THE BLOG

The Quest for Meaning in College

02/12/2015 09:44 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

College promises us a path to the world and an understanding of ourselves. Whether conscious of it or not, we invest our time, money, and hope to answer timeless questions: Who are we? What can we learn about the world? What do we want to do? How do we find our way? And, how can we be of greatest use as citizens? Yet, most students are stuck whether sitting in class waiting for their grades or standing in line for a job after graduation. Waiting for life to come to us itself is a dull and debilitating process compared to the exuberance we seek.

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 recording how first-year students' attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors change over time. UCLA's most recent survey revealed some good news --that freshmen are a bit more sober, more liberal, more serious, and more inclined to think that financial success is important. But there is more to be gleaned behind the survey questions.

In the Astins' most recent research project, Cultivating The Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives, surveying just one group of college students over their full four-year experience, gave them answers to how they make meaning of their lives through questions such as: Who am I? What are my values and mission in life? What sort of world do I want to help to create?

Such responses from comprehensive data might help colleges re-shape ways teaching can improve a deeper search for meaning in the critical years of students' lives. For example, even though students' religious engagement declines in college, they become far more active in a quest to define their own character and identity. In doing so, they become more caring, connected to and tolerant of others.

I have found some answers about ways to find ourselves, discover intellectual worlds, and live more engaging lives (which I wrote about in my books, Launch Your Career in College, Skills for Success, and Making College Pay Off), after I had interviewed many already successful individuals about their progress through school and work to find patterns from the critical career skills they had developed.

Personal growth develops from specific educational experiences, once deemed "extra-curricular," now more accurately expressed as "co-curricular"-- leadership training in activities, study abroad, service learning, interdisciplinary studies, interracial interaction, and contemplative practices. These experiences help students develop skills in a safe environment, skills that lead to greater sense of belonging, leadership, and purpose.

Students reveal that personal change occurs as they learn to cope with difficulties with sudden separation, living apart from parents, deaths of family members and even friends, in managing relationships with roommates, friends, and professors, in active participation in campus programs, and in making career decisions from choosing majors and mentors. Such experiences help shape students' growth academically and spiritually in their pursuits long after they graduate.

However, the Astins found that a majority of professors do not encourage any discussion of purpose or meaning in life, let alone religious or spiritual matters. Their hope is that faculty might be encouraged to change their perspective since they observed dramatic differences in the intensity of students' quests between those majoring in health and the arts versus the non-exposure those in mathematics, history, political science, or engineering suffer. Such differences do not lie in the major, but only in the teaching. The goal of higher educational study might be extended to focus on engagement to include developing an inner as well as a participating life in college, opening pathways to the heart as well as the mind.

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