A Vision of College Students Today

Please note: I first wrote the following article in December 2019. I kept making tweaks to it and submitted it a number of places in December, in January, and in February with no takers. I thought about tweaking it to include the COIVD19 crisis, but as is, I think this serves as an important snapshot to how rough things already were for the vast majority of college students. And it includes thoughts even more relevant today. The following article has not been edited since late February 2020. 

The students, rather the people, who populate our college campuses are increasingly withstanding an inordinate amount of life. Have you ever stopped to thoroughly realize who they fully are? Have you taken the time to look across your classroom or student center and specifically acknowledge that most of your students have faced or are facing crisis circumstances?

The people who enroll in our universities and in our courses. The people whom we assign grades. The people whom some ponder “why didn’t they study harder?” These people are survivors.

Due to on-going debates about free college for all and about scams related to student loans, not to mention skyrocketing tuition prices, we’re generally more aware that students are struggling in unprecedented ways financially. They are in massive debt. They are often working full time, while being full-time students. Some are starving; most have recently gone without meals. A few are homeless. Basically, students cannot afford life today.

Do we remember that while attending our classes and completing work for our classes, students are sacrificing precious time that could be spent with biological or chosen families and with friends or even time that could be used to rest? Life is so short.

On the other hand, an alarming and saddening number of our students are estranged from their parents or from other relatives. Their parents often disapprove of their major or even of their being in college. I had a student years ago whose parents would pay for their education if they majored in business, but not if they majored in what they loved, literature. Some of my students haven’t seen their mom or dad since they were small children. Relatives often don’t like how their cousin, niece, or brother identifies in terms of their religion, gender, or sexuality and completely abandon them over such. Have you consciously realized that such lived experiences are right in front of you?

The number of people in our classes who came close to dying by suicide once or even at multiple times during their life is very real, too. I’ve recently encountered an alarming number of 20-something students who have feared impending death from a disease or from a random act of violence. College students, especially those not taking classes immediately after high school graduation, are often entering an age where more and more relatives die or have long-term health problems.

Students often report feeling helpless when thinking about the future of the world. Students report not wanting children because the nation shows little regarding for well-being. A student recently said, “Living in the United States is a nightmare.” We know from statistics that at least 20 to 33 percent of people have been victims of sexual violence. This percentage goes up for trans and queer individuals, especially those people of Color. These survivors are also in your classrooms.

We also have people in every class who are HIV positive, who have or who are battling cancer, who have chronic pain, who are bipolar, who are single parents, or who are addicted to potentially life-threatening substances. Additionally, there are people in every class who could face deportation at any moment. Or maybe, it’s their mother or sister who could be deported without notice. Other students have served jail sentences or are on probation, sometimes for nonviolent offenses. Those who are formerly incarcerated or students who are military veterans often struggle with adapting back to regular life.

When a student isn’t “paying attention,” maybe PTSD is causing a flashback. Minority stress is also at play. For example, even when everything else is going well for me, being disabled causes an additional level of life-long stress and being disabled re-shapes how I see everything. I’m reminded too of an excellent Twitter post from Saeed Jones (@theferocity) that says, “If straight people understood the rage most queer people are working to manage on a daily basis…whew. And queer people of color? Chile. Some days I just feel like a contained explosion.”

Some of you might be thinking by now: “these comments apply to all people, not just students.” Indeed. They do. And we’d all do well to make conscious, internalized efforts to remember that when going about everyday life. But, sometimes we forget that students are people. Sometimes we get distracted while making course, program, and degree outcomes and aim only to make sure these requirements are strictly met.

You might also be thinking: “what do I do?” This inevitable question does not have an easy answer. And I’m not exactly aiming to provide answers here. Awareness and reminders alone have value. I know teaching is always incredibly hard (and profoundly rewarding). And I do not lightly add to the mental task that is effective teaching.

Here’s what I do. I provide flexibility. This often means extension on assignments or occasionally, alternative assignments. I create some assignments that students can complete with their loved ones. I structure my classes such that no moment or no class session is absolutely vital for a student’s success. Every moment is meaningful, but no moment is vital. I am encouraging and approving when students say they need a mental health day or when they request to miss a class over material especially triggering for them. Students know I’m always ready to listen and to help. My students often say that just knowing that I hear them and care matters most.

Whether you’re working as an advisor, a professor, an administrator, or in some other role, pause to acknowledge and to remember that our adult college students are first and foremost people. Right now, right here. While we shouldn’t provide therapy to our students, we can listen when they open up and offer support. Such trauma-informed teaching practices will make you more effective in and out of the classroom. Other times, you just have to believe in your students and know they have already survived far too much. The details aren’t our business. Adult learning theory also reminds us that college students arrive with life experience that can and should be harnessed, but this should be done with great care.

I can also suggest taking care of yourself. Secondary trauma exists and can impact our personal wellness when regularly hearing about the struggles others face.

I want to close this vision of college students today, inspired by Dr. Michael Wesch’s 2007 vision, by saying that people who are also college students are incredible. We have profound opportunities to make positive impacts (and maybe provide some distractions from life outside of school). While articulating this vision of college students today, I must also say how inspiring my students are. In addition to the trauma that has been the focus here, they also come to class equipped with ideas acquired from independent research and with thoughtful life and career plans. They are ready to learn, and they are ready to meet and exceed the constant challenges we provide. If the people who are in our classes were in charge of the world, we’d all be happier and better off.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda