Sunday, July 8, 2012

College is a Trip

"We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." -Proust

College is way cool, no doubt about it.  There are intellectual explorations and pursuits, exposures to a wide variety of people and cultures, sporting events, rich theatre and music opportunities, tons of ways to meet, socialize and party with folks from all over the world, and on and on.  The college years are a great time to learn and otherwise benefit from these experiences, and many students take full advantage of the possibilities.

At the same time, however, many students seriously underestimate the stresses and strains that result from this time in their lives.  During college there are incredible demands placed upon a student’s intellect, physical well-being, social skills, spiritual or philosophical orientation, and sense of personal responsibility.  This is true whether that student is from Manhattan or Opp, Alabama.  Every student I have ever known (including yours truly!) has had to endure an adjustment period during the crucial first semesters of college, and often during the subsequent years as well.  Some have roommate problems.  Some party way too much.  Some are overwhelmed by their new-found autonomy or freedoms.  Some struggle with isolation.  Some have to manage the negative behaviors of others.  While many students negotiate through these stresses productively, albeit fitfully, others experience meltdowns of one kind or another, and truly have trouble functioning well as a student.  Grades may suffer.  Conflicts with friends or family may emerge.  Depression or anxiety may root and take up residence in the psyche.  Though students may not realize it, college is a microcosm of the world at large, but compressed in both space and time.  What happens here can establish precedents for the future.  College is a trip, indeed.  It is a funky but delightful journey during which learning can occur in every dimension imaginable.

Some students arrive on campus with plenty of tools in their survival kit.  Caring parents.  Good health.  Sufficient funding.  Supportive friends.  Others seem to have been given tools of little value, sort of like a duffle bag with a pearl necklace, a chocolate cake, and a catcher’s mitt, and all for an excursion into the Amazon!  A few unfortunate students appear to have no tools at all.  Just as I have never yet met a student who didn’t have to adjust, so I have also not met a student who could not overcome such limitations.  I have known courageous, admirable students who were nearly homeless, or who were afflicted with a nasty medical or mental condition, or who were abandoned or abused, but succeeded nonetheless.  My hat’s off to these folks; they had more than their fair share of troubles but in the end weren’t defeated.

So college is a trip, and there are some tricks students need to know about in order to reach their destinations with sanity intact.

1.    Prepare for the adjustment.  Think ahead about what you will need, then find out where you can get it.  Manhattanites will need variety.  Oppians will need familiarity.  If you didn’t have to study in high school, well, get ready to.  If your parents did everything for you, learn how to do it yourself.  And so on.
2.    Quickly figure out the nature and source of your stress.  Are you strung out because you’re not sleeping?  Because your roommate is messy?  Because you can’t concentrate?  Because you’ve never been good at math?  Stress has origins.  Find out how it started.
3.    Get the support you need.  Every problem, and I mean every problem, has a solution.  Granted, some solutions are difficult.  But don’t freak out!  Instead, calm down, define the problem, and then learn what person or resource or service you need.  Need tutoring?  Chances are your school has it.  Need time management skills?  There is someone who can help.  Need to choose a major?  It's covered.  Need someone to talk to?  Counselors are here for ya.  Just take a look at the web or campus directories.  I’m always a little amazed at how many students don’t look for or don’t know what resources await them, or worse, choose not to use them.
4.    Don’t wait!  Do the first three steps early.  Don’t wait until your homesickness turns into depression, your public speaking anxiety becomes panic attacks, or your stress leads to insomnia or substance abuse.  If you get what you need early, chances are good it won’t take long to overcome the problem.  If you wait, it can take much, much longer.  Don’t believe the lie that it isn’t “normal” to have problems.  I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t have a few.

To take the college journey well, students need to periodically examine their survival kits.  Make sure the needed tools are in there.  If unsure, ask someone who’s been around.  Wisdom and a good deal of fun are there for the taking, if students care enough to equip themselves for the ride.