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New Environments and New People

We hope that your students are settling in to their new home at Wake Forest.  One of their big early adjustments is managing the daily work of classes, homework, studying, etc.  A second big adjustment is communal life in the residence halls – a shared room, shared bathrooms, shared common space.

Another adjustment your students are likely facing is the idea of new people, people from different backgrounds or walks of life, different ideologies, political affiliations, sexual orientations, faith practices, races, etc.  People who have close families, and people whose family relationships are strained.  People who come from idyllic backgrounds, and people who have experienced some challenges.  We have first generation college students, some families of considerable means, and everything in between.  There are students of color and white students, international students and US citizens.   It’s a wide spectrum.

For many of us, our high school experience was largely dictated by geography, and it might have been a homogeneous existence.  Same type of people, same hometown, similar regional attitudes or behaviors.  In college, all of that changes.   So now your students are living with and interacting with other people who are new and different.  That can be exciting, disconcerting, intriguing.  Some students relish the idea of learning about other students’ beliefs and backgrounds, and others might be more reticent, particularly if they disagree with – or are conflicted about – the other person’s stance or worldview.

We live in an increasingly flat world, one where the internet has helped erode boundaries between countries and cultures.  Your students will graduate in four years and will be working and living in this flat, global world.  In work and in their communities, they will certainly encounter people different from themselves.  The most successful people will likely be those who are able to navigate these differences with compassion and understanding.

So now is the time for students to begin to get comfortable with new people and different ideas.  It does not mean your student has to change his or her beliefs or adopt practices that are not genuine.  It does not mean students should change who they are.  It does mean they ought to consider how they can learn about other people, understand their differences, value their common humanity, and be respectful of one another.

Parents and families can help encourage their students’ personal growth by challenging your students to go outside their normal comfort zone.  If your student has not had a chance to study abroad or meet people from different cultures, encourage him or her to take advantage of campus activities for international students.  If your student has never had a friend of a different race, faith practice, or sexual orientation, encourage him to get to know others of different backgrounds and have meaningful dialogue, while respecting each other.  Exposure to new things doesn’t just mean people.  If your student has traditionally been more of a sporty type, encourage him or her to go to a campus artistic event.  You get the idea.

Part of what we hope students will do at Wake Forest is stretch themselves.  They get a lot of mental stretching in class through their academics, but a holistic education means exposure to new experiences, new places, new people, new ideas.  And with that comes examining and challenging old assumptions or stereotypes in light of new information.

Stretching yourself can be uncomfortable.  That’s where trusted advisers come in.  Your student might want to reflect on and unpack those experiences with a faculty member, RA, a staff member, counselor, mentor, campus minister, etc.   Help your students know that immense personal growth – and great satisfaction – can come from meeting people unlike yourself.