Opening up about mental health with first-year students

The internal battle of being classified in the minority as a freshman in college

Katana Lester, Staff Writer

As the class of 2026 wraps up their first month at Westmont College, one factor that has been overlooked is the topic of mental health. Yes, Westmont has resources to aid students’ mental health. While Westmont has the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) program offered on campus, that is only half of the job — what effort do students have to make to receive this help?

How are the first-year students dealing with this transition?

There are many layers to this question because not only are first-year students living in a new environment, but they are also facing a pressuring new social status quo. It is only natural that when students first meet their peers, they put on their “best face,” or what you may know as “masking” or “a facade.” With college being one of the most vital points of young adulthood, we naturally crave a sense of independence and to present the best version of ourselves to those in our community.

I would like to focus on the students in First Connections, which is the unique program Westmont College offers for first-generation and international students. While everyone may carry a different story, we all share the experience of transitioning into college, no matter our backgrounds. 

Various students say they have not fully transitioned yet into college life. According to David Oyebade, a first-year student from Jos, Nigeria,”Transitioning is a process rather than a place you can get to.” Mariah Matthews, a first-generation student from Spokane, Washington, and majoring in Sociology says, “You can’t go from being from one place your whole life then automatically adapt to another culture, environment or space.” In four weeks, it is customary to struggle unmolding from a community that helped raise you to the individual you are, in this case, culturally and spiritually. Matthews feels her needs have not been met due to not having her supporters from home with her. 

On the other hand, some students, such as Wendy Santillan, a first-generation student from Santa Barbara, California, majoring in Kinesiology, believes that she has ” … transitioned because [she’s] starting to get used to [her] schedule … and [she is] meeting new people that [she has] a bond with, which is what [she] was most scared about when coming here.” Another first-generation student Briana Herrera from Ojai, California, believes she has transitioned socially since she is naturally an extrovert, making it easier for her to meet new people. 

Students define transitioning to college in different ways, whether interpreting it as a state of emotional stability or getting used to the daily schedule of work and social life.

The pressures of being a first-generation student 

“Being first gen is what keeps me going, despite the pressure and how much it can overwhelm me.”

– Wendy Santillan 

Although some have felt like they have gotten in the groove of college as far as social life and routine goes, each student’s background affects how they respond to this change. More specifically, a couple of these first-gen students have openly expressed their struggles with motivation, pressure and the lack of support from family.

“I have moments where I feel like I don’t want to do anything, and then I get out of that state. After all, I have the pressure of being first-gen to make my parents proud.”

As Santillan shares her process of moving to Westmont, “I have moments where I feel like I don’t want to do anything, and then I get out of that state. After all, I have the pressure of being first-gen to make my parents proud.” The key motive for pushing through the increased academic workload and difficulty is remembering how fortunate students like Santillion are, being lucky to be the first in her family to go to college — boiling it down to the symbol of possibility and planting a new generation of college students. 

Some, like Santillion, may be motivated by the fact she is a first-generation student. Still, some, like Herrera, feel likewise, “Being first-gen, it is hard to reach out to my family because they don’t understand what you are going through, so you have to figure it out on your own.” Sharing this implies that sometimes being one who initiates the shift in their family is difficult. If an individual begins something new, the support system that molded the person you are has the potential to fade away. To help, Westmont College offers ways of supporting these students, but how?

Westmont’s involvement in the freshmen class’ transition

“Although names and details may fade, impressions last.”

-David Oyebade

The First Connection program began the day before the freshman class moved in, which allowed the freshmen class to “meet a lot of cool people, which some I still talk to,” according to Santillan, which helped find her community before orientation weekend. One of the activities that stood out to Oyebade was the faculty speed dating that took place in Page MPR, where they had 60 seconds to meet and answer a unique question to 35 professors. Although this brief may have been overwhelming to remember, he ” … felt a connection and got an idea of who [his] professors were and an idea of what [his] campus was like,” which resulted in him feeling more comfortable in this community.

Despite the fresh breath of community that first connection students like Santillan and Oyebade felt, the transition between orientation weekend and the rest of the student body joining had a significant shift of energy regarding the staff’s guidance. As Herrera explains, “They transitioned us well in seeing familiar people and knowing the campus, but I feel like, after that, there was not much checking-in but just a push.” Likewise, Matthews visualizes it as us first-year students being ” …like the baby that was left in the basket at a doorstep.”

This sudden gap between Westmont’s faculty’s guidance to feelings of a lack of support leads us to wonder about the well-being of new students.. 

The topic of mental health

The stigma towards individuals experiencing mental health issues makes being vulnerable about how we feel to our peers challenging, affecting the transition into college. As a freshman student myself, this is already evident in my class due to only moving away from home a month ago. As Oyebade expresses, “I feel like we have not all been sincere about what we have been going through with the struggles of college.” However, this is only normal because “it is hard to expect people who are still somewhat strangers to open up that quickly.”

Peeling back the layers of transition, ethnicity and culture can also play a role in how open we are with others.”

Peeling back the layers of transition, ethnicity and culture can also play a role in how open we are with others. Some rawly discussed how the color of their skin or the way they grew up makes it more challenging to share their struggles with others, not only because they are strangers, as Oyebade states. Some, like Santillion, may not be used to sharing how they feel because they grew up with a family who was not open about their mental state, ” … we don’t bring it up, we ignore it.” Additionally, like Herrera, some may ” … feel like [they] cannot open up to people about [their] stress because it will enable the imposter syndrome: I am not supposed to be here, and I have to prove myself and be okay.”

CAPS: A way to receive help

 CAPS is a resource to seek improved emotional and mental health. However, have they done their job in advertising their program? Oyebade shares that he, “…knows it exists but aside from orientation and email broadcasts, [he hasn’t] heard much about it,” while on the other hand, Matthews believes “Westmont has done their part in explaining what they offer during orientation and the campus walls, but is our class going to utilize what is being offered?”

We, as students, need to be unashamed of expressing our feelings.”

Although there are two different answers, the commonality is that as we become more independent, the way to receive help is to ask. No one can read our minds and struggles as they are dealing with their own lives. We, as students, need to be unashamed of expressing our feelings. Sometimes the best way to avoid the possibility of our vulnerabilities being taken advantage of is to reach out for professional help. 

Although these four freshmen represented in this article do not represent the entire student body, they serve as the voice of those who suffer in silence. It may not be easy, but we are the ones responsible for getting help.

CAPS is available through phone calls, messages and emails Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Tuesdays. Do not hesitate to reach out, they are here to help you adapt to college and sort through any issues or insecurities regarding mental health and beyond. 

“Once you take the step of going into CAPS and telling them the help that you need, you can overcome the situation rather than putting a bandaid over it and have things continue to boil up and end up in an infection.”

-Mariah Matthews

Email: caps@westmont.edu

Number: (805) 565-6003 

To schedule an appointment, go to: https://www.westmont.edu/counseling-and-psychological-services/caps-services 

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