Dear college students & parents: Find a reason

BlogHer Original Post

In today's post I offer a bit of advice to young college students heading off to school, and to whichever parents or guardians or loved ones are watching and worrying (and taking out loans).

Dear incoming college student and parent(s),

I'm addressing this letter to both of you, because college is much more of a partnership than many families realize going in. There's going to be drama, unexpected drama, good and bad, even from the most even-tempered and high-achieving students, and I just want to give you both a head's up.

Let me give you an example, drawn from life (OK, my life). When I went off to college in 19mumbletymumblety, I wanted to go someplace different than everyone else in my family had gone--meaning not the local state university. I wasn't necessarily aiming for Harvard or Yale (I was in a gifted magnet program in high school, and my fellow students were headed to the Ivies, so I already had been through enough competition, thankyouverymuch), but after attending a very large (4,000-student) high school in urban Long Beach, California, I wanted to go somewhere that was (a) smaller than my high school, (b) had green rolling hills, and (c) boasted a community of learners pursuing old-fashioned liberal arts degrees.

To make a long story short: Ends up at age 18, even with all my smarts, I couldn't pick a college that matched my needs. I attended three colleges (one small public college, one large urban community college, and one small liberal arts college) in three states (Virginia, California, and Iowa) in three semesters. And the only reason I didn't flee from the last one--which, thank goodness, I grew to love--was that my parents told me if I left it, I would be attending the local state university. I graduated from that third college.

But between moving in to my first crappy dorm room and listening to David McCullough give a lovely commencement address outdoors on a windy Iowa day, under flowering crab apple trees, with all of us so happy and sad at once, there was quite a bit of drama. Nothing like some students go through--losing parents or siblings, getting pregnant or gravely ill far from home, engagements and breakups and recriminations. But it was enough drama for me to wonder what the hell I was doing in college in the first place.

It was scary to ask myself--a very high-achieving student throughout high school--that question: what was the point of college? I remember calling my parents from Iowa and, after chatting about the difference in temperature--it was 130 degrees warmer in Long Beach than central Iowa, if you took windchill into account--expressing the feeling that I was just a little dog jumping through the hoops set up by my professors. "Sometimes," I said, "the hoops are small and high. Other times they're big and low and easy to pass through. But sometimes they're on fire. But they're still just hoops, just stupid hoops."

And I wasn't even attending a college with general education requirements. My college also made a big deal about how important it was to connect one's education to the world through service. So it wasn't as if my education hadn't been contextualized for me.

There was something, however, about the rhythm of the semester that drove me crazy. As soon as I finished one, another would start, with the same kind of challenges in the same classrooms. Some semesters I read a book per week per class (with 4 classes at a time), so I had plenty to occupy my time, but I still found the head space to consider why I was doing it.

It would have been SO much easier if I had begun really thinking about that question before I began my studies. The usual answers, you see, weren't sufficient for me. Some typical rationalizations for going to college follow; see if any apply to you:

  • because it's the next step for smart people like me.
  • because everyone in my family has gone to college.
  • because no one in my family has gone to college.
  • because a college degree will help me get a job.
  • because I need this B.A./B.S. to go to graduate or professional school.
  • because I'm not ready to be all grown up and get a job.
  • because I need to move out of my parents' house, and this way they'll pay for it.
  • because I need some new friends.
  • because being a student means I can travel abroad for a semester or a year.
  • because I want to meet interesting people and find a life partner/husband/wife/spouse.

Going in to college, naïve 18-year-old me definitely thought that I had to go to college because it's what smart people do, that I needed to go to college to get a job (I initially wanted to teach high school), and that I would meet my future husband in college.

Um, yeah. I groan at that list now. Really groan. Ends up not all smart people go to college (really!), that my B.A. isn't what landed me my favorite jobs, and that I married a former street drug addict 13 years older than me who barely graduated from high school and who flunked out of college his first semester. He's not, in short, the kind of guy I ran into at my elite liberal arts college.

For some people, one or more of the listed reasons are really good justifications for going to school, and these reasons carry them through the 4 or 5 years of their undergraduate lives. I'm thrilled for them.

But chances are as a student you'll find yourself bored by your classes, or find them too hard, or feel they're irrelevant, or just wonder why the hell you're sitting in a town of 8,000 people covered in snow or surrounded by nothing but fields of corn and soy. You might begin to think (or you might know for certain) that things are/were better back where you came from. You may worry you're not maturing in the ways you should be. Chances are you'll be frustrated by how little jobs pay college students and resent the loss of sleep that comes from having to pay at least part of your way through college by working.

There are so many reasons to be unhappy in college or with your choice of college, just as there are countless reasons to be unhappy in life.

So my advice to you is this: as early as possible, find a "big reason" for being in college. By the end of my junior year, I began to see that my college years were helping me care deeply about some things I never before cared really deeply about--like poetry, and animal locomotion, and cottonwood trees. I know, they're strange things to love, but I came to love them anyway. And I learned to make connections among really disparate disciplines and ideas and things. I learned a new way of reading the world rather than just seeing it.

Now, years later, after having taught classes for hundreds upon hundreds of undergraduates and nearly 100 graduate students, I know each student's journey is different, and every student has his or her own reason for being in college. But the ones who do best, the ones who really come to love college and learning, who want to engage with the world in creative and meaningful ways, all seem to get that they're not in college to get a job or a spouse, or to fulfill some weird birthright.

So students, find your mission, your "big reason," for pouring all your and your family's resources into continuing your education, for dedicating four or more years of your life to study, for making this commitment. You need to do this regardless of whether you're attending the community college a mile away or if you're headed across the country or around the world. It might shift over time, but find your mission.

Parents, your job is to play border collie to your student's sometimes erratic movements. You don't need to herd her through a specific gate, but rather keep your eye on her safety, keep her calm, and steer her toward the rich, grassy fields that promote learning and growth. Don't hover too closely; don't nip at her heels. But do watch, support, and protect from a distance. And enjoy the amazing growth you'll see.

Best of luck on your journey!


Read the Letter to My Child's Teacher and Letter from an Educator. Write your own letter and link it in Mr Linky.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.


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