Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here
As I stood in front of the senior AP English Literature class, I asked them if their Thanksgiving Break was relaxing. Some kids rolled their eyes. Some kids continued to ignore me, but some kids opened up. I told them about this article I was writing and the entire class perked up. I asked a few specific questions that I thought were important. I quickly learned kids have a lot to say about how extended family really doesn’t understand their situation. Everyone spoke at once as I scribbled down notes.
I inquired specifically about the aunts and uncles that had kids who were also going to college? “They are the worst! They think they know everything!” I can see why they would think that. The cousins left commiserating.
Navigating High School
The path our seniors take to get to this place is tumultuous. (How is that for a nice ACT vocabulary word?)
Before you ask a senior about what his plans are for college, I’d like to tell you a little bit about what actually happens in their world to get to a place of high school graduation.
In order to do this, we need to back way up to eighth grade. What does eighth grade have to do with graduation? Many kids and parents have a choice to make about public or private high school. Private college prep schools are making it more and more affordable to attend, and the price tag comes with a promise of better ACT scores, which leads to more money from colleges.
For instance, Baldwin Wallace University, an amazing school just outside of Cleveland, awards $17,000 per year for all four years if your GPA is above 3.4 and a 28 on the ACT. On top of that, they have many other scholarships. BW is an affordable choice even for out-of-state students.
With a high school chosen, the next step is taking those college prep class, the honors classes or the AP classes. Oh wait, now the kid needs to get all A’s! Let me just interject here — college prep classes are not always the most interesting classes, but kids need to take them because the teachers are constantly teaching to the ACT/SAT test.
Freshman year can be a deal-breaker. If the middle school didn’t prepare the kids for the rigors of high school… the kid tanks his first year and spends the rest of the next two years digging himself out of GPA grave. Why two years? Because only the first two years count when they begin applying to colleges the November of the senior year. Oh wait, I forgot to mention that not all classes count towards the GPA on the official transcript. The volume of information that I didn’t know surprised me, and I’m not alone. I know many parents, like me, caught off guard.
Sports and Other Extracurriculars
Kids in sports generally do better in school. A quick scan of the research confirms this, but nearly all of the research questions if the chicken came before the egg. Is it the athlete themselves or the benefits from participating? Further research shows that the more involved kids are in groups, clubs, sports, music, or art, the better grades they get. Encouraging them to be involved is a good thing.
Some kids have a dream of playing D1 college sports — full-ride. What’s D1? Big schools. (I had a million questions about college sports). If D1 is the plan then the kids spend a tremendous amount of time in travel sports and camps getting in front of those D1 coaches. The other option is to play for a D2 or D3 team — like Baldwin Wallace.
If the dream of going to play for the University of Michigan goes sideways, it can be devastating. Kids developmentally cannot comprehend the future (many adults have issues with this, too). Most can’t plan beyond the next version/update of FIFA. They believe where they are in this moment is where they will always be; it doesn’t make sense to those of us who have more fully developed minds. We understand that a pimple won’t last a lifetime, but for a teenager, the lifetime of a pimple is their lifetime!
Layer on the Social Stuff
Last spring a friend called me up in tears. She is the mom of a beautiful young woman — who wasn’t asked to the prom. “Oh, your daughter isn’t going to the prom?” are the words she said through mini-sobs in the same mocking tone as she explained to me how a group of moms made her feel awful and her daughter feel worthless. Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve had this conversation with my friends.
It happens too when kids are passed up for varsity when they are clearly the better player, don’t get the lead in the play, are third chair flute. Some of these events are necessary cause and effect situations based on several factors: the truth that you end up where you belong, school politics, and just plain spite from the adults. Whatever the cause, it adds up to the stress involved and the expectations kids put upon themselves (not to mention the expectations parents have).
Then, of course, social media. Instagram posts where kids need to prove three things: They look hot, they look like they are having more fun than their peers, or who they are seen with. Or the “finsta” accounts — the fake Instagrams opening a entirely different set of social norms. Instagram does for boobs what Pinterest does for food — makes everything perfect and overrated. The pressure is real.
As a parent of three teenagers and one tween, Aunt Nee to 14 nieces and nephews (only one not thinking about college at the moment) and a substitute high school teacher, I want to offer some options on how to invite any senior or high school kid into a conversation.
Conversation Killers with Teens:
“What college are you going to?”
“What schools have you applied to?” (Usually followed by, “Wow only one?” or, “Wow that’s a lot.”)
“What schools have you visited?” (usually followed by, “Wow only one?” or, “Wow that’s a lot.”)
“What’s your major?” (This always sounds like a cheesy pickup line.)
“Did you take the ACT yet?” “What was your score?” (This is just rude.) “Are you going to take it again?” “Will you take the SAT?” “Why not?”
“How many times did you take the ACT?” (Usually followed by, “Wow only once?” or, “Wow, that’s a lot.”)
What AP classes did you take? (Usually followed by, “Wow, none?” or, “Wow, that’s a lot.”)
“Do you have a boyfriend yet?” (Usually followed by awkward silence or tons of questions about the said boyfriend.)
“Why do you have holes in your jeans?” Tthis was a big one!)
“Do you have a job?” (Usually followed by, “Will you work in college?”)
I asked a few of my high school classes what questions they would want to be asked, and these are the ideas they gave me and I wrote them in question form. I am grateful for their input on my research and articles.
Conversation Starters with Teens:
“Do you like Netflix or Hulu better?” “I watched ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘The OA’ — what are your favorites?”
“What’s your favorite sports team?”
“What is the last song you downloaded?” “Do you have Spotify?” “I can’t figure that out.”
“What was the favorite thing you did over summer/in the past few months?”
“What is your favorite app game to play?”
“How did your season end?” (If the kid is in sports — even if it ended poorly, it is a good opening question.)
“Have you read anything good lately?”
The ABC’s of Having a Conversation
Have you ever heard of the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross? It stars Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino in an all-star cast about a group of salesman who must perform or be fired. A foul-mouthed Alec Baldwin berates the salesmen by explaining the strategy of ABC — Always Be Closing. I’d like to take that acronym and invite you to adopt a new strategy when talking to high schoolers. Your ABC? Anything But College.
What kids want is to be recognized for who they are; they all agreed it is painful trying to have a “real” conversation with someone who doesn’t really know them. I get that. When I walk into a classroom I ask permission to make inquiries that are not about school. For this article, when I introduced my idea the students were more than forthcoming with information. My students were generally excited to have a voice through me, with many of the kids asking if I could send their parents a copy of the article.
Ask questions without being questioning; be genuine; if you don’t really care, don’t ask; check your ego’ be humble and understand that conversations have a natural lull that should be respected without being filled with adult drivel. Be gentle, loving, kind and respectful to our next generation.
Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.
More on Mental Health on Campus: