We go to college to get entree into the world. We expect the promise that college gives us, along with the diploma we're paying for. But this can be an elusive fantasy. In fact, most students are just standing in line for a grade. And waiting itself is dull and debilitating. What we seek is a life-changing experience which often falls short unnecessarily.
Whether conscious of it or not, we are really going to college to answer the timeless questions: Who are we? What do we want to do? How do we find our way? And, how can we be of greatest use in the world?
I have given advice on ways to find ourselves and live more engaging lives: Launch Your Career in College, Skills for Success, Making College Pay Off. These books were written after interviewing many successful individuals. From them, I created patterns of critical skills they had developed to answer the questions of how to be and to do in the world.
Esteemed Professors Helen and Alexander Astin of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, whom I was lucky enough to study with some years ago, are famous for their longitudinal studies. Most dealt with how first-year students' attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors change over time. Their most recent research project, working with Jennifer Lindholm, is explained in Cultivating The Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives. They surveyed and interviewed a group of college students over their four-year experience. This assessment addressed how they made meaning of their lives through questions such as: Who am I? What are my values? Do I have a mission in life? What kind of person do I want to be? What sort of world do I want to help to create?
Their comprehensive data are extraordinarily significant: they can help colleges re-shape their teaching to encourage a deeper search for meaning in the critical years of a student's life.
The Astins and Lindholm found that while students' religious engagement declines in college, they become far more active in a spiritual quest to define their own character and identity. In doing so, they become more caring, connected to, and tolerant of others.
Their study provides colleges with strong evidence that spiritual growth comes from specific educational experiences of students. Once deemed "extra-curricular" activities, these experiences are more accurately re-phrased as "co-curricular" -- study abroad, leadership training, service learning, interdisciplinary studies, interracial interaction, and contemplative practices. These practices help students develop skills in a safe environment that can lead to greater sense of belonging, leadership, and purpose.
In another startling measure, they found that a majority of professors never encourage a discussion of religious or spiritual matters. Nor do they provide opportunities to discuss the purpose and meaning of life. The impact of these findings might encourage faculty to change their perspective after they see what can happen. The surveys reveal that, for example, students majoring in health and the arts intensify their spiritual quest while those in mathematics, history, political science, or engineering suffer a dampening of it. No matter their major, developing an inner life as well as an academic life in college can open the heart as well as the mind.
Students' personal experiences also change their attitudes in college. They recount the difficulties in living apart from parents, deaths of family members, relationships with peers in addition to the impact of their studies and career preparation. College experiences shape their growth.
This groundbreaking study has been hailed as a wake-up call for higher education. It shines a light on how the most fundamental human question, the meaning of our lives, can be taught to students. Colleges should facilitate a time of growth both academically and spiritually for students and their pursuits after they graduate.
Make your luck happen!
Dr. Adele is the author of Skills for Success and Launch Your Career in College. Visit her website, dradele.com.