The Door Must Close For the Next to Open

As the final year of high school begins to wrap up, seniors across the nation are gearing up for graduation, finalizing college plans, and beginning the transition from a very familiar life into a short hot summer, and then off to an unfamiliar place of new intellectual and social discovery – your university. For the past 18 years or so, these beautiful young people have been under the daily nurturing and watchful eye of their parents. Providing a nightly check-in that subtly affirms family values and expectations and provides a sort of checks and balance recalibrated every 24 hours resulting in varying levels of personal and academic success. In just a few months, that will all change.

As families arrive and after all the new student orientations, college assemblies, parents welcome, and campus celebrations have ended there will come a time for what I call the “resounding click.” That moment after all the linen has been laid, The final Target or Walmart run complete, and the pillows fluffed a third time, that the final hug and tug between child and family must occur. That punctuated moment standing at the dorm door where parents fully realize their baby is not coming home and starting their own path towards independence. While the child, unspokenly nervous, realizes I am no longer in my parents house. In that moment parents stare at their child and the child stares back, a brief noisy silence. Eventually, after more hugs and tugs, the son or daughter will have to close the door initiating that resounding click echoing sentiments of independence, a newly found freedom, the smell of excitement, and the inevitability of midnight decision making.

This coming Fall, hundreds or literally thousands of 18 year olds fresh to campus, knowingly or unknowingly, initiate that “click.” And then, shortly thereafter, re-open that door and step out. They step out among those other hundreds or thousands of 18 year olds all collapsed in a common residential space with people to meet and places to go. That is a heck of a thing to wrap one’s mind around. Each new Fall cycle can be a time of immersive scholarship, social growth, inspiration, values clarification, and personal discovery or it can be a time where the beautiful young people go buck wild. Which will they choose? It’s a critical crossroads decision that each young person must make in a very short time after leaving home. It’s almost immediate. The sooner we can frame this as a question for their self examination and reflection, the more intentional we can be about supporting good decision making overall. I am sure as fellow higher education practitioners you have seen some variation of it all. Here are 3 recommendations that might be helpful to your work when supporting beautiful students during this critically important beginning. I would love to hear your strategies in the comments.

How something begins is inherently tied to how it ends.

I encourage all of us to be very transparent with our students about this place called college. It is important that we acknowledge all the things they will be exposed to from alcohol to social settings pierced with sexual decision making. These things were present at some level during high school, but for most beautiful young people they were always managed with an understanding that they had to return home. There is something self regulating about the return home and the questions laying in wait. The newly found freedom of college places sole accountability for decision making in the hands of the student absent any parental check-in, inquiry, or consequence. This is new, real new. A strategy to consider is to regularly find ways to share ample examples of students who successfully navigated their first-year and beyond and those who unfortunately did not and how it has impacted their progression. Place the newcomers in rooms with upper-class students, set the stage, and then get out. Student to student sharing is critical here and can hit home in ways that an intergenerational approach may lack. Prep the upper-class students with an awareness of university resources and services, but don’t coach them towards any particular agenda. Just close the door and let the dialogue organically unfold. The new student needs to hear raw accounts of midnight from those who have experienced it. Once complete, seek an understanding of the general themes, and encourage the student leaders to informally or formally engage individual students, as appropriate, while continuing to do what you do.

Pack Familiar Things

Either in one-on-one settings or through small groups ask and learn about your new students’ prior day-to-day schedules and things they were involved with. Glean for clues that give you a sense of what each student found important and meaningful from high school. Ultimately, encourage students to maintain the values and enhance the patterns, routines, and habits of high school that put them in the position to gain acceptance into your college. Their academic record is an outcome of successful study habits and practices. Their well roundedness is a reflection of previous organized activities, sports, service, and leadership. Discuss the rigor of college and share time management models and study habits of successful students. Discuss how to leverage university resources and service that can replicate previous involvement structures in the new place. Encourage them to find within your institution what was important and meaningful in high school. Invite them to discard things that they previously did, but don’t really enjoy. Encourage them to think through what new things they wish to integrate into their life. What is something they wanted to explore but the pace of high school didn’t permit? Perhaps an organization that focuses on a new area of interest? Areas such as the arts, politics, religion, language, culture, academic, hobbies, student government, Greek life, etc. Help them unpack those practices and routines that worked. Encourage them to throw away a few things whose time has passed, and to shop anew everything your university has to offer.

Be Forgiving as an Institution

As 18 year olds navigate this new time within their life some will likely make poor decisions. As practitioners, we know the first 6 weeks reflect high incidents of alcohol related violations. In my previous role as an Associate Dean of Students, we created a 6 week initiative that met with every new student within 24 hours of their citation, including weekends. This created an urgency in the mind of the young person. Once we had their full attention, our intent was to clarify where they were (a university at substantial cost) and who they were primarily in it (student). Our role was not exclusively to adjudicate, but to explore with the student what their intent or purpose was in going to college and to re-articulate the scope, scale, values and opportunities of the university. Students were then given a list of involvement opportunities that included organizations, mentors, and various committees they could voluntarily select to engage. This turned a poor decision into an opportunity to become more actively engaged with the broader university community. The aim was for students to take from an unfortunate situation, not a reprimand, but a chance to examine their choices and consequences. Not just the choice to drink, but their choice to attend the university and how personal behaviors align with their grander decision to attend college. Not every conversation worked or had an impact, but we were able to pose the question of behavioral alignment with personal choices directly to the students most likely to have future incidents early in the process. How something begins is inherently tied to how it ends.

I hope these 3 recommendations are useful or already in motion in some shape of form at your institution. As students work through their adjustment period let us work creatively to manifest our institutional values with each interaction, program, and life skills teaching opportunity we have with the beautiful students.

One in the work!