Campus Life Spotlight: Changing Colors, Changing Moods: Adjusting to College Life via the W Curve

Posted on Sep 13, 2011

It's that time again, when the leaves on the trees begin to change colors into the rich reds, yellows, and burgundies that we are accustom to seeing.

As students settle into their second week of classes, like the changing leaves, the moods of our new first-year, international, and transfer students may be changing as well, if they haven't already. Students experiencing a shift in attitude may be riding the W Curve roller coaster.

The W Curve, developed by Zeller and Mosier (1993), explains a shifting in attitude or mood over the course of time due to unexpected circumstances or events. Almost everyone will experience the W Curve in one form or another during their lifetime, and most likely more than once. The W Curve is quite apparent for many students as they enter their first semester at a new institution.

The first stage of the W Curve is described as the Honeymoon phase. During this phase of the W Curve, students are excited about the possibilities ahead of them. For University of Wisconsin-Superior students, the Honeymoon phase typically started just before or following their acceptance into our institution. Students new to our institution may still be in the Honeymoon phase. As they meet new friends in the Residence Halls, in class, or in the Union Café, learn about the wide variety of opportunities on campus, or attend their first Yellowjacket Activities Crew (YAC) event, students may be flourishing in the Honeymoon phase.

For some new students, they may already be feeling a disconnection between their initial assumptions about being a student here and what they are actually experiencing. These feelings are common in the second phase of the W Curve, Culture Shock. Student experiencing Culture Shock may be experiencing homesickness, exhaustion, depression, or a feeling of failure. It is common for students to think that they made a mistake in their campus choice, or going to college in general. As faculty and staff members, it is essential that we assist those experiencing Culture Shock in a way that is appropriate for them. While adjusting to college and culture shock may be difficult, it is a common step for college students to take. Almost all students will spend time within the Culture Shock valley of the W Curve, and the majority will also be able to ride out the discomfort and uncertainty into the next phase, Initial Adjustment.

While it is unlikely that students will have passed through both of the first two stages on the W Curve already, it is important to know the next stages will most likely make themselves present in the upcoming weeks. The middle peak of the W Curve is referred to as Initial Adjustment. This is a period of feeling content and satisfied. Students begin to feel readjusted to the campus culture after the initial dissonance felt during the Culture Shock phase.

Following Initial Adjustment, it is common for students to experience another valley, called Mental Isolation. This is the period is a student's development when they do not feel as though the truly fit in. They still do not feel totally at ease with campus life and being a college student, however they do not feel as though their previous life prior to college truly fits them either. Students can begin to feel conflict between both places. This can often lead to feelings of isolation, homesickness, and depression.

Those who can successfully make it through the Mental Isolation Valley are considered to have reached the Acceptance and Integration peak. This is a period of time when students become more engaged in campus, and feel more connected to classmates, professors and the campus as a whole. They no longer see campus and home life as conflicting role, and are able to see the unique balance both play in their development. Students may begin to call campus their "home" during this phase as well.

Below are some helpful services to refer students to, as we assist them in their transition to UWS.

Student Support Services

Disability Support Services

Office of Multicultural Affairs

Gender Equity Resource Center

Student Involvement

Student Health and Counseling Services

Journal of College and University Student Housing, Volume 23, No. 2, 1993. Culture Shock and The First-Year Experience by William J. Zeller and Robert Mosier

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Zeller & Mosier (1993)