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Surviving The Freshman Year

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'Ithaca is gorges,' proclaim both the t-shirts found throughout New York State and the first words of the Ithaca tourism website. Ithaca is also the home of Cornell University, an Ivy League school of high repute. Hardly surprising, then, that navigating its campus requires crossing bridges -- seven of them.

More surprising, perhaps, that each of these bridges is fitted with netting -steel mesh netting -- to prevent a recurrence of the horrific events of 2010 when no fewer than six students jumped deliberately to their deaths.

Clinical Psychologist and renowned speaker Dr. Murray Banks in 'How to Live with Yourself' describes mental illness as 'failure to make the necessary adjustments to life,' and suicide as, 'an extreme form of adjustment.'

He also shocked his audiences with the information that there were more people in the mental hospitals of the USA than in all that country's universities and colleges put together. But the implied thought that students in higher education and people with mental illness were entirely separate groups is increasingly, and regrettably, incorrect, for in 2015, Rebecca Chopp, a former President of Colgate University and now Chancellor of the University of Denver, told an audience of 5500 teachers that universities across the continent were struggling to deal with a significant, and growing, number of students exhibiting anxiety and depression.

Many such students drop out during their first year, and constitute a significant proportion of the almost 30% of first-year university students who do not graduate.

Why does this happen? Though there are many contributing factors, they all add up to the same thing. Murray Banks would have said that many students have not learned how to live with themselves, Pamela Gunter Smith, President of York College in Pennsylvania opines that students too often lack perseverance and emotional maturity, while Nan Keohane, former President of both Duke University and Wellesley College, believes they lack the capacity to deal well with their new-found independence. In short, many students enter university lacking the skills to cope and the resilience to persevere while gaining those skills.

The transition from High School to University will almost inevitably lead to lower marks than a student has previously experienced with no familiar teacher to turn to for reassurance; school friends of long standing are no longer around, so loneliness can easily ensue; money needs to be managed now, and it evaporates at what seems amazing speed; laundry does not just happen; meals do not just appear; the structure of the day has changed completely and scheduling seems more complicated; the campus is huge, the class sizes massive!

The instant gratification of praise from many quarters has vanished! Just last June, the student was top dog but now, just two or three months later, that same student may feel inconsequential, uncared for and helpless. Such students need help, and many recognize that, but they do not know where to turn, so they self-medicate, often with alcohol, frequently with other drugs.

Of course, all these changes happen to all the students, so how is it that not all descend into anxiety and depression? How did those students who do have the capacity -the resilience, the emotional maturity-to persevere and succeed, develop it?

In short, by being allowed to!

It is unlikely that they were hampered in their quest for resilience by helicopter parents, some of whom now land in the Offices of the Presidents at the universities to complain, on behalf of their doomed offspring, about the colour of the residence drapes or the fact that the English Professor has not yet marked last Friday's essays! More likely they were encouraged to keep trying when they were cut from a team, or work harder for the teacher they thought did not like them.

If they had pets, they also had the real responsibility of looking after them; if they had part-time jobs, they had parents who urged them to respect the job and their employer by not feigning sickness. In short, they likely had parents who taught them the necessity of responsibility, for others and themselves.

They were probably more fortunate than others in their choice of school, too. If they were products of a school that truly respected them, they would have had to earn their marks by working well; they would have been taught in a structure that required them, and enabled them, to be responsible for their own learning, to meet deadlines, to organize large parts of their own time, to collaborate in their learning, to prioritize commitments and meet them all, to persevere through difficulties, to seize all opportunities for high-impact learning -that which takes place on field trips, internships, international exchanges, service projects and the like-and which insisted that they wrote well, read copiously, spoke with clarity, and listened intently.

The good fortune of excellent parents and a fine school will ready most students for the adjustments needed for success in university -at least on the study front.

There is, however, one aspect of university choice that is too often neglected by students and counsellors. That is the underlying ethos of the university. Good students, by the time of High School graduation, have well-developed interiority. They know what their values are and how, at least in broad terms, they see the world. They are about to embark on at least four years in a new community. They would be wise to ensure that it is one in which they can feel at home. Canadian students contemplating studying in the USA or overseas, should always take care to 'feel' the university under consideration before applying for a place.

Starting in university and living away from home is akin to a novice sailor crossing the harbour bar. The water will become more testing, the wind more fierce, and the coast-guard ever more distant. But the sailor who is expecting the storm will be prepared for it, enjoy the challenge it presents and fling the tasseled hat high in the air upon triumphantly reaching the shore.

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