Recently, a colleague, a highly experienced therapist, mentioned the level of “emotional chaos” exhibited by many of the students he counsels. That got me to thinking whether or not we could help students gauge their level of emotional stability or chaos so that we could help them do something about this particularly thorny and determinative factor in successfully completing a degree.
What if we got students to think about some of the ways in which emotional chaos affects our daily lives?
Attention: If a student is experiencing a great deal of emotional distress, it will be hard for them to pay attention in class, to their out-of-classroom work, to their extra-curriculars, not to mention their relationships and obligations to their families and communities. If your energy and focus are continuously distracted by what’s going on in your emotional life, you simply can’t learn. What if we asked students what percentage of the time they are able to focus on the task at hand, whether it is listening, writing, reading, or talking? And then introduce them to ways to increase their ability to pay attention? There are so many! And most are not expensive and can be done in the privacy of one’s own home.
Attitude: College is that stereotypically heady time of boundless energy, experimentation, and exploration. All of the acts involved in exploring indicate optimism about the future. An energetic college student is nothing if not optimistic about what the future will bring. That is, after all, why they are trying all these things out – to find out what they are good at, where they belong in the world, and what they should pursue in the coming decades of life. Pessimistic students are not going to be so inspired to invest in their futures. Why would they? Their futures don’t seem so bright. Attitude toward the future can make or break a college experience. What if we asked students to gauge their level of optimism about their lives and about their ability to create a life worth living? And if they express a more pessimistic stance toward life, let’s try to help them.
Energy: We all know what an enthusiastic student looks like. They pay attention in class, create and participate in study groups, empathize with their fellow students, and just live life with gusto. The unenthusiastic, apathetic student is a stereotype, too. They sit at the back of the room. Maybe they’re wearing a hat pulled down over their eyes. They shuffle around and get together with other apathetic students. They suck the energy right out of a classroom. They are not only wasting their time; they are taking up valuable seats and squandering the energy of a teacher who is invested in their success. How about if we talked to students about their level of energy for the whole enterprise? Are they dying to get a degree? And if not, why not? What can we do to help?
Equanimity: I love this word. It means a calm composure, even in the face of difficulty. Unfortunately, college brings with it a whole heck of a lot of emotional drama. About love, sex, growing up, self-definition, and love, love, love. Students who come to college with a measure of equanimity are already leaps and bounds beyond those who don’t. How about if we asked students to work on developing their ability to be calm and composed, especially when facing a situation that might otherwise have thrown them off?
Resourcefulness: This is a measure of how independent and autonomous a person is. College throws you into dozens of unusual or new situations on a daily basis. If a student is resourceful, they will figure out a way to handle it, address it, and move through it with their dignity intact. Lacking this quality throws students off on a regular basis, which compromises their sense of self-worth, their confidence, and their ability to succeed. What if we were able to determine how self-reliant a student feels they are and then worked with them on becoming more resourceful?
We all know that students who are able to pay attention, bring optimism and enthusiasm to the college experience, and can handle new situations with equanimity and resourcefulness stand a better chance of getting a degree. We also know that young people who struggle with these can be helped in many, different ways. I’m going to start talking to students about these five dimensions. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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.