It’s that time of year when young men and women head off to college, and the last of our nieces and nephews to do so is beginning her college career this month.
Niece Karina Ellis has always had a great interest in animals and their care, and consequently her intended focus of studies is veterinary science. As we have discussed her plans and the whole college experience during some great times vacationing together in Maine this summer, I asked her the kinds of things she thought parents and their children just starting college should be considering.
She replied that her own view is that college is about “doing good work and learning, about making friends, and about always trying your hardest.” I’ve seen first-hand how hard Karina tries (and has succeeded) in the intensely competitive environment of Newton North High School outside of Boston. The academic work there is quite challenging, yet she has persisted and done, particularly in her junior and senior years there, such good work that she gained early admission to Mount Ida College in Newton.
Karina’s specific suggestions for parents include several “don’ts” and one ”do”: Don’t call your child more than once a week and don’t stop by college unannounced even if you live nearby — in short, don’t “helicopter.” Also, don’t apply too much pressure about grades, but do send care packages regularly. Oh, and make sure that one of your aunts makes you a quilt of your own special design for your dorm-room bed. (And as to the latter, mission accomplished, just in the nick of time....)
My own kind of college advice for entering freshmen comes largely from my last 10 years of teaching since my retirement from large law firm practice. While my teaching has been at the graduate level, I’ve also had interaction with undergraduates as an adviser in circumstances in which serious issues have arisen.
Those issues have taken two principal forms: (a) mental illness, especially depression, and (b) sexual relations gone wrong. I certainly don’t claim a heavy either academic (as a “peripatetic quasi-academic”) or professional (as a lawyer) expertise in either area, but I have seen enough to feel called upon to offer a perspective.
As to depression, as we all know early intervention is really critical, yet one of the symptoms of depression is a lack of the energy and the perspective to seek help oneself. So be alert to your classmates’ mental state as well as your own and don’t be afraid to act if you feel something is amiss. Academic institutions are much more attuned these days to the mental health needs of their students. Encouraging colleges in that focus is the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to students and is enforced not only by private actions brought in court but also by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education. However, a prerequisite for OCR or court action is that the student advise the academic institution of the mental health issue he or she faces at the time it causes academic impact and then actually seek what is called an “accommodation” — a specific means of dealing with the resulting impact on studies: deferred exams, retaken courses, etc. Absent the making of that disclosure and request for accommodation, the academic institution is not required to provide an accommodation even though the resulting academic deficiencies can lead to expulsion.
As to sexual relations gone wrong, the operative rubric is easy to state: “No really means no.” However, in the complexity of relationships, determination of what actually happened often becomes much more detailed and fact-specific. And these days, in contrast to earlier, far less thoughtful times, the presumption of improper conduct — as a practical matter as opposed to a legal requirement — appears generally to be against the male. When things go wrong, substance abuse seems frequently to play a role. Furthermore, so much of students’ communication these days is in written (typically text or IM) form that the resulting documentary record can be exceedingly rich and very important to investigations into charges made. Angry, anguished, or attacking text messages sent while under the influence can color the whole investigation in a very damning way.
While I expect neither of my cautions to be necessary for my niece, my advisory experiences over these past 10 years have convinced me that these cautions to college students (and indeed to graduate students also) are very well-advised.