On every campus I visit, students cite a lack of a “community” as one of the main reasons for their depression, alienation, disaffection, lack of participation, isolation, and suicidal ideation. As the complaints grow over time, so do the rates of depression and the number of suicide attempts.
A study from over a decade ago echoes the same things college administrators hear in meetings practically daily. A college student’s sense of community is closely tied to their “feeling of being cared for, treated in a caring way, valued as an individual and accepted as part of community. The most negative influence on community comes from students’ feelings of loneliness on campus. In order for students to have a sense of campus community, student affairs administrators should strive to build a community that (1) has an open environment where free expressions are encouraged and individuality is accepted and respected, (2) engages faculty and students in teaching and learning, (3) provides an active social and learning environment in residence halls, (4) fosters positive relationships among ethnic and cultural groups through programs and student activities, (5) celebrates traditions and heritage of the institution, and (6) provides assistance to students when they feel lonely or depressed.”[i]
How do we explain the loneliness? Every college I know is replete with faculty and administrators who care, who strives to provide an open environment where faculty and students are engaged in teaching and learning. All of them have active social and learning environments in the dorms and have countless initiatives that encourage cross-cultural understanding. Each has their own traditions and history along with a campus counseling center that is busting at the seams.
College campuses provide all sorts of communities. Multi-cultural spaces, international centers, LGBTQA groups, Malcolm X lounges. You name it, they have it. Then, for the more mainstream, they offer fraternities, sororities, eating clubs, final clubs, all places where drinking and drugging and community engagement ebb and flow over the course of the semester.
Knowing how much of their resources and personnel are engaged in helping students find a sense of community on campus, I have been gobsmacked by the number of students who complain year after year about finding no sense of community whatsoever on their campus.
What’s really going on here?
Hard-working, well-meaning administrators and faculty are trying to create a “sense of community” on campuses for students who have had play arranged by phone and text by parents, not themselves. For students who have been given trophies whether they won or lost. Who have been granted A’s or 4’s or whatever the highest grade is whether their work deserved it or not. Who have been accommodated not just for over-diagnosed disabilities but also for suspicions of allergies and sensitivities to dust, air, and breezes. Who have been denied gluten, white sugar, white flour, and preservatives. Who have been medicated and nurtured as if we are growing a master race of some sort.
When they go to the playground, thick mats of rubber protect their delicate knees from being skinned.
When they ride tricycles, they have seatbelts and helmets.
When they go to after-school activities, they are driven and chaperoned and coached to death.
When they feel slighted, their parents say they’ve been bullied.
When they feel disparaged, their parents raise complaints of discrimination.
When they feel bad because their score wasn’t as high as the next student’s, they got a trophy anyway.
When they are teased, parents fight it out in the principal’s office.
Then, when they go to college, they have to go it on their own. Find friends. Fight their own battles. Establish a community. How? They haven’t had the opportunity to become resourceful and resilient and elastic. Their egos are fragile, not having been toughened by knocks and blows.
Of course, they don’t know how to find community.
It has become the responsibility of the college to find it for them. If I hear one more college administrator say that they create programs for students so that they feel and see their community around them, but students don’t show up, I’m going to scream.
Students – when you go to college, dare to check out a number of the dozens if not hundreds of student organizations that are on offer; try out for plays, choruses, orchestras, varsity or club teams; or interview for positions as tutors or peer mentors on anything from academics to sexual health to outdoor sports to study abroad. Promise yourself you will try three or four things and then go talk to an advisor or a parent or relative about how it went. If none of them has worked out, try three or four more.
A college does not have ONE community. It is a constellation of many.
Perhaps we are just nostalgic for the “good old days” when colleges were indeed ONE community – of white Protestant men from upper-class families. That no longer exists, thank God. Let’s celebrate the many different types of community on offer at every college and thank the people who work so hard to create programs and initiatives that welcome you. You might be surprised what you will find there.
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.