Helping First-Year Students Help Themselves

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 17, 2011

First-year college students have always arrived on campus full of anxieties: Will I be able to keep up academically? Will I get along with my roommates? Will it be fun? Recently, however, an increasing number feel unable to cope with the emotional demands of college life, and transitional worries have morphed into longer-term fears: Why isn't life falling into place for me?

According to a yearly national survey of more than 200,000 first-year students conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, college freshmen are increasingly "overwhelmed," rating their emotional health at the lowest levels in the 25 years the question has been asked. Such is the latest problem dropped at the offices of higher-education administrators and professors nationwide: Young adults raised with a single-minded focus on gaining admission to college now need help translating that focus into ways to thrive on campus and beyond.

As a college professor specializing in the social psychology of behavioral change, I began noticing the trend several years ago, when many of my students—first at the University of Iowa, then at the University of Pittsburgh­—came to me complaining that they felt baited-and-switched. Trained to excel at specific tests and often bolstered by oversupportive parents, they didn't understand why the job offers weren't forthcoming, why their relationships weren't working, why everything seemed so much harder than they'd expected. I call this cohort "Generation WTF" because of that crass, often-heard exclamation of frustration.

Much has been written about why so many students are in such a predicament. Perhaps it was a generation of helicopter parents. Maybe it was a cultural shift toward, and acceptance of, the idea of "emerging adulthood," which extends youth well beyond the teenage years. Other research points to growing narcissism and declining empathy among college students­—in essence condemning a generation's poor moral character. Certainly the bad economy is exacerbating stress levels for both young adults and their parents.

But to pin all students' stress on loans and a challenging job market misses the larger point: Many young adults weren't taught the basic life skills and coping mechanisms for challenging times. While a rising economic tide may have allowed such students to succeed without strong personal-management strategies, college administrators and professors now must do more than describe the water in which many of our students are drowning. Life rafts of behavioral change, awareness of self-presentation, and social graces are necessary to get students from that stressed-out "what the #%$&?" feeling to one of control—over both their day-to-day behavior and their future choices.

The consequences for students who lack those skills have become increasingly clear both on campus and after graduation. At Pitt, where I teach, and at other institutions, student-life administrators have noticed a marked decrease in resiliency, particularly among first-year students. That leads to an increase in everything from roommate disagreements to emotional imbalance and crisis. After graduation, employers complain that a lack of coping mechanisms makes for less proficient workers: According to a 2006 report by the Conference Board, a business-research group, three-quarters of surveyed employers said incoming new graduates were deficient in "soft" skills like communication and decision making.

Parents and high-school educators certainly have a role to play, but college administrators and professors cannot abdicate their role as an influential socialization force to guide young adults toward better self-management.

After working closely with Generation WTF, I know that it comprises well-meaning young people who genuinely want to improve. Such students are eager to make personal improvements when given the tools to do so and the leeway to customize advice to suit their individual needs. Gallup polling shows that previous generations didn't turn to self-improvement until their 40s. But Generation WTF is the product of a therapeutic culture adept at talking about emotional health at a younger age, ready to embrace ideas of self-help with ease.

I have harnessed this comfort with inward assessment in an introductory sociology course I teach, yielding major improvement in students' well-being. For many students it is the first time that anyone has asked them to explain why they want to achieve a particular goal, and what specific steps they are taking to get there.

Dennis, a first-year student in one of my sociology classes, wrote in a paper: "Motivation for me used to be found in others, never in myself. I always needed to be yelled at or pushed to do something." After completing a simple worksheet on goal-setting—and embracing the opportunity to set and execute any goal he wanted—he decided to make his part-time job a more meaningful experience: "When I set a goal to create a team at work, to get everyone involved and share their opinions, I sort of became a leader. And that sparked more motivation to try to do a good job."

The way to combat the decline in emotional health among first-year students is to offer them opportunities to build such self-efficacy from the start. For example, giving them worksheets to track how they spend their time and money is an empowering exercise. Much academic stress can be eliminated when students see exactly how much time they waste online and watching TV, or how much money they could save by buying fewer snacks on the run.

Teaching interpersonal skills of self-presentation is also essential, as it makes students' interactions with roommates, professors, and professional colleagues flow more smoothly. By following suggestions popularized by Dale Carnegie during the Great Depression—to think in terms of the interests of others, smile, and express honest and sincere appreciation—my Generation WTF students report being happily stunned by more-successful interviews, better relationships with family members, and more-meaningful interactions with friends.

Yes, times are tough, and that's part of the stress felt by first-year students. But that must not encourage parents to swoop in and fix their offspring's problems, or educators to lament the decline in moral character of today's young people. I tell students that the goal of my course is to help them rebrand that WTF of frustration into one of empowerment for a wise, tenacious, and fearless future.

While much of my advice seems revolutionary to them, adults from previous generations know that I'm simply teaching a return to core values of self-control, honesty, thrift, and perseverance­—the basic skills that will allow those in "emerging adulthood" to get on with life.

Christine B. Whelan is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Generation WTF: From "What the #%$&?" to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You (Templeton Press, 2011).