It’s early November, and the gray clouds have edged out the blue skies and turned the brilliant, multicolored leaf displays into a couch potato’s nightmare. The excitement of starting (or resuming) college has given way to the reality of mid-terms, roommate squabbles and fast approaching term project deadlines.
Some of your students are deeply immersed in discovering and exploring their passions in and outside of the classroom — a passion for theater, athletics, new friends, a new language, or perhaps changing the world. They dove into the college experience head first and now they’re swimming with the current.
To continue with this river metaphor, other students may have drifted into an eddy. This could be an eddy of addiction, procrastination or some other pattern of avoidance. Students who breezed through high school on innate talent and charm may be confronting the shock that these skills are not sufficient to get through their college classes.
Still other students may be standing along the bank, wondering if the current is safe. In truth, the river of life is never completely safe. But neither is sitting on the shore waiting for the perfect moment to get wet.
A recent American College Health Association survey of UO students indicated 96% of those surveyed felt “overwhelmed by all they had to do” on at least one occasion. A further 63% indicated that they had “felt things were hopeless” at least once during the year. This suggests to me not that most students are walking around feeling hopeless, but rather that normal college life is fraught with stress and emotional lows are part of the river’s course.
Regardless of how your daughter or son feels about their experience at the U of O, this is a great time to check in with them about how they are doing — not just in their classes, but in their overall college experience. Some students will share their continued or newfound excitement about what they are doing. Others may share their disappointments, frustrations, and doubts.
Many students we work with confide that they are worried about disappointing their parents. They may be hesitant to disclose that they are struggling with academics, relationship problems or addiction. Perhaps they are questioning whether they want to be in college. It is important that your son or daughter be given the chance to have honest, open dialogue with you regarding these matters. You can encourage this by being open and nonjudgmental and not letting your own hopes and fears drive the conversation. Your student may welcome the opportunity to discuss their college experience in a meaningful way. Others may simply give you a terse, “Everything’s fine,” but later open up when you least expect it. With each interaction you can plant the seeds that talking with you about their deeper concerns will be a good and supportive experience. Many of you already do this. For some students, your support might mean giving them the permission to take a lighter academic load, take a term off, or to reconsider their options. Some students may need the simple encouragement to “hang in there” and “do your best.”
While I don’t suggest that you rush toward “fixing” the problem, at some point in your conversation, after your student has had a chance to express their thoughts and feelings, you might consider steering them toward helpful campus resources. Academic Learning Services can help students improve their study habits and test taking skills. Academic Advising can assist students in deciding on a major and successfully completing general requirements. The Counseling and Testing Center can assist students in working through emotional barriers to achieving personal and academic goals and creating fulfilling and meaningful relationships.
In other columns, I’ve noted that university life offers both opportunities and pitfalls that go well beyond the acquisition of an academic degree. I tend to think that our character develops the most — not when we’re riding through calm waters — but when we are struggling to overcome a hardship or barrier. And each set of rapids offers a terrific learning opportunity.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.