Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS)

First Year At Duke

Transitioning and Succeeding

Most students navigate all of the new experiences of their first year at Duke without significant problems. It is also not uncommon for many students to find the transition to college more challenging than they expected. Even those that do struggle, initially, usually end up adjusting in their first year and enjoy success at Duke.

At CAPS we have come to recognize the more common difficulties students have in their adjustment to being at Duke during their first semesters. 


Common First Year Concerns

There are situations that often emerge with greater frequency with first year students, and identifying strategies to master them will likely help ensure a successful career here at Duke.

  • Dealing with being homesick
  • Not feeling accepted at Duke
  • Understanding the unique self- management demands of college
  • Challenged academically more than expected
  • Managing a level of social and cultural diversity that is different from the communities with which you are most familiar
  • Comparing yourself to others and becoming discouraged


Coping Strategies

 for Common Concerns

  • Homesickness: A common struggle for many students. Remember that what actually hurts about being homesick is not simply that you are away from home. Usually, what hurts is that you haven’t made Duke another place you can call home. Returning home often (or focusing on wanting to be back home) can keep you from creating familiarity. Find places and people on campus that you enjoy, and invest in them until they become familiar. Try creating a few routines, such as where you take breaks, where you exercise, etc. Also, make your living space uniquely comfortable, both reminding you of home and also pointing you toward your future. Once you’ve done this, that new familiarity can replace the homesickness because you’ll find that, at Duke, you are also at home. Finally, begin forming new relationships by gradually sharing your confidences as well as your vulnerabilities. Home is often defined largely by the people that become part of your life.


  • Frightening Comparisons: A common challenge, particularly for first year students, is that you suddenly find yourselves on a campus where so many students have the qualities that made you stand out among your peers in high school. This often leads to constantly making comparisons between yourself and others, feeling discouraged about your strengths. When you find yourself making such comparisons, keep in mind the qualities in yourself that you most value. Remember, you are only comparing yourself against the most polished and visible aspects of your peers, and you will likely forget that they, too, have many of the hidden fears and vulnerabilities you experience.     


  • Managing Diversity: For many students, Duke University offers an unprecedented level of diversity in your daily living experience. College is often the first place that individuals begin to recognize the profound impact that factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status can have. Whether struggling with feeling marginalized or trying to come to terms with a rapidly changing perception of social dynamics, it is helpful to find someone to begin giving voice to issues that impact us on personal and community levels.   


  • Struggling Academically: If you have gained admission to Duke University, you are probably used to getting excellent grades. It can be quite unsettling to suddenly find yourself getting average to below average grades, perhaps for the first time in your life. Usually, this is not an indication that you were mistakenly admitted to a university above your capabilities.  More likely, you are like most students that simply need to identify different approaches in your mindset and academic strategies. Talk to advisors, faculty, and other students to get support and advice. Soon, you’ll make the adjustments needed, and resources such as CAPS and the Academic Resource Center are also available to help you learn how to best employ your intellectual capacity.


  • Struggling to Feel Accepted: Often, it seems as though people form groups of friends early, and then those groups seemed “closed” to everyone else. They check with each other about going to eat or to a party, and soon you begin to feel left out. Just because you were not explicitly included does not mean that you were actually excluded. You may need to take initiative and ask if you can join them when you hear they are going to do something you’re interested in. Even if this group does not become part of your main social life, you’re likely to meet those who will when you begin interacting with the groups that you are around in your first few weeks here at Duke.


  • Understanding Self-Management: Remember,  autonomy is not a matter of decreased accountability; rather, it is a transfer from answering to your parents to being accountable to yourself. Specify what expectations you have for yourself, including how your actions will reflect your priorities. The same discipline is needed, except now you are responsible for maintaining that discipline over your life. Think about how you define success, and be aware of how this definition evolves, including whether you are still operating from your own definition of success.


Use Your Resources

There are numerous resources here at Duke University to help you reach your goals.  Your advisors, staff in your residence communities, and numerous offices and services in the Division of Student Affairs are all available to support you through this first year and throughout your career here at Duke University.