Start of a New Academic Year: Starting with a Commencement Speech by Steve Jobs

In 2005, Steve Jobs addressed the new graduates of Stanford with tales from his life. With his recent passing, it is truly amazing to think about what he accomplished with his life and how significant the lessons he learned apply to our broader society. This should hopefully be a little motivation for the start of a new academic year.

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Student Stress & Emotional Health: Concern on the rise

In a recent posting in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/College-Freshmen-Report/126068/), research has shown a decrease in student emotional health and an increase in students’ drive to succeed. The author points out that the two are related and many factors contribute to the correlation. It is clear that this is a concern we need to think about and see if there are ways to better improve our campus services to match the growing needs of our students.

With each generation comes a new set of problems. Millennial students are challenged by a number of different characteristics, including feeling special, sheltered, confident, pressured and achieving. Each one of these traits has its positives and negatives, but the combination of each of the challenges is taking its toll on many incoming first-year students and extending throughout their college career.

When you think about the combination of the traits special and achieving, there is this added focus that this nation’s youth is responsible for grabbing hold of their future and changing the world. Our current students are supposed to be up and coming politicians, business moguls, media personalities, environmental activists, educators and professionals. They are to take on many of the challenges that exist including a failing education system, international military programs, economic woes and a broken medical network. If those elements were not enough, they need to do this better than the current generation and fight their way going through schooling without the same financial resources that existed in year’s past (including economic stability of their parents).

The concept of being sheltered takes a different turn of pressures. Millennial students seem less prepared today for the more functional aspects of life than previous generations. When they get to college, it may be the first time they have ever lived away from home. This means it may be the first time they have ever cooked for themselves, done laundry, balanced a budget, gone shopping for needs versus wants, managed their own schedule and tried to meet new people in a new environment. Already confronted by the stresses of doing well in the academics and trying to enjoy their college experience, add these functional elements on top and it is no wonder that a number of students still rely on their parents to help manage tasks or even take over responsibilities like paying bills and selecting their classes.

Confidence would be seen as a positive going into a college environment, but what happens when the screen is lifted and students realize that they are in a sea of intelligence and talent? College may be the first time they have ever not been selected for a job, received anything less than an A or B in a class (or on a paper) or not been the most active student in their classes. Connected with issues of being high achieving and special, there is also a belief that they are going to automatically be better off than their parents. College can be a very eye-opening experience as students are both confronted by the talent and intellect around them and the real world issues that may affect their college experience directly or their prospects after graduation.

With these other traits posing their own issues, it is not surprising that students feel pressured. But is any of this really new? For the most part, many of these problems existed in the past. To issue for the current generation of students is that they feel like they are all hitting at once. While intelligence and pressure to succeed keep increasing, availability of resources to help students cope and effectiveness of preparation before entering college do not. Students are ill-prepared for the experience of college and tend to have more moments of failure or stumbling before getting it right. This may be necessary to an extent, but there are some barriers we have control over.

How do we affect change to support students better? Good habits and preparation need to take place during the high school year, but on college campuses it is the student affairs services that need to pick up the slack. Counseling and Wellness Services need to be prepared for both the quantity and severity of problems with which students bring to college. Residential Life departments need to make sure they have student staff that are ready to challenge the confidence of incoming students and help provide peer advising to help with the transition. Career Services tends to struggle with visibility and access for students, so for them it would be more about exposure around campus. There also could be more consideration for an introductory course for all entering students which helps to guide students through a number of these challenges they may face.

Higher education is not responsible for preventing these issues, but students are entering campuses with a number of challenges. It is up to use to find creative and innovative ways to help support them through these challenges in preparation for the world beyond the college grounds.

And So They Return…

Many schools are welcoming back their students this weekend. Amongst the heat, humidity and occasional rain cloud, the students and families are driving into the campus community and flooding our halls. There are many factors that affect whether experience of move-in is a positive or negative one. Similar to my previous entry, I will talk about some of the most significant elements that hopefully maintain this experience on the positive end.

Communication: This is a very easy factor to identify but it is also easy to neglect doing it right. While not every student will check their email prior to coming to campus, sending a message beforehand will help catch some of those students as they prepare for their arrival to campus. Once here, signage and volunteers knowing their information can really make a difference for whether the parents feel supported and the students know where they need to go.

Welcoming Environment: This factor is both related to the physical and the interpersonal arrangement. Families are going to have a more positive reaction if your buildings are clean, decorated and easy to navigate. The staff and student volunteers need to also remember that there are a lot of interesting stories and needs that each individual student will have and need to react appropriately to make each entering student feel welcome.

Right Wrongs Quickly: It is fate that not everything will run smoothly. Facilities issues will develop, materials will run short and technology will fail you. You have to be ready to jump in and fix the problems as they come. You may experience some resistance because of the challenges but can reduce the severity of the reactions by getting involved quickly.

Expect the Unexpected: Just like the random problems that you are going to take care of throughout the process, there are some that completely through you for a loop. Maybe it is a medical emergency or a major facilities problem or a major assignments mixup. You need to be prepared for the possibility of some major incident that may take you out of commission from the regular process. Making sure that your staff and peer leaders can handle the basic move-in process will ensure that you can focus your efforts on the specific issue and trust that the rest of the process is maintained.

Find Your Fun: The days are long and the time for rest is limited. Take advantage of the breaks between rushes. Find connections between you and the students to development to new relationships. Talking to the parents can help them handle the moment of saying goodbye to their children by distracting them from the emotional pain. Enjoy the extra time with your team because everyone is going to get a little delirious.

Taking care of yourself and remembering these elements to improving the move-in process will help you get to the other side of opening and not feel the burnout.

Balance & Involvement: Separate but Related Concepts

One of the most interesting things I have noticed about students in the past few years is that classes and some involvement in extracurricular activities is no longer adequate for the college experience. Instead, I tend to find that most students I engage with are trying to overload in their courses, find a job on or around campus and get involved in several campus organization (including holding leadership positions). I look to my Resident Advisors and find that having the job is not enough for their fill of peer leadership. It is certainly admirable but there are two questions that arise: why overload yourself with involvement and are you truly balancing your experience?

On the first question, students are feeling the pressures of being from the millennial generation. With a poor economy and higher numbers of competitors entering the college arena and job market, they are feeling the need to overcommit to have the resume-building statuses to distinguish their place amongst their peers. And as mentioned before, it is not enough to just be involved. Leadership opportunities and substantial positions are what are more meaningful for these students transitioning into new roles. Although they certainly may be getting great experiences and broadening their exposure to a number of new areas of knowledge and skills, most employers are more interested in quality over quantity. This is where I seen experiences like a journalism student editor a campus magazine or a business student working as an office manager as more beneficial individual experiences as compared to being able to describe a laundry list of positions and organizations that may include intramural athletics, a cappella groups and social fraternities. I will acknowledge that each of those groups may still have some significant positives, but they make less of an impact than that focused experience.

So in the end, our students are struggling more and more with balance. One of the craziest concepts to me is that some of the students I work with come onto the college campus in the fall semester already connected to several organizations before even attending their first class. Personally, I thought that there were events to allow students to explore the vast ocean of student organizations each school has to offer. Usually our conversations regarding balance now take place after the students are struggling, or even if we catch them beforehand, they are less likely to grasp the concept until they start to experience the stress. The more students stretch themselves thin across multiple groups outside of work and classes, the less they are going to get out of them. I have seen a select group of students accomplish the “everything under the sun” approach to campus involvement, but these are few and far between.

In the end, we as professionals need to help provide the proactive support to students who are looking to start their college career or exploring ways to enhance their college experience. As the start of the academic year is fast approaching, it is good for me to remind myself of the opportunities I have to help students find their balance and enjoy their total experience in college.