College should be the path to, not the end of a good life…

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“Baruch College student plunges to his death during finals week: The student’s body was found Monday on a fourth-floor landing at the school’s Lawrence and Eris Field Building … A 20-year-old Baruch College student jumped to his death Monday — the start of finals week, authorities said….” NY Daily News

I suspect that we don’t know all of the facts of this particular situation, and we may never know. However, what we do know is that some “uncounted” number of high school graduates each year, walk across a stage at graduation; and walk onto the next stage of a promising career; and then something goes terribly wrong. As a former principal I have heard a lot of stories from graduates that fortunately are not tragic, and yet they were problematic, i.e. the roommate, dormitory and/or college from hell. But these problems, as disturbing and disruptive as they may be, don’t come anywhere close to the many stories I read each year about incidents on college campuses that involve theft, violence and death. Imagine the understandable good feelings of parents and family members who are under the belief that the “battle is being won”, because of their child’s acceptance into a college or university. And then imagine the opposite feelings of sadness and despair when they receive notification that their child is dead or seriously injured due to a suicide attempt, assault by a room/dorm/school mate, or they are the victim of a mass campus shooting. A best kept quiet truth is that every year students arrive on a college campus somewhere in the US, and then are assaulted (sexual and otherwise); illegally and improperly “hazed” by a school sanctioned organization; and either fail or succeed at suicide. Society wonders why, because these young people are supposedly the “winners” in the career lottery of life. But the situation is much more complex and institutions should take this problem on in an operational and programmatic way; or be forced to do so by congress. First, lets talk about who is arriving each year on our college campuses. In most cases these are very young people (most 16-19) who have spent their entire lives in the protective nest of the family home. For most, going away to college is perhaps their first experience with “independent living”; unfortunately they arrive with a wide range of preparation for that experience based on the quality of a family and/or high school “transition training” education. This approach is too arbitrary and inconsistent; high schools should create a national “standard” for a “mini-course” titled: “Transitioning into college life”. This course could use case studies and vignettes that will allow “myths”, “misconceptions” and “misunderstandings” about college life be presented to students. This class could also serve as a “safe-space” that would allow these 12th graders to ask questions “they always wanted to ask, but were afraid to do so”. The colleges can require a parallel course on their end; that would of course talk about the campus activities, but would also serve to connect students with a “counseling cohort” assigned to an adult who will keep weekly one on one eyes and ears (talking) on the student. Professors must also be professionally trained to identify and report to counseling personnel, behaviors, writings and, comments that would suggest that the student is having feelings of isolation, is academically overwhelmed, and possibly emotionally depressed. I understand that one of the educational objectives of a college life is: “Transition to adult practices and responsibilities”; but a little scaffolding is needed here, and that transition should not be a gamble or a walk over a field loaded with emotional mines; psychological roadblocks that would cause the student to either hurt themselves or others. We sometimes forget how young these folks really are! And so, we need to expand (and in most cases introduce) serious counseling programs at our colleges and universities. “Orientation like” programs are good; but I would expand the concept of orientation to a: “healthy mental adjustment program” that can’t be done in a large group/classroom setting. A student should have an adult who will listen to their anxieties and concerns about the new life they are about to undertake. Again, they are in many different stages of “exiting out” of teenhood; the institution should serve as a positive guide to insure that the process and path taken is the most productive. Parents (I know, this sounds a lot like my middle school parents “speech” !) don’t abdicate your role; you should continue to check on your child; have an honest and supportive avenue of communication; while at the same time allow them to grow in independence. Often times, an “experienced mind” can ask the right questions; and the answers to those questions can save a lot of grief, and perhaps a life.

The HBCU’s have for so many years created and maintained a model of professors, staff and administrators being more than facilitators, instructors of subjects and content. It was so inspiring to spend a day recently on the campus of Miles College in Alabama and see the “parental” interaction of the faculty and staff with and on behalf of the students; including the president of the college! The antidote to student against student violence on campus; against students harming themselves and others, is that someone, and some ones are connected to that student in a sincere, caring and authentic way. Some may say (and they are probably correct); that the young person of color who is not on a college campus may in fact be in greater danger of self-inflicted or other acts of violence; but statistics is no consolation to a family who has lost a child; and it is definitely not a rational for society not giving the solving of this problem our best efforts. College should be an important and exciting step toward a positive, rewarding and productive adult life; but it should not be a step into the abyss of danger, destruction and despair.