Students in Crisis

In the few years that I have been teaching physics at college, I have never come across a greater number of distraught students than I have this semester, the Fall of 2011.  Of the seventy students I have taught or mentored, no less than fifteen have experienced a personal crisis at some point in the past four months - that translates to over 20%.

Though I am not a professor of sociology, I am well aware that this case study is in no way thorough.  An actual case study would involve a much larger group of students, pooling several class sections across many different educational institutions.  Also, my students did not fill out a survey.  I suppose the last weakness in my statistical assessment is that the situations that may constitute a crisis are defined subjectively here by me.

Placing these shortcomings aside, there is no denying that more than 20% of the students that I have encountered this semester have brought personal concerns to my attention that I deem to be severe for any adult to deal with, but particularly severe for a young adult between 17 and 20 years old (the typical age group of my students).  It is worth noting that there may be some students in my small sample group who experienced a crisis, but were not tallied in my count, as they did not decide to inform me of their problems.  So, the 20% figure is likely a low estimate.

Members of society who view collegiate students as unthoughtful, pot-smoking, lazy teenagers ought to revisit this unfair stereotype.  My sense is that for every student that is coasting through life with a sense of entitlement, there is at least one with his or her back against the wall.  Today's young adult student has bills, demanding jobs, and too often, family problems.  In my view, adults should consider a more empathetic view when framing college students.  Many of these eighteen-year-olds are not experiencing the prime of their lives.

So, what, in my opinion, constitutes a life in crisis for a young adult?  A few examples that come to mind are being diagnosed with a serious illness, being forced into the role of full-time caregiver for a family member, or losing one's home due to fire or flood.  Some students of mine were forced to take on many more work hours to help pay for home expenses, while others dealt with legal issues. 

When I think back to previous semesters, it seemed as though about one in ten students was contending with a major problem such that it was affecting their studies.  Let us say then, to be very conservative, that 5% of college students will experience a major crisis during any given semester (I would prefer to consult a real study for this, but I do not know that such a study has ever been carried out).  A semester is 4 months long, while a typical college degree is 36 months long (three years). 

If, for any given semester, a student has a 5% chance of encountering a crisis in his or her life, then the statistical likelihood of encountering at least one such situation at some point during one's three-year degree is about 37% (this is found using a simple probability calculation under the assumption that all students have an equal chance of finding themselves in a situation of crisis).

I was fortunate to be part of the 63% category as a young adult student.  Although I faced challenges during my academic years as a young adult, none were so grave that they interfered significantly with my studies.  The first time I had to contend with serious adult concerns I was already a serious adult.  Looking back now, I can appreciate how lucky I was.

How prepared is an eighteen-year-old to accompany a parent to their medical visits and manage their pharmaceutical prescriptions?  Many adolescents are forced to 'grow up fast' due to circumstances outside of their control, but the trauma attached to such events can be quite heavy.  In the short term, my students experiencing trying circumstances see their educational experience suffer and watch their marks drop.  The long term effects of trauma can stay with them beyond adolescence and well into adulthood.

Here is another question: How likely is a young adult with the weight of the world on his or her shoulders to seek therapy to help them through trying times?  I suspect it is not very likely, as time and money are both scarce commodities for most people in such instances.  But without therapy, many of these young adults will struggle to regain their personal balance, and are at an increased risk of suffering from a wide range of mental health issues.

While a college cannot solve all of the personal issues that its students are contending with, there must be, and almost always are, services available at the college where students can seek assistance (student services).  Teachers can help by pointing students towards such services, but also by being understanding, and as empathetic as possible.

I suppose the real question is, "If there are more students by percentage in dire straits with nowhere to turn than ever before, why is this so?"

The most obvious first place to turn for an answer might be the fact that both parents now work, so have less time to spend with their young children and young adults too.  Furthermore, "The picket fence American Dream" is difficult to attain even with two incomes, such that now, many young students need to help pay the bills at home.  Decades ago, the solution was simple: kids dropped out of school if money was tight.  Today, this is not a viable option for students, as it represents career suicide.

I suspect that another factor causing some young adults to be placed in crushing circumstances, is the fact that we now live in a much more individualistic society.  By that, I mean that decades ago, a struggling young adult whose parents were deceased or not in a position to help would receive assistance from somewhere else within their community.  Perhaps an uncle, aunt, or grandparent would come to the rescue.  A family friend might have opened their door, or maybe a religious community could have been of service.

One of the hardest parts of my job is watching young adults fall through the cracks.  We, as a society, need to be aware of how challenging the lives of many of our young adults truly are.  With adequate support, and some luck, those struggling adolescents will emerge through their tough challenges, and transition into adulthood with a limited amount of scarring.  My wish to such students is that in the future, their greatest stress will be brought upon by an upcoming mechanics final exam.


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