Introducing: College Confidential Part I
Today I'm launching the first in a regular series of posts from my perch reporting live from the trenches of college life. I'll offer true, unvarnished accounts of college students' experiences in their own voices, from their perspective.
One of the many privileges I've experienced from teaching – and from being the kind of teacher students confide in – is that I somehow got the secret passkey into the otherwise locked internal world of a mythical, unknowable creature called the college student. What you hear when you call your kid is that she's running to or from a class, is too sleepy or busy or stressed or cranky to talk, is fine, everything's fine, look I've got to go, yes I'm eating, no I didn't send grandma a birthday card...LOOK MOM I'M LATE AND REALLY STRESSED OUT IT'S NOT A GOOD TIME TO TALK I HAVE TO GO...
I hear something else. I hear a lot of details and dramas and self doubt and self exploration and issues of identity and love and sex and worry and responsibility. Some of your children are eating and some are starving themselves. Some are making excellent choices in life and love and priorities and some are 'drunkorexics' who starve themselves all day to binge drink their calories at night. Some are experimenting in classes and identities. Some are coasting. Some are sinking. Some are finding their voices, flying in the discovery of subjects and activities they love and the freedom to explore them to the fullest for the first time. Many are having sex. They want you to trust their smarts and their decisions. They are hurt when you don't. They want your love and approval and for you to know them better, on their terms.
I'm not unusual. There are a lot of college professors who know your children better than you'd think. We refer them to our counseling centers. Sometimes we walk them over there ourselves after receiving a late-night distress call.
Mostly we listen, without judgment, offer advice and reflect back to them what we hear them saying. 'It sounds like you want to change majors but you fear that would disappoint your parents.' 'It sounds like what you're saying is your roommate has found her passion in writing for the school paper and you haven't quite found your place yet on campus and you feel lonely. Why don't you try that yoga class....'
Whenever I recount a conversation I've had with a student that was particularly thoughtful or insightful, my friends who are parents of these indecipherable beings seem stunned by all of the great intelligence I've gathered.
A distressing study released a few weeks ago reported record-high levels of stress and mental health issues faced by college freshman – levels that have reached a 25-year high; college women are particularly at risk.
Here is a snippet from Tamar Lewin's New York Times story headlined: Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen, on the disturbing findings of the study:
"The emotional health of college freshmen — who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school — has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.
In the survey, "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as "below average" in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.
Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened.
Campus counselors say the survey results are the latest evidence of what they see every day in their offices — students who are depressed, under stress and using psychiatric medication, prescribed even before they came to college."
Why I'm breaking the code
I am not a counselor but I do spend a lot of time talking with students about their lives. The study got me thinking about how I might share what I know to help bridge the communication gap between parents and their college students. Of course, teacher-lady that I am, I had to turn this into a teachable moment for my students. So I gave out an assignment. I asked my students – past and present – to help me help them talk to their parents.
Writing prompt: Dear Mom
Here was the writing prompt:
Write what you think your parents should know about your college experience and about your relationship with them. Help them understand what your college life is like and how they might communicate better with you. In your interactions with them, what are they doing to help you express yourself and what are they doing to hinder you? Give them practical, specific tips. This writing may take the form of a letter, a quick list, a dialogue – use whatever format gets the information out of your head (and heart) and to them, through me.
And then something astonishing happened.
What are college students' secrets?
They wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. E-mails, Facebook messages and notebook pages filled with urgent handwritten scrawl came pouring in. And is still pouring in. The 'assignment' unleashed a torrent of writing these young people seem determined to get out and get heard. Remember, this was not for a grade, not for extra credit, and done on their own time. Several students said they liked the letters they crafted to their parents so much they were going to send them or call their mom and dad to read them aloud. Am I a genius or what?
Today I'll share one of the 'letters' a student wrote to her mom. Not only is it real and astonishingly honest, this young woman hits all of the themes and points so many of the other students discussed in their writing. I hope it serves as a stellar introduction to our ongoing conversation here and as heartfelt entry into her own exploration of her relationship with herself and her mother.
A letter to one mom that all parents of college students should read (here's the 'sex is casual' part)
The note to me from the student said this: "It is from the heart and something that I may actually read aloud to my mother next time she calls."
I miss you. I know that I don't call you enough and that's not because I don't miss you, I do. You just have to understand that college life is not compatible with parental phone calls. Please know that I am safe and happy. That being said, here are some things you should keep in mind.
- School is difficult. It is an ongoing struggle that demands 100% effort from every fiber of my being and causes me a degree of fatigue I have not yet experienced in my 18 years of life. Know that in the wee hours of the morning when I am trying to read about abortion politics in the 19th century, I am thinking about you, and wishing I had had time to call that night.
- Because school is difficult, I am probably not going to get A's. Please do not expect them. I know that in my 12 years of public school education you valued my high marks like Olympic medals but those days are no longer. I'm not here to win gold stars or give you trinkets for your mantle. I am here to learn, to challenge myself, and to intellectually engage in every opportunity around me. So don't yell at me when I don't get A's. I promise, you're getting your $56,000 dollars worth. I'm learning more than I'd ever imagined I could and I know it will take me somewhere. Hopefully somewhere that will pay me half that.
3. Sex is casual, and I have lots of it. I'm on birth control, and I'm smart. The boys here are safe, and the ones I pick always have their hearts in the right place. It's not like your day- it isn't that big a deal any more. Don't worry, I'm not at bars with strangers. But I'm a young woman now, and sex is a fun outlet of which I'm not going to deprive myself, especially when it's this accessible. Also, I'm not going to be a size four forever and there's no way I'm going to let that slip by. There's this new thing called "friends with benefits". It means you can have casual sex with someone without being in a committed relationship. It's usually a close friend, but there's no emotions involved. It's really quite fascinating. Don't worry, I promise I won't get pregnant or catch any diseases.
5. Drinking is fun. When we work our butts off and don't sleep all week, we really need to let loose on Fridays. So please please please do not call me on a Saturday morning. I'll be tired, cranky, hung over, and less inclined to have a substantive conversation with you, which I know is what we both want.
6. Everything I have here is thanks to you. I wouldn't be the person I am, nor would I have the self- confidence and fundamental values that I do, if not for the love and support you raised me with. You always told me I could do whatever I put my mind to, and being here is proof that I can. All I want to do is make you proud, and show you that your time and effort on my development was not in vain. I worry that you are lonely, that your life is void without the commitment of mothering, and sometimes I wish I could have stayed home with you. But there are things I need to here, and I promise you they are of value. And every time I hit a slump or feel lost in this world that is so blurry and new, I know that I'm rooted 18 hours away, that somewhere in this world there are people who love me unconditionally. Oftentimes, that is what keeps me going.
So I know I do a terrible job of keeping touch. I know you're worried that I spend too much time in extra curriculars and not enough time studying. But I'm still working it out. There's a lot to do here, and without you to guide me sometimes it's hard to sort it all out. Just know that despite the cluster of miscellaneous thoughts, goals, fears and fantasies rolling around in my mind; you are always at the forefront. I'll call you soon."