What message are we sending to students?

This week, I was at Michigan Technological University.  I graduated from MTU in 1986, and returned 4 years later for a masters degree in Computer Science.  It's a great computer science program and I also love the area.  I really enjoyed both experiences in Houghton, taking full advantage of the natural beauty of the area for hiking, mountain biking, cross country skiing, or just hanging out on the fresh air. The coursework was difficult, but the very laid back atmosphere of the Keweenaw peninsula often offered some perspective.  A drive up to Copper Harbor and back (45 miles of twisting, windy roads) often cleared my mind, putting me in a better place for studying or understanding the subject matter of my classes.

My purpose in being here was for a meeting of the Presidential Council of Alumnae.  This is a group of women who have been selected by their departments and approved by the council. The group advises the President of the university on a wide variety of topics about the student experience, not limited to simply diversity on campus, but that certainly is a big component.   One of the activities for the meeting was to meet with some of the women who are students here.

I was amazed by the apparent "stress level" in the students I spoke with this week. Many of these students expressed apprehension about … everything. A junior was concerned that she wouldn't find a job (next year!).  Others expressed concern that they don't know what they want to do.  One student mentioned that it's hard to find time to enjoy the area because she's so involved in committees and volunteer work.  Others expressed that they didn't feel that they had time to do small things for themselves, even getting a haircut. It occurred to me that these students are feeling all of the same stresses that those of us in the professional world feel throughout our careers, but they are experiencing them now, along with the traditional stresses of college. That alarmed me.  I went back to grad school full time because I didn't feel like I could devote enough time to my studies alongside the stresses of a full time job (and vice versa). But these students have essentially assumed a load similar to mine at the time.  And they're still in college!

I've been thinking about the message that we (in industry and academia) might be sending to them about the importance of their college experience.  I'm concerned that when those of us in the business community talk about the importance of "community involvement", the students are hearing "the more activities I'm involved with, the better".  I don't really think that this is the message that we want students to hear.  What I want to see, both for the students' wellbeing and in employees is someone who has perspective.  There's a time to work and a time to play.  The "activities" and "community involvement", in my opinion, need to give way for some "down" time.

Granted, what I encountered was a small sample of students.  Those that I met may not be representative of college life in general.  They were selected by their departments specifically, I assume using this flawed selection criteria of the best grades and loads of activities.  The intent of this selection was to choose those who might ultimately qualify to sit on this Presidential Council, after they have some professional experience and success in their fields.  Yet, most of us didn't recognize ourselves in these students. Yes, we were "overachievers", and we were "stressed".  And maybe 20 years of time has faded my views of what was going on in college.  I didn't participate in any regular organized activiites in college (sure, a Bocce Ball club meeting now and again, or a statue for winter carnival, but not an ongoing commitment).  Many of my colleagues on the committee expressed the same.

I'm left wondering that if the departments had sent a random sample of students, or those who they might have considered "second tier", perhaps more of us would have recognized ourselves in these students.  Maybe these students were always on college campuses, and I didn't really run into them.  I don't know.  But I do think that college is a time for exploration, for figuring out what you want to do for a career.  You don't need to have all of the answers, going in, and you certainly don't need to feel constrained by the choices that you make. I advise professionals to regularly re-evaluate what they are doing.  The same definitely goes for students. My advice to them would be: when in doubt, broaden your horizons.  Take "different" classes, outside of your requirements.  If cost is a factor, take something at a community college in the summer.  You might find something that really engages you (and, you might learn something too).  Take time to relax.  Your brain really does do a better job of retaining information when you have some time to absorb things, some time when you're simply relaxing.  I also think that we, in industry, need to ensure that we're not leading these kids down a path that we didn't intend.  We need to talk to people at universities to make sure that they know that when we say "outside involvement", we don't mean a boatload of activities that crush the spirit of the students under their weight.