First, the good news about your kids at college: Whatever they’re going through, there’s a support group to help them.
Now the bad news: They need more support than ever.
Or so it seems.
A recent visit to my alma mater suggested there were more support groups than sports teams, choruses, dance troupes, or investment clubs put together.
What kind of groups? Groups for every ethnicity and sexual identity; groups for every form of mental health or lack thereof; groups for every religion imaginable (and some that are not imaginable); groups for low-income students and groups for students who invest.
There’s even a juggling club, which makes sense — because how do you juggle classes, homework, and membership in one or more of the 100 groups on campus? This amount to roughly one group per 18 students.
If you eliminate the non-joiners (and there’s probably a group for that), you’re approaching the point where, eventually, in a few short years, every student will be his or her own student group. Since they spend most of the rest of their time staring at smartphones, it will be possible to have attended a residential college for four years without ever having met a single student with a different race, religion, or opinion.
No matter what ails you, there’s a support group to fix it. Which is great, except for one thing. All that happy talk of inclusive sustainability, or whatever they’re offering, may be doing more harm than good.
It’s understood that the transition to adulthood is never easy. But we’re sending a message to kids: You’re probably messed up, and you probably need support, and that’s why we are providing so much of it.
In other words, if you’ve basically got your head on your shoulders, are showing up for class, and aren’t letting drugs and alcohol interfere with your academic life — then you’re an outlier.
Don’t you need some support?
And too often, support is offered based on a specific aspect of a person’s identity, whether it’s religious, racial, sexual preference or identity, or a dozen other things. The message: You can’t just get “help.” You have to get help within a narrow definition of who you are.
My friend Steve Hollenberg, who was two years ahead of me at college, said it perfectly: College is the one time in your life when you get to be uncomfortable.
Growing up, you were probably surrounded by people who looked and acted a lot like your family.
After college, you’ll have the opportunity to choose the neighborhood where you feel you fit in the best, whether it’s old school ethnic, urban artist pioneer, or anything in-between. College is when you get to be surrounded by people from walks of life you haven’t yet encountered.
It’s challenging, because it’s different. But that doesn’t make it bad.
Of course it’s great to honor one’s own identity. But the message of all these atomized support groups is this: “You don’t fit in here because you’re X. Come hang out with other people who are also X, and you’ll be more comfortable.”
The problem is that you’ll have missed out on the opportunity to get to know people who are “Not X” — whether X is your religion, race, or socioeconomic level. You’ll have the rest of your life to be comfortable.
I’m not saying don’t get help if you need help. But if you have to shed your identity as a member of a larger community of people who don’t look, act, believe, and behave just like you, in order to feel a little more at ease in your college years, you’re missing the point.
In the real world, you may be able to choose your neighborhood and your friends, but not necessarily your boss, your co-workers, or your clients, customers, or patients.
If you can’t reach beyond your own self-defined identity in college, it’s going to be a whole lot harder later on.
College is the perfect arena for getting over yourself and reaching out and learning what makes everyone tick, not just people like you.
Next time you see a tent card in the dining room for a support group for inclusive sustainability, skip it. Instead, sit down with a kid who looks nothing like you. See what makes him or her tick. That may be the best support you’ll ever find.
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