The “Wrong” Student Experience

As the May 1 National Candidates’ Reply Date was upon us yesterday (it happens at the same time every year, folks), I had a lot of conversations over the course of the last few weeks with my current seniors about their final school choices. They’re all (thankfully!) decided and deposited on their selected schools after going through the ritual of narrowing the field to their top two schools, then weighing the pros and cons of each in preparation for telling one “thank you but no thank you” and sending the obligatory housing and tuition deposit to the other. I’ve had very similar conversations with countless other students over the course of the last ten years and they’ve all been variations on a typically recurring theme.

The over-arching theme of the conversations I had this year was the student experience.

What type of student experience are you talking about, Randi? you ask. Academic? Athletic? Social? All three?

Well… Not exactly.

I’ve written previously about how the colleges and universities you become acquainted with during the search process will usually telegraph to you exactly what your student experience will be like should you choose to enroll there; that is, the way they treat you and the experiences you have as a prospective student will correlate quite accurately to the sort of service you’ll receive and experience you’ll have during your years of attendance. And while that’s still true (and worth discussing with your parents if you’re a senior who’s still in the throes of the dreaded decision-making process today!), this year, I find that I discussed an altogether different experience with my students.

We talked about the experience a student has at college when everything goes wrong.

Now before you think I’m being overly pessimistic, readers, hear me out: “Wrong” can take any number of forms when you’re an undergraduate. “Wrong” can be things that happen at home while you’re away at school; “wrong” can be the day you suddenly discover that the major you’ve been dreaming about since the third grade isn’t what you want to do after all; “wrong” can even be the time your beloved first-choice college makes a mistake that affects you and the rest of the student body in a negative way. (Colleges are, after all, run by humans and humans – by nature – are fallible.)

In short, the simple fact of life in general is that very often things just go wrong – and therefore, at some point during your undergraduate years, the experience that you’ve planned so carefully for – and that we’ve spent so long discussing in our lead up to May 1 and beyond – is going to be rough. It’s going to challenge you in ways you don’t expect; it’s going to make you angry and sad and depressed. In other words, it’s going to go wrong. It’s going to go wrong if you’re at the absolute perfect school for you; it’s going to go wrong if you’re at the wrong school and wind up transferring later. It’s going to go wrong simply because it’s statistically impossible for things to go right one hundred percent of the time. (I may have majored in English as an undergraduate, but trust me on that math.)

The difference is, if you’re at the right school, you’ll overcome the wrong and soon find yourself right again.

And how do my students and I ascertain if they’ll be at the right school when things go wrong? If they’ll be in the place and surrounded by the community that will support them?

We examine the evidence.

We (and to be clear, “we” in this case is really the students themselves – I’m just the sounding board with whom they discuss these interactions) read student newspapers written by current students; we read alumni newsletters to find out how graduates feel about their experiences once they’re finished. We talk as often as possible with students who are part of the programs they hope to become part of, with coaches, with faculty members. This communication is essential during the vetting process for a potential school because these are the very same people who will form my students’ support system during their undergraduate years. These are the people who will listen to their troubles and suggest solutions; these are the people who will likewise influence the ultimate outcomes.

These people are the experience my students will have when everything goes wrong.

So now that you’ve made your decision, seniors, while I’m not asking you to question your choice or doubt it in any way, ask yourself about the experience you’re going to have over the next four (or more) years of college. When it goes right and when it goes wrong, how will you navigate it? And who will be by your side along the way?

(Just starting the college search? Need someone to assist with that experience? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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