A former client dropped by the other day to say hello. I had worked with both of her sons who are dyslexic and had received poor elementary level education in their public schools before she came to me. They went on to a wonderful school for dyslexic students, then transferred to another wonderful private high school for students with learning disabilities. They both made progress. The last time I spoke with this mother, her oldest was thinking about college. I offered to meet with him, but he decided to proceed with his guidance counselor, and I thought that would be fine, too. Her younger son is now a junior at a similar crossroads. I offered to meet with him, and she said she really wants to have him do that.
The older son (I’ll call him Joe) went to a well respected college that has extensive supports for students with learning disabilities. At that, Joe was enrolled in an additional program that gave him even more support. He actually got good grades. But he still felt lost. Joe became depressed, and eventually he told his parents he wanted to drop out. He is working, but feels that somehow he will never “make it” and his self-esteem is poor. Joe’s parents remind him he did well, so it’s ok, but somehow the magic button that is college did not pan out like he thought it would, so he thinks the fault is his somehow.
So what went wrong? The family did everything that was advised to them, and their son did well in his college. On the surface, there seems to be no reason for this evident “failure”. Now their second son (“Bud”) is at the same crossroads. His mother says he is different, and he really wants to go to college. At the same time, she is concerned because his college counselor, as with Joe, told Bud he should “just go” as if somehow everyone should without question. I asked, well, should I “just go” to Paris? She laughed, but I think she got my point. And then she said that Bud asked if he should study dentistry, if he should study business, he doesn’t know what he wants to do. . .from my perspective, I think I see what is wrong with this picture.
Why college? If a young person is so uncertain about their future, the first thing they should be asking themselves is what they hope to gain from college. It is not a magic button. It is one of many possible stages or arenas in which to learn new skills and learn about one’s self. It requires continued studying and homework–something that many students seem to forget in their quest for self-knowledge and the perfect job. College is an opportunity, in short, to grow, to become, to explore. It is not the final destination, it is part of the journey.
Why now? Well, frankly it is easier to go to college before one is married or has other deeper obligations that take the focus away from those learning opportunities. It can seem magical in the eye-opening and exploration, but the hard reality is that if you party hard you will suffer! So again, no magic button. It is as I said a part of life’s journey, and what better time to explore than when one is young and unencumbered.
Here is the exercise a young person and their parents need to undertake before moving to the future. What does a young person such as Joe or Bud hope to accomplish over the long term? Likely, they are thinking I hope to get a good job in something like XXXX, maybe get married and have a couple of kids, and eventually settle in a nice neighborhood near my parents/cousin/best friend. That’s the long term goal. So how do you get there? The short term goal may include more learning, like college. It might include working in a specific trade or field. It might include travel. But does more learning or college have to be now? Should it be now? Should a student work or travel for a year? Should they take a PG year at another school? There are alternatives. A four year college degree opens doors, but guarantees nothing–especially not if the student does not have a focus.
I probably would have advised Joe to wait. He can do the work, but he had no focus. Now he feels like a failure, and he did not fail at his school work! There was a clear disconnect between the college work and his goals (which I suspect were not clear to him at that point in his life), but he is interpreting that as a problem on his part. As for Bud? I’m not sure how I will advise him yet, but just from what his mother said, I think college could be a great choice for him. He wants to explore opportunities in a way that is often best addressed in college (i.e., trying different courses).
And when all else fails, I remind students that I wanted desperately to go to college when I was 18. I loved learning, and I wanted to continue learning. I wanted to explore things. During my sophomore year I learned that I would lose some of my funding in spite of my excellent grades. I was devastated and had to leave school because no matter how we worked the numbers I could not afford to stay. Eventually, I returned to college–after having married and having had children. It was hard, but once in college again, my love of learning reignited, I realized that I now had more to offer. I had gained new insights into myself and into my goals through life experiences and work. And that realization was very rewarding. It made me understand that there is a “neatness” to attending college on a traditional trajectory (straight out of high school) that is timed perfectly in many ways to the development of the young brain–but there is also a reality that not all students need to go to college right away.
So ask yourself–what do you hope for? And can college get you there? And do I need to do that now? This the first step in the development of self-knowledge, and it is as important a part of the life journey as is filling out an application.