Encouragement at the Crossroads:
Talking to college seniors in their transition from college to “real life”
Spring term is a busy time at the Counseling and Testing Center. Seniors feeling their impending
launch into the “real world” come to talk about their doubts and insecurities as they scan the horizons beyond their graduation. They look ahead and wonder—Is there a place for me to make a difference in that world out there? Will my plans work? Can I handle whatever comes?
Questions like these attend most life transitions, but graduation from college is a huge one. It can be a time of tender insecurities and easy discouragement. And for loved ones who want the best for their now-adult child, it can be a time of hope mixed with anxiety. Parents and guardians may feel a need to prompt or push their young adult into the world, attempting to ensure that this transition leads to a secure, independent life.
As a psychologist working with these students, I sometimes feel this urge as well, and encouragement provides a way for me to genuinely help without putting added pressure on the student to meet my expectations. It is a way of communicating that acknowledges the challenge while also recognizing the person’s specific traits, skills, or abilities to meet that challenge. To be encouraging, we must let go of our own ideas about what a student “should do.” That is the hard part. I do this by asking myself what I want this student to do, and then challenging myself to set that aside and be curious about how they might work things out. It is their trajectory, after all, and I’m not at the helm. This opens up a sea of possibilities for the student and respects their right to choose the star by which to navigate.
To be truly encouraging, I must also remind myself that setbacks are not failures. They are one way we learn what we need to know to make our way in the world. If I do for them what they can do for themselves, I will short-circuit opportunities for them to test their metal and to discover their resilience and capacity to wend their way through the obstacles they encounter.
Spring term offers many opportunities to explore their own competence, from completing a senior project or thesis to interviewing for jobs or preparing for graduate school. Throughout these tasks, students discover their own ability to face challenges and setbacks and yet keep moving. Students often fear disappointing their parents’ expectations, discovering that they don’t have what it takes. They may also fear that if one plan fails, there will be nowhere to go from there. Encouragement communicates confidence in the student’s ability to navigate obstacles and reach their goals.
In sum, to encourage means letting go of the outcome and recognizing that setbacks are not failures. It means allowing room for students who have struggled not to be branded by what didn’t go well. Graduation is a rite of passage, a time when a student feels a sense of accomplishment despite their insecurities and past failings. It is a wonderful time to recognize that, despite struggling academically, they made it. They have achieved something that can never be taken away from them, and all diplomas look alike. They need recognition of their accomplishment, and a chance to “own” it, to feel their competence and to know it matters.
But as people who care about them, our fears may drive us to want them to maintain their momentum so they can span the gap between graduation and what comes next. Perhaps the most discouraging thing we can say at this point is, “Okay now, just keep this up. You had some trouble, but you pulled through at the end. Just keep going with that same energy and you’ll be able to get a job.” Sometimes we might conceal these feelings with praise: “You made it! You have a diploma now. You’ll be more likely to get a job.” Encouragement sounds more like this: “Well, I’ve been really impressed that you kept at it, even in the face of difficulties. Every time something was difficult, you regrouped somehow and kept going. How did you do that? Do you think that same ability could come in handy in the future?” Praise —unlike encouragement —pressures. It focuses on the outcome, rather than the present. It implies a specific expectation and takes over in a way. It attempts to steer the ship in a particular direction rather than leaving options open. Encouragement always leaves room for the person to be themselves, have their own goals, and feel more confident in their ability to reach those goals. And it does so because it respects our basic human needs to belong, be capable, count, and have courage (Lew & Bettner, 1995).
When I respect a student’s autonomy in this way, it is much easier to be curious, to let them direct the help they want and to watch how they creatively solve the problem at hand. This approach always works better than my setting their compass and trying to grab the wheel.
If your student is graduating this spring, I offer you encouragement. You have managed to raise a college graduate. No doubt, they have adopted some of your positive traits along the way. Somehow, you managed to instill those qualities through the all the whitewater rapids of parenting, on your worst days and in your shining moments. I imagine they have benefited just from knowing you. I imagine they will continue to do so.
Congratulations. Well done.
Elizabeth Loux, Psy.D., Former Staff Psychologist