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.

 

Thinking beyond the major.

93% of employers say that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major.

Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities- Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) Employer-Educator Compact, April 2013.

Are we asking the wrong questions? (Part I)

s-LOST-largeFrequently I find myself sitting across the table from a college student who is anxious and eager to have me help them answer burning questions about major and career choice. The conversation is different depending on the student, but many of them have similar struggles finding their path:

  • What is the “right” major?
  • What jobs can you actually do with this major?
  • Would this major or that major be better?
  • What about a minor? Which will make it easier for me to get a job?
  • And the dreaded… My parents want me to do this, but I am not sure. What do YOU think?

At the heart of all of these questions is a longing to know: How will I decide? Will I be okay? 

I have great compassion for students struggling to find their place. I remember not long ago sitting in a career coach’s office with similar questions, although mine were maybe a little different. My struggle to find career satisfaction was less about not knowing what inspired me, and more about figuring out how I could get paid to do work that I enjoyed. In many ways I still struggle to feel like I am fully able to realize all my professional potential and interests through my day job. More on that another day.

Yet recently, I find myself pushing students and prompting them to consider whether they are really asking the right questions at all? Could it be that we aren’t even close to the target? 

The world of work has changed dramatically and traditional-aged “millenial” college students face an uncertain and thrilling new terrain. Regrettably many of their coping skills are not sufficient to help them weather the challenge. (For more on this see Brooke Donatone’s recent Slate article: Why Millenials Can’t Grow Up).

So what are we to do? Shouldn’t we push these students to ask tougher questions? The kinds of questions that will help them find their place, clarify their purpose, and contribute their greatest gifts in service of the world?

Of course we should.  

Frameworks for pushing students to consider bigger questions abound, yet one particular initiative has captured my attention this week. The Association of America’s Colleges and Universities (AACU) has launched an initiative called Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). What intrigues me about LEAP is that it brings together educators and employers, challenging both groups to consider what skills and qualities are most needed to meet the demands of our global community and economy in this time. Consistent with other surveys, LEAP suggests that the skills needed to thrive in this new landscape extend beyond narrow professional training.

By defining Learning Outcomes, High-Impact Practices, and Assessment strategies, the LEAP initiative outlines a framework that career coaches, academic institutions, families, employers and other concerned groups can use to challenge our nation’s young professionals to consider bigger questions about what meaningful work will mean to them.

Further, they highlight successful partnerships between colleges/universities and employers that demonstrate how mutual interests can be achieved through careful planning. One of the most interesting results of this effort found that “93% of employers say that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major” (Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities- Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) Employer-Educator Compact, April 2013).

If undecided and exploratory students (and working adults, for that matter) are struggling to figure out how to decide, wondering if they will be okay, trying to sort out who they are and who they wish to be… Is the question really, “Which major is right?” Absolutely not.

So what questions should we be asking? And where can we find the answers that students, families, and our communities truly need to thrive in this uncertain space? 

Stay tuned for a future blog post as the conversation continues in Part II. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

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