Every day, I hear of adults failing the young people and teenagers in their lives. This is my letter to those adults:
Dear parents who told their daughter that she simply could not go away to college:
At this impressionable age, your daughter is bubbling over with ideas and ambitions, hope and dreams. One dream that she had was to go away to college. To be on her own, for the first time, and prove to herself, that she can make it. On her own. She wanted to go away to college, not as some sort of slight against you. But to better herself. Your decision to rid her of that college dream did more than just temporarily remove her desire to go to college. It also told her that she should not even dare to dream. She did not tell you, but you left her a broken mess. She no longer believes that she has the ability to pursue something greater than herself. You shattered that vision by insinuating it was okay to have low expectations and reach for mediocrity. Unbeknownst to you, you instilled in your daughter all sorts of self-doubt. You may as well have told her that she could not accomplish her goals, or that she did not have the capability to achieve all those aspirations she had been dreaming of since she was a little girl, or that she should not even dare to dream. Your message of mediocrity will not only affect your academic aspirations, it will also affect the relationships she makes, the people she choose to date, the career that she pursues. It will impact her life in all of these ways, and so much more. Please consider a change of heart. More than, please consider letting your little girl dream again.
The counselor who had to pick up the pieces.
If that girl were to write a letter to her parents, this is how I imagine it would read:
Dear mom and dad:
Growing up, your parental voices were seldom nurturing, and were more time authoritative screams – leaving your ears deaf to my cries. Your verbal scorchings have scarred my soul, and left me devoid of spirit, hope, or ambition. You turned your back and blockaded my every attempt at capturing your attention, when I only wanted your approval. My hopes began whole and were crushed into cubes, and then used to cool your ever distracting glass of lemonade. You became my adversarial force, incessantly ordering me to and fro, stop and go. And by ignoring me, you became parentally ignorant.
I grew lonely, and then became fed up with feeling all alone.
Your ignorance again reared its ugly head when you ignored me, taking little interest in my days at school, the teachers who belittled me in front of my classmates, and the sugary candy that made my teeth rot and my tummy ache. You sat me in front of the TV, VCR, video games, and other new technological advances, and wondered why I fell sullen and melancholic. And when I didn’t respond, I was assaulted with further tongue lashings and then, the back of your hand or your thick leather strap.
I used to fight with my brothers and sisters: the mythical standards you’ve set for us had caused me to grow ashamed, and in the process of masking my imperfections, I had in turn shamed others; both your biases and prejudices singed my soul, and left me afraid to love. But, I no longer feel alone. In my peers I now confide – though we are both as green as budding stems. I would have rather learn from their experiences than sip from your tainted glass. My soul was on the verge of dying, just as yours has already. Yet the passion and zeal of my youth just will not let me go gentle into that good night. That’s from a poem I read in English class. You know, the class I told you I loved so much and wanted to study in college. Only to hear you laugh in my face at how I would never become a writer or be able to support myself by majoring in English. Thanks for the encouragement.
This latest fiasco dealt me a major blow. By telling me that I could not go to college, you may as well have told me that I shouldn’t even dare to dream.
Your daughter who’s gone to pieces
As I continue working on A Matter of Semantics second edition, a NEW lesson has worked its way into the revisions. Here are parts of that new lesson, raw and uncut. Enjoy!
But, if you want this unforgettable, magical, intoxicating sort of college experience, you have to do it right, and give the experience all that you have – the full complement of your time, energies, and focus, as though you were in a monogamous relationship. You have to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities your college experience will present and afford you and not just those that are within your comfort zone. You have to allow yourself the ability to transform as a result of the experiences you will encounter, and not fight reality when you realize you have grown into someone new, someone different, or someone your high school friends no longer recognize.
There is no underestimating the impact of the college experience. It has the ability to change your life, for the better.
This life lesson – of dedicating yourself completely, fully, unselfishly – one you can carry with you in every facet of life. Whether you’re in a committed relationship, on a sports team, involved in an organization, or pursuing graduate studies. If you want to get the most out of those experiences, you have to commit yourself.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with being content with your backup role on the soccer team, for instance. Nothing wrong with playing for the sake of playing or just to have fun. Nothing wrong, whatsoever, with being on a team, in an organization, or in a relationship just for the experience of it all.
But if you want get the most out of your involvement on that team, organization, relationship, or in this case, college experience, you have to give yourself the permission to be vulnerable and allow the experience to transform you in ways you never thought possible. You have to give yourself – completely, fully, and unselfishly – to the experience. In short, you have to do it right, and that means going all in.
I attended convocation at the place where I work, today. It was okay. Too hot and humid for my liking. But I quickly found a spot in the shade, and attempted to cool off after the student government president, dean of faculty, and president of the college all delivered addresses. Being there, watching the students sitting in plastic chairs, baking under the sun, reminded me of my first day at college.
It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime memories. Like the day you get your driver’s license, your senior prom (for better or for worse), the day you get married, the moment you watch your child come into the world (if you’re lucky enough to experience the latter two.).
My first day at college was a mixture of excitement (ecstatic about the physical distance I’d be placing between me, and the place where I grew up), sadness (it felt like I was leaving the place where I grew up, and everyone I knew, behind), and anxiety (I wondered less about whether my roommates would be weirdoes, and more about whether I brought enough deodorant).
But that first day, I was away from my family, really, for the first time in my life. Away from the responsibilities of coming home at a decent hour, or calling my mother to tell her where I’d be. Removed from the wailing police sirens and other urban lullabies that sang me to sleep. Separated from my friends, the bodegas, bus routes and Path trains, and everything that made New Jersey home.
The one thing I didn’t know – the one thing I wish I had known – was that, that day, I was literally starting my life. It wasn’t like the time I went to a different high school than all of my friends, and I had to adjust. It was like the time I moved to a different part of the city, and I had to make new friends. No, starting college was much different than anything I had ever experienced.
That night, I remember setting up my things and going to bed. I hadn’t slept much the night before, and my roommates wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. When the next day arrived, it became real. The nightlife. The drunkenness. My classmates wandering around from building to building. Chatting, buzzing, trying desperately to fit in.
I sat back, watching it all unfold, thinking to myself, is this really how it’s going to be for the next four years. Wondering where, or how, I’d even fit in. Fitting in, isn’t that what most students are just trying to do? Find their place, their niche, the place where they feel like they belong. That was me on a Saturday night, with most of my classmates (or so it seemed) stumbling from party to party, praying life didn’t pass them by.
The pit of my stomach felt unsettled. I knew I’d belonged, but that’s not what was playing out in front of me. I wanted no part of the inebriated environment. That was some shit I couldn’t get down with. Some shit that I judged my classmates for. See, what I didn’t know at that time, was that we were all in the same boat – drunk or not. Laughing with people we’d just met or sitting by our lonesome. We were all in the same predicament. Just trying to make this new place feel like home.
And, all these years later, that’s become so much of what life is about. Trying to make things feel normal, like you’ve been there forever. Whether it’s a new job or a new house. A cute guy you just met or the newest cell phone you just had to buy. We’re all in the same boat. Trying to make each, and every experience, feel like a little less intimidating, a little more welcoming. An organic extension of ourselves. Like that old Cheers song, a place where everybody knows our name.
That’s what so much of life has become. Vying, trying, and fighting, desperately, just to not feel out of place. Whether we’re chatting on our cell phones while walking down the street, meanwhile missing out on life that’s taking place all around us. After all, who wants to be an outsider, when it’s much more comfortable being part of the in crowd – however you define that term.
The college experience teaches us lesson that we can hold onto for the rest of our lives. Life is going to bring uncertainty and anxiety. Life is going to be confusing and chaotic. Life isn’t always going to feel normal and organic. The sooner we allow ourselves to get used to this reality, the better off we’ll be at adjusting to the every-changing scenery around us.
I wish I could tell my eighteen-year-old self that, the day I moved into college. But that’s also the beauty of it. Some things you can’t learn reading some obscure passage or by heeding the advice of other people. Some things you just have to learn on your own. Like how to make each and every experience, an organic extension of yourself.
I’ve been lucky enough to keep in contact with a few students that I used to teach. This is part of a letter I wrote to a former student, recently. I wanted to share it, as college students prepare for the Spring semester, and look towards post-college days. As professionals, many of us have the idea of “work” wrong. We sometimes can be more productive, by taking better care of ourselves. If we can pass this message on to college students, perhaps they’ll learn to practice better self-care and become more productive employees.
I tell ya, the working world never ends! I read this article today about work and the need for leisure time…and it’s completely opposite of how the workforce operates. Take your time in college…hell, even stay for a 5th year (if you keep up being debt free!!!) and take advantage of the myriad of opportunities, which I know that you will. You can spend a semester, sipping wine in Italy or eating croissants in France or perfecting your Espanol in Costa Rica.
And you’d get college credit for it!
Now if I can only find a similar deal, in Hawaii! I can dream!
Journal entry, from the panel I participated in, at Quinnipiac University a couple of weeks ago. Can you take a guess as to whom I wrote this letter?
I sat in that chair, not fully knowing what to expect. I had prepared for what I thought was to come, but still not knowing what, or how, it was all going to go down. It wasn’t so much anxiety, as it was nerves. That’s how I always get before speaking engagements. Nervous. Am I projecting good energy? Do I know how I’m going to answer the first (and most obvious) question? Are my thoughts flowing cohesively, such that my words will come out seamlessly, and I will come across articulate and engaging, as opposed to a stuttering, tongue-tied, mumbling dufus? You know how I can sometimes, when I’m excited, and bouncing off the walls, and my mind is moving so fast that my mouth can’t keep up!
I felt confident enough. I’d prepared a good amount, but not so much that my thoughts were filled with singular responses to complex, and complicated questions.
Students packed the small room, with its square shape and wooden wainscoting décor. The room felt smaller than I remembered it. No longer was it this grand space that I thought it had been; now, it felt large enough to accommodate a good sized-audience, but small enough to still feel intimate. True to the Quinnipiac way, I guess.
The first question was read, and I deferred to another panelist. Not surprising, I defer most things that I’m offered – whether it’s a ride or someone asking about my day. It’s not because of some underhanded plan, but rather, I’d prefer to give rather than take. Give a compliment, as opposed to take or receive one. Give someone a first attempt, and give them all the praise, instead of taking whatever limelight and spotlight for myself. This decision was made easier as one of the panelists was a current Quinnipiac student. In my mind, it made sense for him to be the star of the show. As he was speaking, I swear I was doing my damndest to pay attention. But my mind kept going back to my own response – I had to make sure that I nailed the first question. If you don’t start off well, it would have become an insurmountable task to get back on track, or right the ship, so to say. What’s the cliché – you can never make a second first impression? You know that I hate clichés, but this one fits.
So I sat in my chair, feeling the eyes on me. When it was my turn, I picked up the microphone and attempted to speak. It’s never my style to try and sound articulate or poetic. That shit just happens. Well, I shouldn’t call it shit. But you know what I mean. Speaking well just seems to come to me – a talent that I think I often take for granted (hence, referring to it as shit, the way I’d refer to something I’ve done a zillion times, like take out the trash), but one that I work on, incessantly. I don’t want to be good. I want to be great. And I don’t want to just be great, I want to be the best. But that’s not what’s running through my mind. All I’m trying to accomplish, is turning my thoughts into words, in a fashion that will sound clear and will resonate with the audience. The articulate, engaging, or even poetic stuff just happens on its own. That’s not something that I try to control.
I had you in mind when I answered the first question – the value of a college education. Value can be such a loaded word, can’t it? What’s valuable to one person, may not be valuable to another person. And that’s precisely what I tried to convey. My opening remarks were something to the effect of – the value of the college experience lies within each student. That a college education will have as much, or as little, value as each student allows it to have. On the surface, I know that can sound coy, or as if I’m not really answering the question. But, here’s what I mean. Take the girl (here’s when I thought of you), who knew she wanted to become an occupational therapist. She did some volunteer work at a nursing home, during high school, and discovered her passion for therapy and helping people get back to their daily lives. That student, who gets admitted to a school with a reputable OT program, goes on to graduate with honors. She lands a job, and goes from a nervous new-grad, to a proficient, senior-level professional. If that girl, now a woman, decides to get married, and have children, she can decide to put her OT career on hold. And when she’s ready, she can resume her OT career, just like that. For this individual, a college education will be invaluable – there would have been no other way she’d have been able to become an OT without going to college. Said simply, you can’t become an OT by going to trade school.
Now, this isn’t to say that every career requires a college education. But our focus was on value. And for students who do it right – focusing as much on their academic, as they do on their career and personal development – there will be no monetary or numeric vale that can be given to the college experience. It will be part of what makes them unique; part of their fabric. The college experience will be a very distinct part of how they see, and define themselves. Like – Jessica, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, OT, college graduate. The experience is one that’ll always keep with them. (Or maybe it was just me, who had such a transformational college experience.)
Once I shared that story, everything seemed to ease. I saw heads nodding, faces smiling, people beginning to feel connected to what I was saying. That was the engaged part, I suppose. But that wasn’t what I set out to accomplish. I just wanted to convey an idea (a brilliant idea, mind you!, that I crafted through my mental preparation), and let everything happen. Told you…that other stuff, it just comes!
I participated in a panel recently, on the value of a college education. We had some spirited conversations, and each topic was worthy of having its space in the universe, where we could dedicate the appropriate time and energy to explore the topic, in great detail. On this panel, we began the conversation discussing the value of a college education, from an economic standpoint. This particular conversation is as important, as it is multi-faceted. For, can we really put a price tag on how valuable the college experience is for students? Here is just one, often overlooked perspective, on the economic value of a college education.
When I hear, what is the value of college education, I sense others are approaching college as a traditional investment, a bunch of facts and figures, dividends and portfolios, and ultimately, whether there is a return on the investment. But unlike stocks and bonds, the college experience is made up of people – individuals with ever-changing thoughts and values, interests and ideas. So the investment comparison isn’t quite apples-to-apples, because bonds are not living beings with career aspirations, and students are not intangible entities that can be traded for the next hot commodity. But, if we must look at college as an investment, and are thus compelled to determine its value, let’s look at the college experience the way we look at buying a house.
Unlike most other investments, purchasing a house is not strictly a financial or economic decision. There is more to consider than simply can we afford the mortgage. Prospective home buyers will want to consider the school systems and neighborhoods, proximity to work, family, and highways, whether the roof needs replacing, and if there is mold in the walls. Most of all, prospective home buyers will want to take into account, does the house they are considering, feel like home. Not just a place where they will eat and sleep. But does the house feel like home, where they will want to raise kids and have holiday dinners. Does the house have a certain warmth or aura. Within seconds of stepping foot inside the house, does it feel like a place where they want to live. Is that something you can put a price tag on?
When it comes to buying a house, sure finances are important, but they don’t make the entire decision. For the right house, buyers will stretch beyond their means, so they can have the home of their dreams. On the flip side, just because the numbers work out, doesn’t mean the house is for you.
Like prospective home buyers, students should consider the emotional connection to college. That is, is this the school where they can foresee themselves learning and growing. Does the school’s values match their own. Is this the school where they want to be. Sure the price tag is important, but that should come further down the line. A school’s sticker price shouldn’t deter students from applying as there are scholarships, grants, and various forms of financial aid. Students will find that there are people, and companies, willing to invest in their future, thus making the value less financially taxing.
Just like there are houses for different income levels, so too are there colleges to meet different income levels. The conversation about financial aid and scholarship is important, but fit for another discussion. When students find the school of their dreams, instead of berating them with inquiries, asking them to second-guess their decisions, it’d be better to work with them, to create game plans for success, to take advantage of all the resources that school has to offer. There’s no way to put a price tag on students’ potential, and their ability maximize that potential, whether it manifests in the field of nursing, social work, or education. Helping students fulfill their dreams is the real value of a college education.
Ever since A Matter of Semantics was published, I’ve always wanted to see it on a bookshelf, holding its weight against other titles. A few weeks ago, I got that chance when I took a trip to the school where I used to teach – Sussex County Community College (or “Harvard on the hill”, how locals refer to it) – to see my book, on the bookshelf, of the bookstore.
It was a breathtaking experience, one that proves dreams do come true. Teaching there was fun and rewarding. Not fun in the sense of belly laughs or random fits of the giggles, but fun in a manner of being enjoyable and touching, which is what work should be. And rewarding in the sense that it stirred something inside of me, something that fueled and motivated me, something that helped give me a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
The students are what stood out the most, though. Even if I forget some of their names, I will never forget what I learned from them, even if it was how to alter the inflection in my voice, to help them stay away for an 8:00am class!
There are more than a few, however, that will I remember. Who I probably will never see again or will probably never hear from, unless they need a letter of recommendation. (And that’s okay, because that’s what I signed up for, when I signed up to teach!) But, those are the students I wish I could thank, personally…for letting me help them, in their journey to create success. So this is my letter to those students. With social media being the way that it is, I’m hoping each one of them will get this message in a bottle.
Dear Brie – Thanks for the wonderful email you sent me, that semester after you took my class. I never could quite read your facial expressions, so it means a lot to know that you enjoyed our class and (selfishly) that you liked my teaching style! Even though you discovered that college was not for you, I hope you see the value in education – even if it takes downing a can of Red Bull (like you did for our 8:00am class!) to get you through lectures and seminars! I wish you much success in your pursuit of a career in cosmetology and I know you’ll do fabulously. I don’t like giving advice, but if I can even be of any help, please reach out. My sister owns her own salon!
Dear Kali – You were another person whose facial expression I could never quite read. With all you had going on personally, I never knew if you were going to show up to class, so I’m glad you always did. During that semester you spent in my class, when you told me that you didn’t have much family or support in the area, I remember saying to my wife how I wanted to invite you to our home for Thanksgiving dinner. But I was too cautious and wary of the social stigma and mixed message that would have sent. My wish for you is that you dare to dream! Even without a support system, you can accomplish anything that you want! But first, you have to dare to dream it, in order to make it your reality! And don’t lose your positive attitude. It’ll serve you well in the years to come. I’d like to hear all about your endeavors; I wish we could have kept in contact.
Dear Colleen – People often say things like, there is no such thing as perfection, and I laugh. From the moment my son was born, he has always been, in my eyes, perfect. He cried himself to sleep some nights, or threw temper tantrums, or wouldn’t eat his vegetables, but he was always, perfect. Likewise, you were perfect. Whenever I need an image of how I’d like students to approach my course, I think of you – always being on time, always taking notes, always giving your best effort. (Surely, if I could have given you a grade higher than an A, I would have.) The way you carried yourself was even more impressive – leading by example, displaying patience and flexibility, accepting challenges and never taking the easy road. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. If I had attended SCCC, you would have been one person I’d want to be friends with, and have in my circle of friends and support system. By now, I hope you’re pursuing your dreams of becoming a social worker. I have no doubt you will get there. I’d love to hear from you, someday, and catch up over lunch. Stay perfect.
Dear John – One day you’re going to wake up and find yourself living the life you have dreamed about for so long. Trust me, but more than that, trust yourself! Your passion and drive reminds me of myself, once upon a time. I’m sure we could be cousins, somewhere down a family line. I know you’re always seeking advice, and I always talk in circles because, well, there’s nothing I can say to you (in some contrived fashion) that will instantly change the way you see and approach the world. So I will say to you, what I wish I had known during my first year of college – First, the way you see things is just a reflection of your background and upbringing. It doesn’t make you right or wrong, it’s just your perspective. Harm comes when you hold people to your standards, like how I used to think girls were sluts and hoes simply because they wore short shorts. If that were true, that would have made most women I knew, and even my wife, a hoe. So be open to expanding your perspective. Secondly, the world isn’t small, it’s big. So dream big. Dream bigger than New Jersey or Florida, dream about sipping wine atop the Eiffel Tower or going sightseeing in the Serengeti. Dream bigger than what you have experienced, like writing that book you never thought you could. Then, use the college experience to help you achieve those dreams. And don’t let anyone rob you of your dreams!
Dear Haley – Even though were just a student, there were times you felt more like the little sister I never had. On those days where it was a struggle for you to be in class, all I wanted to do was caution you to the carnal nature of men (or boys!), and help you bring light to your dreams that had been trapped in darkness, and give you a hug and tell you everything would be okay. A big, burly, comforting bear hug. To show you that a man’s touch could be supportive and nurturing, without being at all sexual. But I couldn’t show favoritism. I pray that you’re doing well, wherever your journey has taken you. Now that you’re no longer the pupil, don’t hesitate to reach out should you ever be in need. I hope we get to have lunch sometime soon, and that I get to meet your son, Caleb!
Dear Kim – You’d probably never guess, but my favorite singer is Alanis Morissette and she has a song entitled, “So-Called Chaos”, the theme of which fits you perfectly. I know you’re wracking your brain over majors, schools, careers and the like. But what if I told you that you will find answers as soon as you stopped looking? I don’t have any empirical evidence to support this notion, I just have anecdotal stories. Like the time the guy was searching so hard for a girlfriend because he didn’t want to be alone. Yet, when he decided to embrace being single and concentrate on himself, magically, a girl walked right into his life, as if she already had the key to his heart. Fret not about what major you’ll pursue or what career you’ll end up having. What’s most important now is YOU. I almost wish you would leave the community college and go to a four-year school. There, you’ll have a greater exposure to different majors (you could choose between Molecular Biology, Emergency Medicine or Physical Therapy, but at SCCC your choices are Bio, Chem, and that’s it!); professors (who can help you distinguish/differentiate between all of those majors); and students (who can share with you the cool things they are doing, so you can formulate your own career path). Things are not supposed to be perfect right now, because you’re still figuring it all out. They’re supposed to be nerve wracking and chaotic, and that chaos is what’s going to help you get where you want to be. So embrace it. Kick off your shoes. Take a leap of faith and enjoy the chaos.
I’m writing this, still on a cloud nine. I was interviewed by the alumni magazine of my Alma Mater – Quinnipiac University. Yes, that small school in Connecticut, with the hard-to-pronounce name. That’s where I had my magical, transformational college experience. And of all the places I’ve lived, it’s the place I still consider home.
Being interviewed by “Quinnipiac Magazine” has definitely been a highlight in my short tenure as an author. I’ll share details and information on where you can find the write up as soon as it’s available. (The premise of the article is the importance of college) But, I wanted to give you a sneak peak of what you will find is the article, and share my full (and unabridged) response to one of the questions that was posed to me during the interview. A response I’m hoping will shed some light on the age-old question what is college really about?
Here is the question I was asked: Getting a job/having an income seems immediately important to the student and their parents. What is also important to keep in mind?
And here is my response – which is based on three factors: Research from employers’ feedback of the skills they seek in recent-college grads; the interviews I conducted for “A Matter of Semantics”; and my experience working with high school and college students. I will warn you. Brace yourself, the purpose of college may not actually be what you think.
College is not just about the academics. Of course the academics are the essence, or backbone, of the college experience. But there is far more to college than studying, going to the library, and taking exams. After students have returned from classes, and completed all of their projects and assignments, and spent a million hours reading, writing papers, doing research, re-organizing their notes, contacting professors, making study cards, and reviewing PowerPoint slides, they will still have an inordinate amount of free time leftover in the day. Parents may preach that students should go back and study longer, read more, and devote all of their free time to enriching your academic selves. But, to do so would be impossible, or at least, unimaginable. (To spend every waking moment focused solely on academics would leave students like that one kid in high school that was extremely book smart, but was socially awkward to the point that he couldn’t even hold a conversation, without stuttering, twitching nervously, and breaking out in a sweat.) Hold onto your seats, parents — college is not just about the academics.
So, why is college about? College is about each student, and the unique path they create, to help them get where they want to be in life. College is about finding purpose and creating success (however students define success).
But, specifically, college is about developing the social, emotional, and psychological self. Not in the I want to find myself sort of way. But, in the sense of exploring life’s philosophies – such as who am I versus who does everyone else expect me to be – so students develop their own outlook on life. College is about creating a social network – of friends who will go on to become colleagues and professors who will go on to become mentors; both of which are crucial to succeeding in the working world. College is about giving students the platform to develop their brand. (When people think of branding, they usually think of Bills Gates or Oprah Winfrey. But each of us had a brand. We might call is style or swagger, but it’s the thing about us that says, who we are, and who we are not) Academics helps students determine what type of career path they will take. But the outside of the classroom experiences help students to solidify what type of professional they will be once they land their first job. That is what college is about.
But, parents should consider others factors of the college experience, as to how college can help students grow and mature and become more competent professionals. For, college is also about students enhancing their skills and abilities; having once in a lifetime opportunities (like studying in other countries); applying concepts learned inside of the classroom and bringing those concepts to life outside of the classroom (like the psychology major who does social experiments with friends, to test theories she’s learning about); and even taking risks – not in terms of jumping off a roof, but in terms of exploring a class they never thought they would or going ziplining when they are scared of heights (as part of leadership training, for instance). College is about students experimenting with their sexuality, when they are still trying to define their own sexual orientation; or even asking someone out on a date, someone who’s of a different race or nationality, not know how they will response or what they will say.
Not only that, but college is about gaining and acquiring skills that you can’t physically touch, but you can sure quantify on your resume; skills and abilities such as developing a work ethic, managing time, and becoming culturally competent. More than anything, college is about the experiences students learn that will help mold and shape them into becoming a better brother or sister, son or daughter, teammate and colleague, teacher or engineer, student and pupil, colleague, coworker, and ultimate, manager, sportsman or sportswoman, friend and significant other; experiences that will make students better versions of themselves than they are at this very moment; experiences that will go on to become life lessons.
Most of these experiences will occur outside of the classroom, yet, they will not be mere ancillary benefits of the college experience. They will have real substance and value – the research tells us that between 70 and 80% of what you college students learn takes place outside of the classroom. Even though academic and career development will be students’ primary reasons for going to go to college, it is their social, emotional, and psychological development that will be the areas that have the greatest impact during your college experience.
So go ahead to college for the academics; but don’t be surprised if you learn a lot more outside of the classroom, than you do inside those walls.
The college major is important. For the college graduate, it says this is what I studied…this is where my competencies lie…this is why I am employable. But, is the college major really a testament of all those things? Or is it just another box we push students into, telling them to check here, sign here, go here, shepherding them around, as if they are merely cattle.
As with most things, the actuality falls somewhere in the middle. The academic major is important, but it’s not all-encompassing.
While presenting a teacher’s convention recently, a handful of high school educators seemed shocked to find out that the academic major is also, just a matter of semantics.
Consider this body of research done by The Chronicle of Higher Education, where we find that 93% of the employers surveyed said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major. They were not saying that a student’s major does not matter, but that, overwhelmingly, the thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills a job candidate has acquired in college are more important than the specific field in which the applicant earned a degree.”
Students who want to become lawyers will study law. Students who want to become nurses will study nursing. But, the student who studies law can go on to become a nurse, just as the student who studies English can go on to become a lawyer. Choosing an academic major, in many respects, has just as much to do with students’ occupational aspirations as it has to do with students’ passions. Yes, their passions. If a student loves to write, perhaps they should major in English or creative writing. Similarly, if a student absolutely loves math, perhaps they should major in math or accounting. It doesn’t mean these students will only be suited to be English teachers or accountants, respectively. They can also be doctors, legal advocates, or entrepreneurs.
In that same article, 95% employers surveyed said it was important that job candidates “demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”
Those traits aren’t germane to specific majors or academic programs. So instead of forcing, steering, or nudging students to declare majors, instead, we should be helping them explore their passions and then challenge students to utilize their passions to develop integrity, cultural sensitivity, interpersonal communication skills, and a host of other traits employers seek in new employees. If students can successfully acquire those skills, the name of their academic major will become just a matter of semantics.