5 tips for families heading off to college

5Tips_OffToCollege_CroppedfromHaikuDeckThe placement tests are done. There are no more schools to research. The financial aid system has been conquered – at least until next year. For families of new college students, what remains this time of  year are the goodbyes and the hopes that these new students will flourish once out of the nest.

Part of the promise that lives within us during those first days “off to college” is the hope that this college experience will be transformative and deeply engaging for this special student, and that it will all lead to a bright future in exactly four years… not five, or six, or more!

So what role can a parent, grandparent, or other loving supporter play in the life of the new college student? Now that the day-to-day parenting is shifting, how can you best support this young person as they stretch their wings and find their place in the world?

Here are five favorite tips I have collected from my decade or so experience working with college students:

  1. Push them to problem solve challenges on their own.

From laundry to roommate issues to more serious troubles, ask yourself if this is a moment to step back and invite your student to come up with some creative ways to tackle the task solo?

Why is this so important? The resilience that comes from problem-solving on their own can build confidence and make your student more career-ready.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the ability to make decisions and solve problems is the second most important skill or quality employers said they are seeking when surveyed for NACE in 2014. Other high-scoring skills are related: the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work. The ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization, and the ability to obtain and process information.

Turns out that conflict with a faculty member may be just the ticket when it comes to giving your student a chance to stretch their problem-solving muscles in a safe way.

  1. Help them thrive in the classroom.

Time and time again I hear from employers that good grades alone are not enough to make a student competitive for a job. Yet grades do matter – and more important – learning matters. Make sure you and your student are aware of all the student support services, tutoring, academic skills programs, and advising services available at your institution.

  1. Ask them big questions.

What will you major in? Have you decided what kind of job you want after graduation? These well-meaning questions invoke panic and anxiety in many students, and while they typically come from grown-ups who just want to express interest in the student, they can reinforce pressures students already feel to find “the one perfect major” or “the one perfect career” that will lead to happiness and acceptance.

My invitation to you is this: Ask bigger questions of your student. Ask them which activities have they been involved with where it seems time stands still? What kinds of problems occupy their imagination? What gifts or talents do they believe they can most contribute to the world? What classes, subjects, or concepts bring them the most joy?

Rather than limiting the conversation to majors and careers, these bigger questions help us uncover the threads woven through your student’s heart and mind, providing a jumping off point for helping both you and your student imagine greater possibilities for the future.

  1. Encourage them to build and layer experiences.

As I mentioned previously, grades are not enough. Experience matters. Encourage your student to get involved on campus, in student organizations or student government, in part-time jobs and internships, in undergraduate research experiences and service-learning, in travel and study abroad. The list goes on. As students build and layer these experiences they benefit in two ways: They walk away with greater clarity about who they are and what their career goals may be, and they build a compelling resume with ample experiences to highlight in interviews and more.

  1. Help them build financial literacy.

It may feel taboo to some of us, but many students are comfortable saying they want a good paying job after graduation. The trouble is, few of them know what that means.

Is $50,000 a good starting salary for them? It all depends on their financial literacy and ability to develop a budget for themselves. For some students, $50,000 could be a terrific salary. For others who will leave school with a mortgage-sized student loan balance, have others to support, or who aren’t savvy with money, that kind of salary may not translate to the same financial freedom.

In my experience, very few students say they have been properly taught about budgeting, personal finance, or other money matters before or during college. This is unfortunate, as financial literacy has such a powerful effect on a student’s livelihood and wellbeing after graduation.


As so many of us can attest, simply crossing the stage at commencement does not guarantee a great college experience – or that your student will flourish after graduation. The college years can be a difficult (and expensive!) time for students and families alike. Fortunately, parents and other supportive people can play a key role in helping students make the most of those college years so that they emerge prepared, resilient, and ready to find wellbeing in life and work when that day arrives.



Envisioning possibilities is hard


‘No, no, Tess – go read “What Color Is Your Parachute!” Watch some TED Talks about finding your passion! Go take a class that you’ve always wanted to take!

Great advice… But inside my head – I was paralyzed. Getting your brain to really, really open up to all the possibilities – it’s so much harder than I ever imagined.”

-from Tess Vigeland‘s 2013 World Domination Summit talk, “What the Hell Are You Doing?!”, here in print or audio.

This afternoon I found Tess Vigeland’s familiar voice coming through my speakers while I was working on some planning tasks. Here was a professional with public radio superpowers, and she was talking about her own struggle making sense of her decision to leave Marketplace. Incredible.

Too often I think we assume there are two camps of people – those who have it together and are on a path, and those who are lost. In reality I think most of us are somewhere in between. We are broken, afraid, and struggling to find signs to reassure us that we will be okay. Career transitions are painful, even when they are fruitful. They leave their marks on us, challenging our confidence and assumptions we have about who we are and the world we live within.

When we are looking for work or trying to decide if we should make a change our dear family and friends who love us will just encourage us to open up and dream, as if we haven’t tried to do this. Yet when we are stressed by job changes and questioning whether we will be okay, it is very difficult for the mind to open up to creatively envisioning a multitude of possibilities for us.

While it is hard to dream in times of distress, stretching yourself to stay open and think big is essential for finding our way to what is next for us.

Next time you find yourself in that place, consider these three thoughts:

1. Know that you alone are enough. You are perfect and you and the gifts you bring are very much needed in the world.

2. Take heart in knowing you are not alone. Even Tess Vigeland feels overwhelmed by these major transitions!

3. Apply equal parts reflection, rest, and forward progress. When we are in the midst of chaos it can be tempting to push harder to work towards the certainty that we crave and yet these transitions require space and time to breathe in new life, energy and possibility.

Give yourself space to notice the uncomfortable or distressing feelings you are experiencing and try to decipher any meaning or lessons therein (I know, that sounds terribly naive, but try). And then rest.

Rest your anxious mind and heart. Give  your search a break. Live into the spaciousness of this moment and find balance between the reflection, rest, and forward progress. My hope for you is that in doing this you will be gentle towards yourself when you are feeling tender, and you will give your own inner truth a chance to be heard and to influence your path forward in a way that is both unexpected and glorious… maybe not right away… but maybe someday, and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Recognizing “enough” in my life and work

Earlier this week I found myself in a nasty mood. My whole disposition to the world was one of irritation and bother. I was drained, unhappy, and frustrated by all kinds of small things that should have never even registered as irritants. I think many of us have days or weeks like this and like most things, they pass. What finally shifted things for me was going outside to sit in my comfortable Adirondack chair and read a book for a bit.

I should have sent myself to an out-of-doors timeout much earlier that day. It was clear I was burned out, tired, fatigued, and needed to rest and process all the chaotic thoughts and feelings stomping through my head. Yet I felt like I could not sit still and rest. There was one more load of laundry to be done, one more hour to spend business planning, one more visit to Facebook that needed to be made. None of it urgent and most of it not really even important to me in the grand scheme of things.

So when I found myself settling in under my oak tree to read my book I had to laugh at my selection: Wayne Muller‘s “A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough,” which originally crossed my path through a church book club that I was too busy to ultimately attend. I am not joking.

Wayne Muller's book, "A life of being, having, and doing enough" from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Life-Being-Having-Doing-Enough/dp/0307591395

Wayne Muller’s book, “A life of being, having, and doing enough” from Amazon.

While I am not all the way through the book, it was surprising how much of it resonated with how I was struggling that day. It is as if Muller used my experience that day to illustrate his argument perfectly!

I kept coming back to this passage again and again:

“In spite of any compelling physical or spiritual benefits, we fear we have no authentic, trustworthy permission to stop. If we do stop to rest without some very good reason or some verifiable catastrophe, we feel guilty, we worry about getting in trouble, we feel we are just lazy, not carrying our weight, not a team player, or will be left behind. If we just put our nose to the grindstone, give it our all, do our best, give 110 percent, really put our mind to it, never give up, and work more efficiently, then we can, and should, be able to get absolutely everything on our desk, on our to-do list, on our calendars, finished, on deadline, without any mistakes, perfectly, every time.

Then we can rest.

But this ridiculously impossible moment never arrives and we cannot take that first step back. So we keep going. And going. Without permission from culture, workplace, community, or even our own inner, grinding work ethic, how can we know it is time to stop — for now, for today — and know that what we have done, and who we have been, is absolutely enough? It is time to put it down, let it be, go home, and call it a day” (p. 6).


This blog is all about finding, claiming, and living out one’s purpose in life and work. So you might expect me to be an expert in this area, but in truth, I am like so many other writers before me: I write to understand, rather than to tell.

Reading the words from that passage prompted all kinds of questions to pop up at me from the page:

  • Why do I feel that unless I am physically weary or mentally empty I have not done enough?
  • Why do I see each day as a struggle to prove my worthiness through productivity?
  • While I may believe it intellectually, why do I struggle in practice to accept that I am enough just as I am, even without being perfectly productive?
  • Who’s permission am I seeking to be “done enough” to rest?
  • How can I better tune into the cues in my life that I’ve had enough, been enough, and contributed enough that day or week or season?
  • Why is it such a struggle for me to practice self-compassion to myself by recognizing when I have found “enough” in life or work?
  • And perhaps the scariest question of all: If I did finally feel I had done “enough” for a day – What on earth would I do with myself????

Like me, I’m sure reading over the passage I quoted above sparked all kinds of questions and concerns in you. What resonates with where you are struggling? In what ways are you proud to stand in your own truth and know when you have had enough? What strategies or tools do you rely on to recognize when you have found “enough” in your life or work each day? I welcome your wisdom!

Why hating work is problematic

In their recent New York Times article, Why You Hate Work, Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath shared recent research findings that provide ample evidence for what we intuitively know: We hate our jobs.

Turns out, those of us in the Unite States are slightly better off than many of our global peers. According to the article, “just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of people who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent.”

The article focused on core needs that must be met for us to feel that sense of engagement so many of us are lacking (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual). However, I couldn’t stop wondering: What does our global community lose when only 13 percent of us are feeling connected at work?

Engagement, as defined in the article, is “involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy” and when we experience engagement in our work, not only is individual well-being improved, but typically organizations enjoy better results – from business performance to reduced costs due to decreased errors and injuries, among many other factors.

From a sustainability perspective – it is a win-win. Do right for people, and they will have more to give to your cause. If we want to sustain our ability to operate our business, live lives well and with the capacity to raise and care for new generations of problem-solvers and thought-leaders, then hating work is hugely problematic.

Fortunately, the keys to success, are relatively simple: 

Renew – find ways to support a culture where employees take breaks to restore and renew. Do this right, and the authors suggest we could see nearly 100 percent of people feel inclined to stay with their company – and – employees may enjoy twice the sense of health and well-being.

Value – encourage supervisors to actually care for their employees – or at least do enough so that employees feel cared for.

Focus – create work environments where people can actually focus on what they do best, without interruption. In the age of technology we live in, this may be easier said than done.

Purpose – support individuals in finding positions where they are able to derive some sense of meaning and purpose from what they do.

As a career development professional, of course I am keenly drawn to anything having to do with helping individuals from all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and education levels find work that is fulfilling and helps them feel a sense of integration in their life – but the beauty of the authors’ article is that the other steps are fairly simple. Perhaps difficult to enact, but in reality, they are relatively simple and cost neutral changes that can be made in most organizations.

It’s a shame that more of us are not outraged about the epidemic of missed opportunity that we all suffer from when only 13 percent of employees globally feel that sense of connection between life and work. This epidemic is not only crucial to personal vitality, but it is also vital to the sustainability and success of enterprises across the globe.

Schwartz, T. & Porath, C. (May 30, 2014). Why you hate work. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/opinion/sunday/why-you-hate-work.html?_r=0 



Finding change at the heart of it all

People say the only constant is change. In my case, change is the constant thread through which I view the world. So you can imagine how excited I was to find change at the heart of our discussions about cultural and linguistic competence today.QuoteonChange-TawaraGoode_June2014

Today’s lesson in change came from Tawara Goode, who is the director of the National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University.

The discussion centered on ways we can help further the cultural competence of higher education institutions and create more equitable institutions for students, staff, faculty and the broader community. With my love of all things change, I’m not sure why I hadn’t previously thought of change being at the heart of this work. Of course!

In order to embrace new ways of working and being, we need to first let go of old trappings before we can come to terms with this new and uncertain future. Wrapped up in this letting go period can be deep fear and insecurity. This is certainly true in the context of social justice work.

Ask why efforts around diversity and inclusion struggle so mightily? As Goode pointed out today – the struggle is embedded within our national challenge to engage in meaningful dialogue about difference. That struggle remains a growing edge for so many individuals and institutions alike. But at the heart of it all is the struggle for creating systemic change.

We know from business contexts that close to 80 percent of change efforts fail. My guess would be that efforts to assess and strengthen cultural competence face similarly bleak statistics.

Despite it all today I walked away feeling more hopeful and energized than ever. The work is difficult, yes But I feel heartened by finally seeing the change implications that are embedded within efforts to improve cultural competence on campus. This new perspective on issues of social justice work has me examining the ways I can continue to contribute to moving this shared work forward and the possibilities and tools that may be good support for the journey.

Today, as a result of this training, I am grateful for moving from feelings of overwhelm to empowerment.







Discovering the purpose that makes you come alive

First, it’s important to accept that there is no right answer or cure-all when it comes to finding meaningful work. Everyone is different and our purpose is constantly evolving as we meet new people, learn new things, and travel to new places. The millennials profiled in my book have done everything from register thousands of first-time voters, fight for immigrant rights, leave a nonprofit for a tech company, and leave a tech company for a nonprofit. Any kind of work can be meaningful: the challenge is discovering what purpose makes you come alive.

Based on my interviews, I discovered that meaningful work allows you to 1) share your gifts, 2) make an impact in the lives of others, and 3) live your desired quality of life. Getting these three components to align is the goal, but it’s certainly not easy.

– Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-life Breakthrough, as quoted in this Fast Company article

Fake it until you become it.

Recently I asked the students in my career exploration class to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk video as a “reading” for class. It was easy to assign because it is so relevant to helping them both academically and professionally.

Amy’s research focuses on the ways in which body language and physical poses shape our experiences, specifically looking at how physical poses impact testosterone and cortisol levels… which in turn, significantly shape success.

In her talk, Amy encourages people to “fake it until you make it” because doing two-minutes of “power poses” – like standing with hands on hips or standing with arms up as if crossing a finish line – will increase testosterone and decrease cortisol levels, which are key to performance and success. Then she goes on to say, it isn’t just faking it until you make it, we really ought to fake it until we become it.

We are actually changed as a result of those experiences.

Reading the reflections my students wrote in their journals helped me see just how applicable Amy’s research really is to daily life. Sure, doing the “power poses” could be helpful preparing for job interviews… that makes sense.

I did not expect to hear students describe the ways this video helped them reflect on their body language in various contexts of their lives. For example, a couple of students observed that they demonstrate low-power poses in class, and they questioned why this was and dedicated themselves to trying to show up more confidently in class. Incredible!

From help with job interview prep to addressing bullying in schools to instilling confidence in students as they go off to college this research can help us all live to the fullest of our potential and navigate challenges that we encounter along the way. Best of all? It is free! FREE! Doing a “power pose” for 2 minutes before a big event or to start the day, costs nothing and can yield significant effects.

As Amy Cuddy says in her talk, “I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”

Battling $1 trillion in student loan debt

Which is more frightening? Considering  the individuals who collectively struggle under the burden of $1 trillion in student loan debt in our country or thinking about the ways this dynamic is driving the chasm between the rich and poor ever-wider? Last week the Associated Press reported that our collective student loan debt has reached the $1 trillion milestone  for the first time ever. Exceeding all other forms of personal debt. StudentLoanDebtCapGown

As someone who works in higher education and talks with students about their professional futures each day this is terrifying and it should be for you too. Sure, social justice concerns abound in this situation but even the most privileged should be scared.

We all possess significant gifts that we are meant to contribute to make our world as vibrant, enriching, and sustaining as possible for us all. When there are individuals who look at the simple mathematical facts about whether college is attainable to them and see that it is a guaranteed net loss – what will it mean for society if these folks stay away? When students increasingly choose their majors and career paths not solely based on their interests, gifts, and financial opportunities — when the finances dominate the decision — what will it mean for our teachers? For our social workers? For folks in law enforcement?

From my vantage point, sitting across the table from students who are wrestling with all these dynamics daily, this IS a national crisis and one that needs the focused and thoughtful attention of policy makers, government leaders, community groups, and colleges and universities and the students they serve.


Image source: http://www.veooz.com/news/VH1nIZt.html  

Vulnerability in (even) considering the question

It boggles my mind how hard it is for us to pause and objectively assess ourselves. I am certainly guilty of this.

It seems many of us are more comfortable considering the ways family or society expects us to be than really deeply considering our own identities, hopes and dreams. Peeling back the layers of outside expectations creates a vulnerability in realizing we are not entirely sure what rests in our core. Who am I, really? What do I really want? How can I be sure??


Until this spring I never appreciated how strange I am for spending so much of my energy living these questions (I devote an insane amount of my mental energy lingering here!). Teaching an undergraduate career exploration class this semester only solidified my belief that while these concepts are difficult to engage with fully, they are absolutely essential to personal and professional success… and more importantly, happiness. And this takes hard work. Lesson learned: Thinking about who we are, who we want to be, and the life we want to live is harder than I realized.

In my class I had the students develop a presentation to explain their personal definition of “meaningful work”. I asked them to explore the forces and people that have influenced how they think about meaningful work and share their perspectives with the class. While I expected it would take them some serious reflection time, I was surprised when many of them confessed that they had never really considered what meaningful work was, or could be. Many of my students are first-generation college students who have been fiercely dedicated to their goal of just getting to college. This has required their complete attention. But this simple truth only fuels my fire to nurture those sparks that lie within them.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to deeply consider one’s identity and life aspirations. So few of us have a choice about how we spend our days. This is part of what drives me to support all students, but especially those who are lost, as they engage in questions of what their personal and professional purpose might be. My drive to support them in mindfully finding a fruitful way forward is grounded not only my desire to help this one student, but also in my hope that this student can maximize their privilege to unleash their greatest gifts to meet the deepest needs of our world. What a richer world it would be if more people had the privilege of intentionally choosing the work they will take up in their lifetime.

For today I do not have answers about how to push for more focused consideration of these deep career questions, but I take away a need to temper my drive and better respect the vulnerability, space, time, and natural rhythm that all must come together for glimpses of an individual’s deepest passions to shimmer though the noise and distraction of daily life. Praying for the gift of patient persistence to (carefully, mindfully, respectfully, and responsibly) push for more…


Image source: http://delvespot.com/2013/01/why-and-how-im-being-more-vulnerable/