Every December at the end of the fall term, I speak to a few hundred freshmen at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue about human wellness and social responsibility. For more than twenty years, there has not been a freshman class that has not been exceptionally attentive and responsive.
My educational and social objective is to get these students to take pause, think about their social choices and honestly assess how they interact with each other on an on-going basis.
The presentation begins with a definition of human wellness that is broad and comprehensive. I talk about being attentive to the whole person and not just being focused on one aspect of one's life.
One's mental, spiritual, physical and social well-being must be in sync. So often, at this time of year, our emotional energies are so depleted that we are all running on empty. Thus, we're not attentive to the total person.
For the college students among us, this time of year tends to be lived in a survival mode. They suffer from sleep deprivation, last minute cramming and burning the candle at both ends. Many college students are counting the minutes to that last final and the beginning of winter break.
Unfortunately, many college students and people of all ages for that matter are trapped around intensive competition, peer pressure and what the world considers success. At times, the pressure is unbearable.
Early on in our children's development, we have convinced them that college education is a vital tool for their material success and happiness. We have sacrificed much on our own part to see that they have access to the finest schools in the country.
However, we have not been as dedicated to seeing that their social and emotional skills have been equally as developed. A growing number of our young adults between the ages of seventeen and thirty are emotionally impaired. They are ill equipped to navigate the intense stress that comes with being a college student. Their interpersonal communication skills, at best, are limited and oftentimes seriously impaired. They lack appropriate coping skills, especially during times of crisis.
Too many college freshmen begin their college career without the appropriate insight and emotional fortitude to stay the course. The academic rigor is often disarming that first semester. Most colleges do not mirror the safety and security of high school life. There are all kinds of supports, but students have to seek them out. As a norm, when college students are stressed, their schools do not seek them out.
We have not prepared them for the range of social challenges before them. Too often, they take the path of least resistance. Some students will drink too much on a regular basis. Others will smoke weed more consistently. Still others will emotionally shut down and withdraw.
The danger here is that all of these social choices are masked behind a plastic smile. Young adults say and do all the right things, but underneath they are like time bombs ready to go off.
Too many high schools still do little or nothing to prepare high school seniors for the real challenges of college life. Some do a great job with academic readiness. Unfortunately, few do anything to prepare high school seniors for the social, emotional and psychological challenges they must face as college students, especially during the first semester.
Too many of our college freshmen begin the fall term enthusiastic about their college experience, but are ill prepared to fully embrace and manage what will unfold. Many students who struggle have been brain washed into believing that asking for any kind of professional assistance, especially in the area of mental health, is a profound sign of weakness. So, utilizing the campus counseling center is not even an option they consider, even when the stresses of college life are overwhelming.
College freshmen have to face so much during the fall term. For many students it is a newfound freedom that they are ill prepared to encounter. Few adults hold them accountable. They are totally on their own. Social decision-making is constant and never ending, even commuter students are in constant motion socially.
What should I do? What shouldn't I do? Do I stay out all night or not? Do I cut that first class? Do I go to that fraternity keg party? Do I pledge a fraternity or find a study group?
As the semester comes to a close, depending on one's academic and social outcomes, Christmas break could be a refreshing break from all the mayhem of college life or it can be every freshman's nightmare!
By mid-December, most college freshmen will have their day of reckoning. The students who played most of the semester away and failed miserably during finals week may not be permitted to return for the spring semester. Some will escape with academic probation, which is a temporary reprieve for the next four months. Others will be dismissed because of poor social choices during the term, especially around the social use of drugs and alcohol. They might be put on probation with counseling requirements and community service. If the social decision-making was really reckless, they might receive a letter of dismissal.
All of these possibilities intensify freshmen stress because ultimately, at some point, they have to share these circumstances with their parents. In this day and age, parents are rarely called directly regarding their college students' social and academic achievements or lack thereof. That is why most parents are shocked and appalled when they do finally find out. Unfortunately, most parents are the last to know.
Much of this chaos could be avoided, or at least limited, if our freshmen had different preparation for college.
At the wellness presentation, we talked about the challenges of their social decisions and the painful consequences. As the presentation came to a close, students were asked to come forward and join hands with a neighbor, reminding all who had gathered of the real challenge of building bridges rather than walls in our human relationships.
To the amazement of many who were present, the students joined hands without any hesitancy. They formed a wonderful line of solidarity. A song was played that talked about human dignity. The students who remained in the seats were invited to show their support of their friends on the line, and more importantly, to make a statement that they care about themselves and are committed to positive decision-making, by standing in their place and joining arms or linking hands with their neighbors.
Even the skeptics in the group were surprised - almost every student in the auditorium stood up, extended a hand or joined arms with his or her neighbor. It was amazing!