Study finds self-compassion helps college freshmen transition

UC Berkeley freshmen Jack Keane and Taylor Hamilton relax in the courtyard at the Unit 2 residence 
halls. Research indicates students who have more self-compassion are better able to adjust to college life
Ariel D. Hayat/Staff
UC Berkeley freshmen Jack Keane and Taylor Hamilton relax in the courtyard at the Unit 2 residence halls. Research indicates students who have more self-compassion are better able to adjust to college life

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After moving 3,800 miles away from his friends and family in Ecuador, freshman Jinsoo Whang stepped onto the UC Berkeley campus ready to make it his new home.

But he immediately encountered obstacles. Because Whang never confirmed his housing arrangements, he came to orientation without a physical home for the fall, and his goal of making an emotional home in Berkeley were left by the wayside. After asking multiple people, Whang found an open room in a fraternity to rent, but that would only be the start of the many social, academic and cultural challenges he would encounter on campus.

A recent study by Dr. Meredith Terry, a research scientist at Duke University, found that freshmen who have more self-compassion — the degree to which people kindly treat themselves during distressing situations — better cope with the challenges associated with transitioning into college.

Terry said her research was motivated by a desire to understand the role of self-compassion in overcoming social and academic difficulties, particularly for freshmen. One of the most prevalent challenges for students beginning college is homesickness, Terry said.

“I was really worried,” said Whang, who is one of about 5,000 students to move away from home to attend UC Berkeley this year. “Berkeley is such a big school. I thought it was going to be really hard to make friendships.”

Terry said students in rigorous academic environments such as UC Berkeley tend to think they should be self-critical to boost productivity and when their expectations, especially pertaining academic and social goals, are not met.

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Many incoming UC Berkeley students tend to base their self-esteem on their performance in comparison to others, said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the campus’s Greater Good Science Center, which studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being.

“It is close to impossible to be better (academically) than the other people at Berkeley — that shouldn’t be the goal,” Simon-Thomas said. “Rather, demonstrate to yourself that you are working hard toward that which is important to you.”

Terry has also found that indulging in self-compassion leads to less anxiety and depression over a long period of time.

Freshman Ayla Peters, who intends to major in political economy as well as operations research and management science, said she realized last week she could no longer base her performance on that of her peers.

“The morning of my math and economics midterms, I had a terrible fever and headache, (and) I thought, ‘I have two midterms today and can’t do this,’ ” she said. “In essence, it made me realize that it is not so much the grade but what you learn and how much you grow in the class.”

Contact Michelaina Johnson at [email protected].

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