Allison McWilliams: New beginnings and letting go

Allison McWilliams, the Director of Career Education in the Wake Forest Office of Personal and Career Development on Monday, October 10, 2011.

Allison McWilliams, director of mentoring and alumni personal and career development in the Office of Personal and Career Development, will write occasional articles in 2015-2016 for Inside WFU. This is her first for the academic year. In each, she will share observations and suggestions with faculty and staff drawn from her professional experience with students.

The beginning of the school year can be an exciting time: new classes, new friends, and new opportunities allow each of us to “re-set,” as it were. It’s easy to think of any beginning in solely positive terms, but it’s important to remember that there can be anxiety associated, as well.

As William Bridges notes in his work on change, any transition, no matter how big or small, involves three stages. Endings require us to let go of what has become familiar and comfortable. The neutral zone, in between endings and beginnings, can be both freeing but also a little scary, as we are no longer tied down to anything. Finally, we reach a new beginning and must adapt to a new place.

Our process through these stages is deeply personal; while I may race through to get to a new beginning, you may hang out for a bit in the neutral zone, resisting the urge to adopt and conform to new rules, while someone else is clinging for dear life to that ending, not wanting to let go.

Whether they are first-year students or seniors, we must recognize that each of our students is going through this transition process this fall in their own ways. How can you help? Here are a few quick tips:

  1. Pay attention. Don’t assume that all students are having the same experience. Look for obvious signs – disengagement, lack of a peer group, attitude changes – but look below the surface, too. Sometimes it’s as simple as letting someone know that you see them and that you’re available.
  1. Ask and affirm. What do you miss most from this summer/high school? What are you most looking forward to this year? What do you think will be most challenging for you? These sorts of open-ended questions encourage students to reflect on and to share their experiences. Affirm that what they are feeling is “normal,” and share your own experiences with transition, too.
  1. Help with goal-setting. Ask students to set 2-3 goals for the semester. This gives them focus and encourages forward progress. Help them to develop specific action steps for their goals, and ask that they check in with you periodically on their progress.

New beginnings can be challenging and a bit overwhelming. They are also great opportunities for mentoring conversations. Take a moment to check in with your students and help to support them as they move through this exciting time.