The “W-Curve” is a sociological theory first proposed in 1963 by Gullahorn & Gullahorn to explain culture shock. It describes the phases a person might experience as they first are excited about living in a new country, and then, as time passes, excitement wears off and the reality sets in: navigating new relationships, new language, new culture, new beliefs and new values, and integrating them all with your existing worldview is a challenge at times.
Since its introduction, the W-Curve theory has been applied to the experiences of exchange students, but it has also been used to explain the experiences of freshman college students more generally.
How does a theory explaining cultural adjustment apply to students going to college right here in the US, perhaps leaving home, but certainly not the country?
Simply put: College is a cultural change and life transition rolled into one. You have to navigate a new environment, new expectations, new responsibilities and new relationships, all without the immediate availability of the support system you have had for 18 + years. It is not a foreign country, but it is a foreign place, and you are expected to stay for four years!
College students often report feeling completely bewildered, overwhelmed, and stressed at the beginning of the college experience. It may be something you look forward to for months, but when you get there, it’s not at all what you expected. The good news is, these feelings are normal. By educating people about the W-curve, a counselor can help you normalize your reactions, know what to expect in the near future, provide coping skills, and provide hope and support as you move towards the final stage of adjustment: Acceptance and Integration.
Let’s take a closer look at the stages of the W-curve and the new college student experience:
The Five Stages of the W-Curve for New College Students
The Honeymoon Stage starts before you leave for college. You are excited about finishing high school and being on your own. You are excited to be more independent. You are ready to meet new people, go new places, and have new experiences.
When you get there, professors and upperclassmen are warm and welcoming. You might feel nervous, but also enthusiastic about taking college classes, living with a roommate, and getting to spend a lot of time at social events. New students are offered tons of on-campus activities and events to attend, so it’s easy to distract yourself. You might be feeling some homesickness, but it’s manageable.
Culture Shock & Distress Stage
As the semester progresses, the “newness” of college starts to wear off and you may start to compare your expectations of college with the reality of what you are experiencing and feeling. Living away from home for the first time is hard. Maybe you miss your parents and your high school friends more than you thought you would. College classes are huge and impersonal and professors are tough. Living with another person in a small dorm room is hard and you wish you had more privacy. Many people find it hard to balance the pressures of socializing and partying with the responsibilities of studying and getting good grades. The workload feels overwhelming. You might look around and wonder if everyone else is having these problems. You might have difficulty getting routine things done (i.e. food shopping, getting a haircut, medical care) because you are unfamiliar with the area. While these problems are temporary, they can feel huge when dealing with all of the other stuff!
It is common for people to experience doubt and confusion during this time. You might think: “I miss my friends and family at home.” “Is college for me?” “Did I make the right choice?” “I’m not sure if I belong here!” Having these thoughts can be scary. It feels like you spent your entire high school career (and maybe before that) preparing for college, and now you’re wondering if you can make it. It is important to know that these thoughts are normal, and can be part of the longer transition process! Which brings us to the next stage…
Initial Adjustment & Reintegration Stage
As you move through your first semester, things start to get easier. You have figured out your schedule, and how to move around campus. You have made new friends-maybe those outside of the original group of people you started with. You feel less homesick. You get the hang of classes and feel more confident in yourself and your ability to handle things on your own.
Mental Isolation & Autonomy Stage
However, things are not perfect. You feel more comfortable at school, but you still miss home a lot. You may be mentally comparing your new school culture with your home culture and reconciling the differences. Where do you fit in? What do you believe? Exposure to new people and new experiences may mean that some of your long-held worldviews are challenged. This can be an uncomfortable and unsettling experience. Integrating your new experiences and the beliefs and values you were raised with is a huge stepping stone.
Acceptance & Integration Stage
Most students find that getting to know friends on campus, becoming more familiar with professors, establishing familiar routines, having academic success, and increased involvement in college and campus life brings a sense of familiarity and comfort. You feel connected to your college campus, friends, and new life away from home. This leads to a sense of self-acceptance and confidence about the future.
The W-Curve & Mental Health: How Counseling Can Help
If you consider the shape of the W-Curve, it is literally an emotional rollercoaster! It is also important to note that there is no set timeline for moving through the stages. Some people will adjust faster than others. Some will be very homesick right away, and some may experience negative emotions and anxiety in addition to the excitement about going to college, rather than overwhelming positive emotions during the “honeymoon” phase. So, it is common for people to experience varying levels of mental health distress as they transition to college. This is sometimes surprising to hear because people expect you to be simply excited and happy about going to college and being on your own for the first time. It may feel like there isn’t room for unhappiness. Remember, it is ok to feel both excited and anxious. Adjustment to a new environment is stressful. Counseling can help! A therapist can help you work through things that come up for you at any point in the W-curve, including:
- Understanding it is ok to feel the way you do and you are not alone
- Coping with homesickness
- Exploring difficult thoughts and feelings about yourself, college, or the future
- Navigating the college campus and daily life that can feel confusing and overwhelming at first
- Prioritizing your self and self-care, and setting healthy boundaries to help you succeed socially and academically
- Problem-solving: Help you resolve conflict with roommates, professors, friends; academic concerns
- Addressing anxiety and depression that might arise as a result of transition stress
Druckenmiller, R. (2022, August 8). The W-Curve Model: Understanding a new college student’s experience. Speaking of Health. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/the-w-curve-theory
Zeller, W. J. and Mosier, R. (1993). Culture shock and the first-year experience. Journal of College and University Student Housing. 23 (2)
Are you getting stuck in the W-curve? If you are struggling to adjust to college, please reach out. You are not alone.
Since my practice is online, I am able to help college students all over Virginia. Telehealth sessions are secure and confidential. I look forward to talking to you!