Every year in late August/early September for the past 20 years or so, I have watched parents drop their children off at college. The range of emotions and reactions I observe is vast, as you can imagine. Whether a mom or dad is inconsolable or ecstatic or both at the same time, there’s one thing that unites them all – their sense that change is happening right before their eyes. And the thing about change that provokes such strong emotions is that we can’t predict the future. No matter how hard we try, we can’t control the coming days, weeks, and months. We have no idea what they will bring to our children or to us.
Many parents have focused so exclusively on the change for their children that they have dramatically neglected themselves. Planning next steps for yourself can ease the pain and help you create an environment of joyful anticipation for you and your children. You can model for them renewed discovery of yourself as they are exploring themselves!
Recently, a graduate student at my university asked me what advice I would give to new TAs. Wow, I thought, I have totally neglected this essential group of people on the higher ed landscape.
TAs are really, really important. They teach well over 50% of classes on most campuses. They are also attending their own classes, doing research, and writing a thesis or a dissertation. They are seriously busy people. And miserably underpaid.
Colleges and universities rely on them to teach the so-called service courses, such as first-year writing, elementary and intermediate languages, and popular core classes. They also facilitate discussion in the recitation or discussion sections that accompany many lectures, making up the third hour of a three-credit course, for example. Some very advanced graduate students may eventually get their own seminar in their field, but this is the exception, not the rule.
TAs are not adjuncts. TAs are still pursuing a degree and so are enrolled as full-time students. Adjuncts have their degree in hand and are either looking for full-time work or teaching for a bit of extra cash while doing something else entirely. Both are severely undercompensated, usually earning about $2,500-3,000 for a 12-15-week class that they have to prepare for, lead, and grade papers. It takes hours a week to do it well. Both of these groups make up the inexpensive labor force campuses rely on. Without them, the complexion of course offerings would have to change dramatically. I can’t even imagine what it would look like.
So, if you are about to start teaching for the first very time as a TA, like my new friend who posed the question to me this week, here’s some advice I would offer:
While students are usually laser-focused on the social aspects of college for the first few weeks, the academic work gears up quickly. That is, after all, why they are there – to earn a degree – to walk away with a transcript bearing the names of courses they have completed. It’s not unusual for a percentage of freshmen to be so distracted by the need to make friends and stave off the inevitable loneliness that comes from acclimating to a new environment that the academic work doesn’t get the needed attention until grades are irreparably damaged. In fact, when deans look over transcripts at the end of the year (through a usually tedious and grueling process) to decide who has earned dean’s list distinction, who should go on probation, and who ought to be suspended for failure to meet academic standards, they almost always give first years special consideration since everyone knows the high cost of adjusting to college life.
Here are six pieces of advice you can offer your children to help them focus on the academic work from the get-go. They aren’t riveting, but they are tried and true.
1) Don’t listen to other students’ assessments of instructors. Give yourself the chance to make up your own mind. As you sign up for and start attending classes, try not to listen to the opinions of other students. Everyone likes different teaching styles and appreciates different personalities. Also, ignore the ratings sites; they are filled with comments from those who loved and those who hated an instructor. Trust your own judgment first and foremost and give each prof a chance.
2) Choose only one extra-curricular for the first semester. Though the course schedule may only show 14-20 hours of class a week, and you may be wondering what you will do with the other 152-148 hours in a week, resist the urge to sign up for lots of clubs and activities. Acclimating to college is like an extra course. And you will want to find some time for yourself and your new friends as well as for studying, reading, do problem sets, and writing papers. The coursework outside of class will take at least two to three hours per week for each credit. Schedule that into your weeks.
3) Plan to study abroad. Peruse the global offerings and start talking right away to your adviser and faculty about where to fit in a semester in another country, especially if it requires knowledge of a foreign language. Having academic experience abroad will not only give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and grow as a human, but will give you a leg up when you look for internships and jobs in the future.
4) Get to know faculty. They have weekly office hours and the truth is that many of them sit alone during that time slot every week. Students are missing out on a fantastic opportunity for mentorship, guidance, and getting to know another human. Look up the faculty member, know a little about their research and background, and think of a couple of questions you would like to ask them – about the course, about where they went to college and graduate school, about the field in which they specialize. Address them with a proper title, take your cap off, sit up, and shut your phone off. Research has proven that students who develop substantive connections with faculty have an exponentially enhanced academic experience. Plus they can really help you make good decisions in your life and career.
5) As you think about getting a job after college, read the NACE list. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has done research you need to know about on career readiness. As you choose your courses, faculty, advisers, extra-curriculars, internships, and volunteer work, think about which competencies you are developing that will make you most ready to join the world of work.
6) Go to class, do your homework, take your tests, and ask for help when you need it. This may seem ridiculous, but there is a prevailing culture at many colleges that you don’t have to go to class, can let your homework slide, should take as few tests as possible, and should never ever ever ask for help. These are all wrong. Keep in mind that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of maturity. As they say, “No human is an island.” We all need help at some point. Colleges have dozens if not hundreds of employees who stand ready to make your college years as enjoyable and rich as possible.
The battleground of Ivy League admissions is in the news again, with Students for Fair Admissions filing a lawsuit against Harvard for discriminating against Asian Americans like Austin Jia.
As someone who has sat in on admission committee discussions about applicants at three Ivy League schools, I can tell you that the conversations are not what you might expect. By the time I was invited, the non-starters had been filtered out. These meetings focused on the tough decisions. All of the applicants had high grades, great standardized test scores, multiple impressive extra-curriculars, fantastic recommendations, and compelling essays. Now came the hard work of winnowing down all of those super-well-qualified, deserving high school seniors. The fact is that each and every one of them had what it takes to succeed at the top-notch schools. That’s why they were still in the pile. Of the thousands of applications still sitting in the queue, the schools could have created several equally great classes.
So, where do they turn to make those final cuts? In the end, it is the responsibility of the admissions team to bring a well-rounded, interesting group of newcomers into the college to form a learning community that will inspire one another, benefit from each other’s talents and interests, and contribute to the university in both expected and unexpected ways. That is one of the things that makes admissions work so exciting. Welcoming a new cohort of energetic, wildly talented students and watching them grow up and graduate brings tears to every admissions officer’s eyes. It can be extremely gratifying work though the hours are long and the pay is usually terrible.
In the back of every admissions officer’s mind are the college’s priorities. Is there a presidential initiative to increase the arts, sciences, engineering, math, humanities? (It’s never the social sciences – economics and political science departments are stuffed to the gills.) Within each of those areas, there could be more specific needs as well. Perhaps they need to recruit more dancers, jazz or classical musicians, or aspiring dramatic actors. You get the idea. So, maybe Austin Jia’s application wasn’t as compelling as it could have been because he didn’t meet any of the university priorities at that time.
The next important question is: What can each given applicant contribute to the community? I was gobsmacked when that became the focus of so many admissions conversations. It seemed so wholesome and far-sighted, which is the last thing I expected to see here. I assumed, like many, that these were cold, calculating, and cut-throat decision-making battles. Instead, everyone was working collaboratively toward the same thing – to ensure a well-rounded community of diverse perspectives. So, maybe Austin Jia’s application didn’t make it clear that he would contribute in an important way to the community.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that admissions readers are expert at assessing character. You can’t read thousands of applications without getting a sense of what a student’s personality and qualities are. When you have so many choices, why would you admit mean, anti-social, dishonest, selfish, arrogant, greedy or otherwise unpleasant people? So, maybe all of the committees espied something untoward in Austin Jia’s personality?
Finally, the leaders of the Ivies know one another and have a refined sense of the students each school will admit. Maybe everyone assumed someone else would admit Austin Jia, so they didn’t want to waste a seat on him.
I’m not saying it’s not about race, and it might end up being the case. But what I am saying is that the decision whether or not to admit a student is complex and is not always simply about SAT’s, grades, and extra-curriculars. It’s a far more nuanced process than that, especially at the best schools in the world where there is excruciating pressure to keep bringing in classes of students who will add to the community, succeed there, and be great alumni.
On liberal arts campus, advisors of all sorts exhort students to “follow their passions.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say. Except that there might be.
As I wrote recently, “companies and organizations are looking for a set of diverse competencies that no one academic major provides,” so it will be your child’s job to translate what they learn on and off campus during their college years to the resume. Any good college should have excellent (though usually woefully overworked and underpaid) career services professionals to assist with that. (Parental/guardian help will likely be essential as well.)
What we are talking about here is what colleges sometimes refer to as “Major Choice Initiatives” or simply “Majors to Careers.” Because so many students flock to majors they are familiar with from high school or the ones they believe will land them the best job opportunities, typically English, economics, political science, and psychology, college faculty and administrators are obsessed with designing campaigns that will encourage students to think broadly about their choices. To do this, they highlight examples of alumni who have majored in German, philosophy, or anthropology and gone on to great success in finance or have become wildly famous in a realm of life far from their studies.
The most impressive majors to careers infographic I have ever seen is on Wellesley’s web site. It is an interactive visualization of alumni majors and their eventual careers. What I love about this is that it systematizes the anecdotal. It represents data on real people. This illustrates most pointedly that just about any major can lead to just about any career. Armed with this idea that majors and careers are not aligned as neatly as we might assume, and the research by NACE I cited earlier, you should feel free to encourage your child to explore courses and fields widely. We fetishize the major in spite of it making little or no difference in our eventual career opportunities in the majority of cases. What students really need to focus on is how the knowledge they gain and the skills they hone translate into the world of work.
However, there are times when it does matter. Ask any scientist or mathematician, and they will likely suggest starting with the basics as early as possible. As a college advisor, I never worried much though about the true mathematicians and physicists among the undergraduates. They found their way another easily enough through admission processes and personal contact. Faculty usually take great pleasure in mentoring undergraduates who have a serious interest in their field. After all, they are so much more interesting than the students they typically encounter in the “service courses” (the ones students take merely to fulfill degree requirements). If your child wants to pursue a “hard science” or math, all you have to do is make sure she or he finds the department and sits down with a professor or two or three to talk about their interests. Chances are once they have made themselves known, faculty will talk about them and work to make sure they are well mentored.
The other obvious case for early planning is engineering. The challenge here is also the choice of major because students frequently choose their main area of study based on misconceptions about the field and the job market. There are several tools that help students refine their decision-making process. They can and should:
 The Future of Work and What it Means for Higher Education, Part One: The changing workplace and the dual threats of automation and a gig economy, page 7.
One of the top worries of parents I have met over the past decades at different colleges, both public and private, big and small, is that their child has no idea what major to choose to get a good-paying job and ensure a gratifying and successful future.
Consider the following statements from recent reports on the future of the world of work:
“Perhaps the most important skill higher education can provide to individuals in the 21st century is one that will likely never show up in any job advertisement: The ability to navigate ambiguity.” That’s why educators are talking obsessively about flexibility, resilience, and grit.
Why? Work is changing rapidly in our country and, indeed, around the world. As Jeff Selingo points out in “The Future of Work and What it Means for Higher Education,” not only is automation altering the needs of employers, but the very definition of “employee” is changing radically. That means that the jobs your child will apply for in her future years may not even exist yet, and the terms of the employment will likely be different from what has traditionally been on offer throughout your career.
This points to the need for every student to hone the skills named by, among others, Burning Glass and the National Association of Career Educators (NACE).
Burning Glass’s top ten list of skills looks like this:
NACE includes these as the top ten:
But that’s not all.
“New research shows developing technical skills with a liberal arts education can nearly double the jobs available to graduates. Burning Glass analyzed millions of online job postings from the past 12 months and found that by coupling technical skills with a liberal arts education can nearly double the jobs available to graduates and offer an average salary premium of $6,000.”
Burning Glass also identified eight technical skill sets – Marketing, Sales, Business, Social Media, Graphic Design, Data Analysis, Computer Programming and IT Networking.
When you consider these lists and think about where college students can acquire them, you can quickly disabuse yourself of the notion that economics or business is the only rational choice. Just about all of these skills can be acquired through courses in any field and in externships, internships, and, in particular, in extra-curricular activities. Imagine the marketing, sales, business skills, and social media and graphic design efforts that go into leading a dance troupe. They have to convince a college board of some sort to fund it, so first they need to write a proposal and find an advisor. Then they scramble to reserve audition, practice, and performance space, create agendas, run meetings, choreograph, convince otherwise very busy peers to join, practice, and be reliable and then get other fellow college students to attend the performances. It’s a dizzying trial by fire the first time through.
The key to post-college professional success lies in translating what is learned in college in such a way that a prospective employer readily understands which of the applicants absolutely must be interviewed.
That ought to be the task of the career education folks at your kid’s college. Most career advisors are, however, extremely overworked (not to mention underpaid), so some of the work of translation may fall to your child as well as to you, if they let you help.
No, your years of parenting and guiding are not yet coming to an end. Your children will need you in ever new and more interesting ways as they forge their path to an independent life.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.