The Student Experience: Life at UCSD and How Families Can Help

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With over 26,000 undergraduate students, UC San Diego is comprised of a diverse student body. Moreover, a student’s experience at UC San Diego is largely dependent on the identities they possess including language, cultural values, geography, and previous education, among other things. No one student will experience UC San Diego in the same way, though they may physically look the same. Yet all students will face challenges as they move through campus within their various identities.

The Office of Parent & Family Programs receives calls from parents asking for guidance on how to understand the way their student is changing. For example, "Mrs. Harrington" was interested in understanding and supporting her multiracial daughter who began to question her racial identities and her mono-racial group of friends. Though her daughter was academically successful, "Mrs. Harrington" needed guidance in helping her daughter.  While there is no clear and universal answer for "Mrs. Harrington", or for any parent, the following brief information describes possible ways the UC San Diego experience is shaped by your student’s identities.

The purpose of this information is to provide context to your student’s experience and how you – the parent/family – might gain a greater understanding of their daily life and how you could help your student. We hope this knowledge will assist you in engaging and supporting their unique needs.

Note that your student will likely fall into many of the following descriptions. 

Commuter Students

The college life of a commuter student (living at home and/or walking distance from campus) is different from the college life of a resident student (a student living on campus). Commuter students have extra considerations around travel, resources, and class and activity scheduling often contributing to feeling disconnected from the campus or feeling overlooked for their specific needs.  Commuter students who make a point to fill in their time in between class with meeting with professors and studying with peers, eating on campus, going to the gym, taking a nap at the Zone, or joining a student organization – to name a few – will form a connection to the campus and engage purposefully with UC San Diego community members. Each of the colleges have a commuter student organization to join and connect with. Commuter students living at home with family will also have to learn the art of negotiating family responsibilities in order to get involved at and make the best of their college experience.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Understand that college will be drastically different from high school, and previous family responsibilities and/or expectations of your student will have to be negotiated.
  • Spend time on campus doing a variety of things (other than going to class) to connect with the campus.
  • Learn about the services available to commuter students on TritonLink, search “Commuter Students.”
  • Study abroad, it’s a great opportunity to leave home and explore academic and social interests in an international setting.
  • Work on-campus. Port Triton lists all available on-campus jobs.
  • Get involved as a parent/family member even though you may be living close – you are strongly encouraged to reach out to the Office of Parent & Family Programs and join the Triton Parent & Family Ambassador Program.

First-Generation Students

Nationally, first-generation students have reached 51% in college attendance (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Ward, Siegel & Davenport, 2012) and are overrepresented among African Americans, Hispanics, and other racial/ethnic groups. First-generation students – the first to go to college among their parents – lean on their parents for emotional support to further explore personal identities and for other types of guidance. On the other hand, this population will rely on other resources to learn how to navigate the political, social and academic culture of the campus. It is extremely important that this student population connects with a community that will support and challenge their overall endeavors at UC San Diego.

Resources of Tips for Your Student

Freshmen Students (First time, first–year students)

First-year, first-time college students undergo many transitions – one of which includes the transition from high school to college. For example, high school teachers are available daily to assist students. In college, professors are available during office hours or by appointment, and it is up to the student to initiate a meeting according to the professor’s availability. Developing a peer group can also feel crucial to incoming students, especially on a large campus. The W – Curve (Opens in PDF) by Zeller and Mosier (1993) simply explains some of the rollercoaster emotions a freshmen is likely to encounter. Stevenson (2012) brings additional insight in the W – Curve Explained with suggestions on how family can help.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Get involved with the assigned residence hall, if living on-campus, and utilize the House Advisor (HA) or Resident Assistant (RA) for support and guidance.
  • Talk with the Coordinator of Student Activities at the college and become a member of a student organization, befriend classmates and form study groups; especially important for commuter students.
  • Self-define set study times and locations free from distractions, especially around exams.
  • Get off-campus and get to know the cities of La Jolla and San Diego.
  • Engage in Triton Pride to feel at home at UCSD; go to a game or participate in some great traditions (like the UnOlympics in the Fall).
  • Find an on-campus job via Port Triton to begin building on professional skills, meet other members of the campus and learn about the campus from a different perspective.

International Students

There is a national wave of international students pursuing their undergraduate education from the U.S. Nearly 6,000 international students enrolled at UC San Diego (Fall 2014). In 2015, international students made up 17.5% of the undergraduate student population. International students come from over 90 different countries and most come from China, South Korea, India, Taiwan and Hong Kong. International students bring richness to UC San Diego in many ways and their transition to the UC San Diego and the U.S. will be challenging. They will undergo a culture shock in many areas of their being (i.e., language, food, traditions, academic, social, living/personal habits, and more) while thousands of miles away from their family. For many, Fall Orientation is the international student’s first time on campus, or even in the country, while U.S./domestic students may have visited the campus more than once. Social integration and academic adjustments are often struggles international students face (Tsai, 2015). It is crucial that international students consistently use the International Center (and other resources) to get help with these initial transitions. The International Center is supported by professional staff, international and U.S./domestic students, visiting faculty and family members to help adjust to the campus community. There are several programs and events the International Center provides, like Friday International Café, English-in-Action Tutor Program, Thanksgiving with Local Families, Orientation Assistants and more.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Get to know the International Center at and email to share your questions and concerns.
  • With your student, participate in the summer webinar hosted by the International Center and Parent & Family Programs. Your student should look for an email invitation from the International Center.
  • Participate in the International Parent and Student Orientation in September and plan to visit the campus for Family Weekend in October.
  • Plan months ahead for travel and university holidays. Visa processes can be lengthy and university resources/accommodations are limited during closures and breaks.
  • Visit the Writing Center for help to write papers or independent projects.
  • Get involved on campus through the Center for Student Involvement, the International Center, or work on-campus.
  • Consider living in I-House (International House) to intermingle with international and U.S./domestic students.

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Students (LGBT)

The LGBT community is inclusive of not only undergraduate students, but also graduate students, staff, and faculty. The LGBT Resource Center, along with other community centers (Black Resource Center, Women’s Center, Cross Cultural Center, and RAZA Centro Resource) work together to eliminate “traditional notions and historical structures of diversity and equality.” The centers exercise education and sense of belonging by engaging the entire community in interactive dialogue and self-awareness. Undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and allies of the community are supported by the centers to engage in healthy and productive ways at UC San Diego.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Visit the LGBT Resource Center in the Old Student Center, on the 2nd floor and get familiar with supportive resources and events, and programs and the website.
  • Consider on-campus living-learning community in the LGBT Residence Hall located at Muir College.
  • The LGBT Resource Center also educates and supports allies of the community – for example, a student may identify as heterosexual while a family member identifies as LGBT.
  • Check out this resource for gender inclusive, single occupancy bathrooms, located throughout campus.
  • Parents or family members may consider PFLAG – Parents, Family, and Friends of LGBT Identified People; a non-profit organization with over 200,000 members and supporters.
  • The LGBT Resource Center hosts an annual Rainbow Graduation for graduating seniors and their families.


Millennials (born between 1982-2002) have also been called Generation Y, Net Generation, and Echo Boom. They have been described as civic-minded, self-reliant, high achievers and as having high self-esteem, and they are the most racially/ethnically diverse generation (Brooks, 2016; Manning, Everett, & Roberts, n.d.; Pew Research Center, 2010). Millennials, although this is under debate, have also been described as “digital natives” versus other generations whom have been described as “digital immigrants” (Helmer, 2015).  Today’s robust technology has made millennials much more social with technology than any other generations. Technology has also become the drive for students and families to remain connected while in college especially with the use of texting and social media forums. College students communicate with parents an average of 13.4 times a week and 40% of college students are in touch with home by phone, email, or text (NPR, September, 2012). As college students are urged to exercise independence, the ever-changing technology forces universities – like UC San Diego – to be innovative in keeping families informed while promoting student development into adulthood.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Technology is a great way to stay connected with your student and with campus life – negotiate with your college student how often to communicate. Consider text messaging, Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, and social media platforms as some options. This is especially a great resource for parents of out-of-state, international and undocumented students.
  • ”Like” our Facebook page, TritonParents, and follow us on Twitter at UCSDParents – there are always postings on upcoming events, tips to supporting your students, and announcements.
  • Get involved as a family member – join the Triton Parent & Family Ambassador Program, run the Triton 5K, participate in Family Weekend and Siblings Day and visit the campus. This way, you build your own network of families, connect with the campus, and engage with your student outside of technology.
  • Read chapter “How we connect makes all the difference: Know your parenting style” in her book The Price of Privilege (Levine, 2006).

Resident Students (living on campus)

Resident students are those who live on campus. Resident students share a residential room with one or two other students (85% of undergraduate UC San Diego students are assigned to a tripled-room). Students living on campus have different opportunities than commuter students in that they are positioned to get to know the campus well, exercise independence, negotiate space and conflict with roommates/suit mates, access various resources, and have greater time to inter-mingle with students, faculty, and staff. Nationally, colleges and universities have changed and have enhanced the on-campus living experience to contribute to the student’s overall citizenship to engage in civility with students, faculty and staff. Residential Life/Communities include programs, student organizations and leadership opportunities for resident students to join. Residential Life/Communities have also created specific living learning communities to meet the needs of certain student groups, to support student-allies’ learning, and to educate the campus community on promoting and engaging sensibly and responsibly with one another.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Get to know your Resident Assistant/House Advisor; an upper classmen who is well verse on campus resources and will be in charge of creating fun events, both on- and off-campus.
  • Join a student organization within your college. UC San Diego is a large campus and the college system helps to downsize the campus to an intimate community.
  • Get to know, spend time and learn to negotiate space with roommates. As new roommates, this is a great time to meet new people and create a pleasant living environment. This applies mostly to first-year students.

Students of Color

Students of color are students who self-identify as African American, Mexican American, Latino, Asian, Native American, and/or a mix of the aforementioned racial identities. According to the Fall 2015 UC San Diego Profile, African Americans make up 2.2% of the undergraduate student body, Mexican Americans 12.5%, Latinos 3.3%, Asian 45.9%, Native Americans 0.4%, and White students 21.2%. On a large campus like UC San Diego, students of color – particularly those in the lower percentage – may feel like “the only” in many areas of the campus such as in the classroom, residence halls, and walking across campus. For this reason, and for many others, it is urgent that students of color feel a sense of belonging no matter where they are on campus and no matter with whom they interact with. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs identifies love and belonging as one of five basic needs every person requires in order to fulfill their full potential. Families are a source of providing this need to their student in addition to the university.

Resource or Tips for Your Student

  • Visit a Community Center – Black Resource Center, Raza Centro, Cross Cultural Center, Women’s Center, and LGBT Resource Center.
  • If your student is eligible for housing, consider living in an identity-related residence hall.
  • Your student must connect with an organization, faculty or staff that will support their identity.
  • Talk to your student about their cultural heritage and racial identity as they understand them now, how they will continue to understand them as they journey through college and how the university supports your student.
  • Engage in conversations with your student about their overall transition to UC San Diego, challenges they may be faced with and desired outcomes for overcoming challenges.

Transfer Students (freshmen or upper class status)

There is a misconception that transfer students will adjust to UC San Diego with little to no challenges because college is not as new to them as it is to a freshmen. The truth is, transfer students will experience adjustments to UC San Diego because this campus is unique and different from other colleges and drastically different from a community college. UC San Diego operates on a 10-week quarter system as opposed to a 15-week semester system. This means that the academic quarter moves very fast. It is likely students will have a midterm within three weeks of the quarter. Typically, transfer students are half way through the college career. For this reason, it is important to connect immediately with not only a transfer student organization but also with Career Services for internships, talk with professors about research opportunities and visit Study Abroad to experience another country.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Visit your college’s Student Affairs department to connect with the transfer student organization and meet other transfer students undergoing a similar experience.
  • Connect with the campus’ transfer student organization, All Campus Transfer Association, via the Center for Student Involvement to meet transfer students from other colleges.
  • Run for a position within a student organization that appeals to you.
  • Most transfer students have about 2 years to experience UC San Diego before graduation, therefore immediately make an appointment with Study Abroad for an international experience, meet your professor to discuss interest in teaching assistantship or research, and schedule an appointment with Career Services to enhance academic goals with the career experience.

Undocumented Students

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from the nation’s high schools. In California, 25,000 graduate from high school, with fewer than 7,000 going on to a community college and lower enrollment figures going on to a UC and CSU system (Perez, W., 2009, p. xxv; Perez, Z. J., 2014; Undocumented students are consumed with emotions that cannot be unloaded to just anyone on campus. Inclusive of those emotions, are students’ pre-arrival experience rooted in family advice that firmly shape their experience at the university. Undocumented students are urged to connect immediately with the Undocumented Student Services Center.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

Veterans Students

UC San Diego veteran students come with various life experiences and like other students, veteran students are equally invested in their education. Veteran students are often transfer students (defined as students who transferred to UC San Diego from another college), have families, and have traveled the world through military duties. In part then, veteran students tend to be protective of their military-supported financial package, focused on classes, and occupied with a full- or part-time job and/or family. Still, with such different needs than traditional aged-college students (18-22 years old, first-time college students), veteran students will benefit from finding an on-campus community that will support their social and academic goals. The Student Veteran Resource Center is the first place veteran students should seek and explore. The center is focused on providing appropriate tools and resources to assist veteran students to integrate into the civilian community.

Resources or Tips for Your Student

  • Seek and explore the Student Veterans Resource Center and find a community that brings you a sense of belonging (i.e., RIMAC intramural sports, Center for Student Involvement, work on campus, etc).
  • Get to know and meet your college academic advisor to stay on track of selecting your classes, and discuss your career goals, how your military education will be credited, and talk about graduation requirements.
  • Visit Career Services to align your courses and major/minor with career goals and learn about internships or other opportunities to enhance your educational experience.
  • Take care of yourself and pursue help, if needed, from Counseling & Psychological Services, Office of Disability, College Students Affairs and College Academic Advising. Discuss your specific needs!
  • Do you have a spouse and children? Parent & Family Programs hosts two major programs during the year – Family Weekend in October and Siblings Day in January/February.
  • Learn and find housing options (on- and off- campus) that best fits what you’re looking for.
Source: Sarah E. Minnis, Veterans Knowledge Community Research and Publications Representative. The Annual Knowledge Community Conference Publication (2015).