Back to school means more than bedspreads for college students

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published July 25, 2012

 From left, Kylie Decker, Chloe Westley and Megan VanDagens get ready to have fun at a football game in 2011 during their freshman year at Michigan State University.

From left, Kylie Decker, Chloe Westley and Megan VanDagens get ready to have fun at a football game in 2011 during their freshman year at Michigan State University.

Photo provided

As recent high school graduates pack their tassels away and flip through yearbook memories, reality begins to set in.

Though the grads have completed one chapter of their lives, another will begin when they head off to college in the fall. Such a momentous step calls for celebration and, more importantly, preparation.

Megan VanDagens, 19, is getting ready to head back to East Lansing this fall for her second year at Michigan State University. In the coming weeks, she says she’ll be busy shopping and packing for the new semester.

“I’m getting all of my room stuff in order. I have to buy a desk. I’m living in a sorority house, so I need furniture and bedding to fit in there. And I’m taking an economics class online to get that credit out of the way. I’m just spreading out my classwork.”

The back-to-school season is more than just loading up on highlighters and pencils, according to Nancy Jansen. She’s a nurse practitioner and the director of Graham Health Center on the campus of Oakland University. Her clinic treats students all year long for a variety of health concerns, from contagious diseases to emotional exhaustion. For parents, the key to ensuring your child’s health, she says, is making sure they’re prepared.

“There’s basic things you can do. Give them a first-aid kit, with a thermometer, Tylenol, over-the-counter cold medication, ointment for cuts, cold packs and lots of hand wash,” she said.

“Students should also have a copy of their insurance card, because they can’t access care without the card. And if they have a serious illness or chronic disease, they should visit (their school’s) health center beforehand, so we can get all that on record.”

Jansen said it’s also important that students see their doctor before school starts to make sure they’re up-to-date on important immunizations. Dr. Laura Schwarz-Warner, who works with Bloomfield Pediatric Care in Bloomfield Hills, treats patients up to age 24. She recommends parents ensure their child is protected against illnesses that are easily passed around in a dorm environment, especially meningitis.

“We also recommend Gardasil for the prevention of HPV, for boys and girls,” she added, saying that the vaccine, which is traditionally administered to females, can prevent the spread of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and penile cancer when given to males.

Immunizations are available at Graham Health Center, where OU students can also take advantage of wellness coaching to learn how they can better manage their stressful academic and social schedule, including healthy eating tips, tips for better sleep and relaxation techniques. Jansen says it’s not uncommon for students to become overwhelmed with school, and the results can impact their health, as well as their grades.

According to Schwarz-Warner, not all health concerns can be addressed inside a doctor’s office or health center. She said parents need to have frank discussions with their children about how to live a healthy lifestyle away from home, including nutrition and aversion to harmful products like energy drinks and, of course, the dangers of underage drinking and substance abuse.

“Educate them on things they could run into, like the drugs, alcohol, parties and alcohol poisoning. … Kids don’t understand how dangerous those things can be. They feel invincible in their teen years, and they’re not.”

At the University of Michigan, the school has taken great strides to ensure students have a healthy and successful experience at every level of their education. Dr. Ann Hower is the director of the university’s new student programs, and she says it’s essential that students know where they can turn when college life becomes too much.

“There’s lots of good resources on campus. They make good students even better, but they should seek out resources early. Don’t wait until you have a problem,” said Hower, noting that U-M has assistance available for students who need academic help, stress management and personal wellness. The school has even added a wellness zone, complete with massage chairs and meditation areas, where students can take time out to relax.

Getting to know a school’s available resources is what many orientation programs are all about. At U-M, the orientation program for new and transfer students is more than two days long, so students can get familiar with the school’s facilities, and meet instructors and their fellow classmates. While Hower admits that an active social life is important to a student’s education experience, she says that very often time management plays a role in a student falling short of their goals.

“Some students are not fully prepared for the difference between high school and college. There’s much more work and it’s much more self-directed. When a student sees their schedule — only being in class four hours a day can be very misleading. They need to have the self-discipline to get that done.”

Though VanDagens earned a 3.6 grade point average in her first year at MSU, looking back she says she would’ve taken more steps to become better oriented to her new school before the fall semester began.

“If I could do it again, I’d get a better feel for the campus. I like that Michigan State lets you move in and gives you two days to kind of walk around school. I wish I would’ve taken my class schedule and made myself a little map for classes and the cafeteria. The campus is so big; I would’ve tried to make it a little smaller, so I wasn’t so stressed out over the first day of classes.”

Hower said that it can be helpful for parents to verse themselves in their child’s school resources as well, so they can recommend solutions when needed.

“Parents should know so they can refer their child. They should be there as a strong support, but it’s up to the student to take the step.”