New Years can be a time of great excitement and anticipation but also one of angst and concern. Over this break, I have talked with many parents who are anxious about their children’s journeys at college, or their upcoming transitions into Higher Education. The conversations have reminded me of the countless discussions I’ve had with UB students over the years, trying to put them at ease while helping them clarify their goals and choices. For whatever reason, this type of mentoring seems particularly needed at this time, so I will attempt to offer some general insights and guidance in hopes that it will find and resonate with whomever is in need.
College is not an end in itself but a portal to opportunities and experiences
With so much emphasis placed on getting into the “best” schools, it is no wonder that students feel extreme pressure and also fear and anxiety. Through my experiences with my own children’s high school guidance process, there has been little discussion of how to prepare students to be successful once in college, or more importantly, how to access the resources and opportunities to best support their happiness, mental health and achievement. While gaining admittance to many colleges and universities can be challenging and certainly worthy of focus and celebration, it is by no means the end, but only a beginning. The notion of leveraging the opportunities and experiences that a particular college or university affords, calls for a different type of support, guidance and empowerment. Since many students select colleges and universities from a distance, that is, not necessarily going deep into respective offerings and opportunities, they must orient themselves while at the same time completing demanding coursework and requirements. Moreover, the process of exploration can take time as students begin to discover what they like versus what they thought they liked or wanted to pursue. If parents can see this exploration as an integral part of the college experience, rather than a failing of the student or the institution, students can embrace the journey more fully and often towards better outcomes.
Curiosity and excitement rather than fear
Intentions matter when it comes to education. Students who approach their experiences through the lenses of positivity and confidence fare better across a number of measures. They also show more resilience, persevering over time and experiencing more satisfaction in their accomplishments. In order to reap these benefits, however, confidence must come from a place of authentic interest, vision or a sense of purpose or belief in what is possible or important. The source must be deeper and stronger than simply wanting to achieve, perform, or make one’s parents happy or proud. It needs to be strong enough to guide students through failures, crises and other bumps in the road that invariably creep up during college. When students are caught up in fear, I try to help them “flip it”, to set some goals that connect with their curiosity and excitement. Helping students see the value of these intentions early on (in fact, as early as possible) will help them develop an internal “sensor” and an ability to make good decisions when they find themselves off course or in a state of dissonance (when their feelings or outcomes conflict with their expectations or plans).
The value of negative evidence (when we are able to access it)
From the standpoint of helping us clarify our academic and professional goals, negative evidence is even more powerful than our successes. By negative evidence I mean “when things do not result in the positive outcomes we desire or expect”- I hesitate to use the word “failures” which is the obvious way to think about negative evidence. The notion of failure is so charged, especially in education, that we literally shut down when we feel ourselves in its gravitational pull. Instead, think of negative evidence as disconfirming input. If you try one method of studying and you get a poor grade, then your grade suggests that your method of studying is not effective- at least for that particular course or professor. If you get poor grades across a category of courses, then the pattern of performance may suggest certain weaknesses or challenges or perhaps a lack of fit. The point is that our methods and approaches to interacting with our world aren’t always successful or adequate, especially as the context and expectations around us change. Often we need to modify our approaches, and the more information we get, the better we can adjust and adapt. But the beauty of college is that we can pursue areas of study and work that align with our core interests and strengths. So while students will and should experience challenges that stretch and develop their capacities and toolkits, sometimes patterns of negative evidence suggest problems with “fit” and can provide opportunities for students to pivot and explore other pathways that may be better suited. I find the biggest challenge in helping students access the insights offered by negative evidence is their fear of parents’ judgment, disappointment, or insistence that they pursue a given major or complete their studies on time.
Everything is connected but it can be tricky to see the patterns
Students often find me when they have switched majors multiple times, either formally or in their heads. They share a sense of frustration and even desperation as they try to settle on a major, reporting that they have “tried” a number of options, but can’t seem to settle on the right one. As I listen to them list their pivots, I often hear embarrassment and shame, a sense that they have somehow failed and wasted precious time pursuing the “wrong” pathway. In these situations, my work involves disabusing them of this notion of failure and instead encouraging them to see their various efforts as valuable data points. The notion of trying something is exactly what we want students to do in college. In essence, we want them to become researchers on themselves- trying something based on hypotheses or expectations, and then they see how it goes- reflecting on the results and learning from outcomes, they can make modifications and adjustments toward some increasingly clarified goal or endpoint. The great news is that there are so many different career paths and professional pathways- more than students, and certainly parents, even know. And the fact that new fields of study and innovation are emerging all the time means that professional and academic opportunities are much more abundant than we are led to believe. If students are able to see patterns with regard to their interests (and their boundaries), they can find areas of study and work that align closely with their strengths and passions, setting them up for exciting and fulfilling careers and the ability to flex and pivot as the landscape continues to evolve and change.
You as a mentor
Ideally, the relationship between parent and child evolves as the they get ready to start college or university. As my own children get older, I think of myself more as a mentor, recognizing that their choices are largely their own, and that the best I can do is to help them navigate options and experiences, learning as they go towards finding their place in the world and hopefully living fulfilling and productive lives. Being a mentor is not always easy or natural for everyone, but it is a journey worth taking. Here are some points of conversation or exploration that I utilize in my own interactions with students – and even adults who are contemplating professional growth or change.
Start from what you love
I begin my conversations by asking students when they are their happiest, what activities they most enjoy, what they are really good at, or other types of questions that seek to clarify a point of positivity, excitement or joy. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for some students (and adults) to get there. Sometimes we need to look for “clues”, asking what their parents, siblings, friends or childhood teachers would say about their strengths or talents. However you get there, this place of positivity can be “mined” for valuable details about the why’s and how’s and what’s- why do you love to ………….., how does it make you feel, what is it about that activity or topic that makes you feel that way….. these insights can be pivotal in developing a sensitivity to “fit” with regard to careers, academic pathways, and learning experiences that might be worth exploring.
Explore emerging fields and innovations to see what inspires you
You would be amazed at how many students say they want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers (or virtually any other career) and yet show little or no interest in related stories, topics or articles. To be blunt, you cannot really fake interest- even if your parents expect you to. I find that many students, and adults, aren’t really curious about anything- or rather, haven’t discovered areas of curiosity, often because they are so busy meeting the expectations of their daily lives. With the demands of coursework, jobs and related commitments and social engagements, it is easy to become detached from curiosity and inspiration. Taking time to scan magazines, news sites or blogs is a great way to discover or rediscover your interests, a step that is critical to finding greater fulfillment and inspiration.
Examine your own experiences through this aspirational lens
Once your student gets excited about some field or area of innovation, help them examine their own experiences through that lens, identifying any accomplishments, skills or experiences that are at all related. Students (and adults) often miss authentic experiences that may not be tied to formalized jobs or programs. In the world of experiential learning, authenticity is the gold standard. So even hardships, struggles or negative evidence can be transformed into assets and resources related to academic or professional opportunities. Having a strong foundation on which to build is the best place from which to approach growth and opportunity.
What are the key gaps between your current capacity and where you’d like to be?
Once you have a point of inspiration that connects with your curiosity, passions or sense of purpose, and you can see your core capacities and resources on which you can build, now you can identify gaps and areas for cultivation and growth. Notice that approaching our “deficits” in this way is neither threatening nor demeaning. It is simply recognizing a pathway toward a goal or vision that is inherently meaningful AND possible to achieve. This approach is more likely to encourage risk taking, resilience, and grit while supporting mental health and general wellbeing than the alternative approaches often embraced.
Now look at the systems you have access to
Once you have a general sense of directionality and areas for growth, it is time to revisit the systems you have access to- including college or university. I often say that my own university – and really all US colleges and universities- are like grand buffets, with an amazing array of opportunities, programs and resources all waiting for students to activate. Of course, each college and university has a unique assortment of resources, both in terms of formalized programming and unique culture and setting, with people, places and experiences that can be accessed and leveraged. When we lack a clear sense of purpose or inspiration, we often fail to recognize the full array of opportunities that are available and instead see only the negative, pulling us into “the weeds” and undermining our success, fulfillment or growth.
Developing powerful narratives
Realizing that this post is already way too long, I will end with the importance of developing powerful narratives. Stories are undeniably powerful- both the stories we tell those around us, but also the stories that play out in our heads as we go through life. One of the most exciting things about college is the opportunity to develop powerful and resonant narratives about ourselves that emerge as we meet diverse people and ideas, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and explore and test different career options and ways of life. As we gain insights about ourselves and our place in the world, we can practice talking about who were are and hope to become. Sharing this evolution of ourselves with families, parents and friends, can be exciting when others recognize the vulnerability that comes along and respond with care and support. I can tell you that colleges and universities are full of faculty and staff, like myself, who are ready and eager to help your child navigate this process and leverage the buffet of resources and opportunities that we provide. When I contemplate the future of Higher Education, I am unsure whether our institutions in their current states of abundance will be able to continue to thrive. But I do know that they are a gift to our children, our communities and our world, offering riches beyond what most of our students and parents recognize or understand. In addition to helping our children gain access to Higher Education, we need to help them leverage and navigate the opportunities and resources within. I hope these insights and suggestions are helpful.