacchanalia, their expectations may not reflect reality.

Ann Sesti, assistant director of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health and Wellbeing, said IUP has a diminishing reputation as a "party school" and, like any other school, college is "what students want to make of it."

James Smith, 21, an IUP junior from West Mifflin majoring in political science, said, "I don't drink, smoke or do drugs. I had no idea it was a 'party school' until I got up here and people said, 'Apparently it's a party school.'

"I would definitely say that it's incorrect."

That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Indiana's Philadelphia Street boasts a strip of student-friendly bars, and students say fraternity parties off campus, some not starting until midnight, are open to anyone with a student ID.

Given the town's small size, just under 14,000, Emeka Okolo, 22, a senior from Penn Hills, said partying can "snowball into a habit" for some of IUP's roughly 14,000 students.

"I've seen a few of my friends get caught up in that lifestyle. They felt that they were so bored," said Mr. Okolo, a biology major who is active in student government and other organizations.

Kate Linder, IUP's associate dean of student life, who oversees the school's conduct system, said up to 80 percent of the students who run into disciplinary problems in a given year are first-year students in the fall semester. And 48 percent of those cases involve alcohol use.

"That speaks to the difficulty of navigating the transition," she said.

Like many schools, IUP requires most first-year students to live in university housing, staffed with a "community assistant," based on studies that show it helps students assimilate better and stay in school, Ms. Linder said. The university also offers counseling; an alcohol, tobacco and drug office; and online "e-Chug" and "e-Toke" anonymous self-assessment tools to give students feedback on their levels of use.

Parents also can help students make the leap to college successfully by encouraging them to seek out clubs, sports or organizations that can help them assimilate on campus, talk to them about drugs and alcohol and set expectations for behavior, Ms. Sesti said.

Mr. Roberts said many new students convince themselves they must "conform to that college norm."

But when he came back after his semester off, he decided the party lifestyle wasn't for him.

"Just seeing close friends doing that and being around them makes you want to try it. Even if that's not you, you experiment anyway. Then again, I feel like some of that experimental period is necessary to an extent in determining your values as an adult."

Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909.

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