As parents, we’re all at least a little nervous as we send our student off to college for the first time. And students are nervous, too, even if they don’t admit it. But if the student we’re about to send off is shy, we may have more than the usual concerns. Will my student make friends? Will my student participate in class? Will my student communicate with her professors? Will my student get involved?
If you have a shy student, chances are that these are not new concerns. You’ve lived with these issues before, but they are magnified as you contemplate sending your student off to be on their own at college. You’re not going to change your student’s personality, and you’re not going to be there to help directly, but you might help them think about feelings and suggest a few things that might help.
Shy or introvert?
One place to start may be for you and your student to think about the difference between being shy and being introverted. Many people consider these the same thing, and they are often related, but they are not the same.
Being shy is often more often seen as a problem to be overcome and is often related to fear of social judgment and someone who lacks self-confidence and is nervous around people they don’t know. Shy individuals are socially cautious and timid and are often uneasy in the company of others, particularly strangers. They are more unsure and nervous around people. Many students who are shy have embraced this quality as their identity, rather than seeing this as a situational condition.
Being an introvert is more of a personality trait than a situational condition. Introverts respond differently to stimulation, are often quieter and more low key, and draw their energy from being alone or on their own. While a shy person might want to be part of a group but is cautious about approaching the group, the introvert would rather be on their own.
Help your student think about which description fits. Shyness is something that your student might want to work to overcome, introversion might just be part of your student’s personality. Of course, your introverted student will want to work to connect with other students and faculty members, too, but the motivation is different.
Where to start?
A good place for your student to start is with the “rule of 1.” Start by reaching out to one other student, one professor, participating in one activity, or taking advantage of one opportunity. Your student isn’t going to change overnight or “cure” shyness just because they are at college. And if your student tries to do too much all at once, they will quickly become overwhelmed.
Encourage your student to begin by doing just one thing that might push them just a little out of their comfort zone. Your student might begin by asking just one other student (perhaps another quiet student) to do one thing – such as walk to dinner together. Or they might find one club activity or event to attend. Getting involved with a club or activity they enjoy will also help your student connect with other students with similar interests.
Don’t insist that your student try to jump in and do it all at once, but rather try one thing – perhaps one thing each week, or even each day – but just one thing. You both may be surprised at how comfortable the results feel.
As your student becomes more comfortable with a new environment, and perhaps has some small success with one small step at a time, they may be ready to reach a bit further. Encourage your student in this if they want to try, but don’t push. Let your student take the lead.
- Remind your student to look for small ways to let people know that they like them. Sometimes shyness can be interpreted as aloofness. Just a smile or a word can make a difference.
- Encourage your student to continue to reach out to others in ways that are comfortable – perhaps using texting (for friends) or e-mail (for professors) as the initial ice breaker.
- Encourage your student to sign up for active or experiential classes which will provide opportunities to connect with others in the context of the class.
- Encourage your student to be authentic and not try to be something that doesn’t feel comfortable. Remind them, too, that they are not being personally untrue by taking some baby steps outside of their comfort zone. Your student is expanding horizons.
- Suggest that your student share with a close friend any concerns about shyness. The friend may be able to help them make connections with others.
There is a place for shy students and introverted students at college, and they can thrive and enjoy the college experience. Help your student find the balance of reaching outside of their comfort zone and being comfortable with who they are. Students often reinvent themselves through the college years, and if your student continues to practice social skills, they may be pleased to find the new person they can become.