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Opinion

Adversity defeats today’s teens

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October 4, 2007

As we approach the sixth week of the semester, signs of fall are around us. Shorts and t-shirts have given way to jeans and sweatshirts. Leaves have begun their annual transition to glorious shades of red, yellow and orange. The Packers and Vikings have played their first game. And the X-factor is about to strike! For those unfamiliar with this tradition, let me enlighten you.

In my role as associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, I have had extensive experience with the X-factor. When I ask for an explanation from a suspended student who is appealing for reinstatement, I get the following story: “Everything was going well and then ‘X’ happened.” In most cases ‘X’ is relationship trouble, roommate trouble, illness/injury, family or personal problems, work issues or academic issues. Inevitably, regardless of how the sentence begins, it ends with, “and then I quit going to class.” Astonishingly, I am just as likely to hear this story from a student with an ACT of 30 as from one with an ACT of 15. Also, while I am more likely to hear this from a first year student, it is not uncommon for the words to be coming from a senior.

To understand the X-factor we must acknowledge first that college can be challenging, even for the most capable and confident student. Data from a 2004 American College Health Association survey of 47,000 college students provides an excellent illustration of the potential scope of the problem. Two widely reported findings of this study included the fact that 63 percent of the students “felt hopeless at times” and a frightening 94 percent indicated that at times they simply felt “overwhelmed.”

The second factor concerns the current cohort of traditional-age students entering college—a group that has earned monikers like “Millennium Generation,” “Echo Boomers” and the “iGeneration.” As a life-span developmental psychologist, I know the danger of labeling any diverse population. However, the social psychologist in me also recognizes that having an understanding of characteristics common within a group does have some utility.

For all the strengths of the iGeneration, this cohort is not known for their strength in coping with adversity. Of course the key question is, “why does this generation display such limited coping skills?” One hypothesis of particular interest to me is the concept of the “hovering” or “helicopter parent.” Back in the 1960s, when I was a child, a common reaction of a parent to a child who was struggling was “figure it out for yourself.” Many parents of iGenerationers react in a more altruistic manner and at a minimum advocate for their child and at a maximum just solve the problem. On the positive side, this style has led to many iGenerationers having less stressful childhoods. But many teens today simply have not had much experience in dealing with adversity. When confronted with a problem without familial/familiar assistance, their preferred coping style is to not know what to do and to ultimately end up doing nothing.

Given these tendencies, it came as no surprise that according to a 2007 study I and psychology major Danielle Gargaro conducted of 297 UWRF students concerning strategies when coping with their problems, 218 slightly or strongly agreed that they would seek advice from a friend, 169 slightly or strongly agreed that they would seek advice from a family member, 53 slightly or strongly agreed that they would seek advice from the internet, and an amazing 216 slightly or strongly agreed that, “When attempting to cope with my problems I would sleep.” Perhaps the most disappointing finding of this study was that only 17 agreed that “When attempting to cope with my problems I would typically see a counselor.”

One of the great strengths of a student-oriented campus like UWRF is that when the X-Factor strikes there is a great deal of assistance available to those willing to seek it out. For most academic issues the place to start is with the course instructor. It is remarkable what difference a brief conversation on study habits or course material can make. As a faculty member, I truly appreciate students who take the initiative, acknowledge that things were not going well and seek assistance. In most cases the instructor will welcome the contact. Assistance for all students is available through the Academic Success Center.

In the case of personal or mental health problems there are many supports in place. In the residence halls, start with your Residence Assistant. Students should also consider a conversation with your academic advisor. If the X-factor has begun to impact you to a significant degree, please consider seeing a member of the UWRF counseling staff.

In a perfect world no student would have to worry about what to do when the X-factor strikes, but this is not a perfect world. The best we can do is try to tackle the problem head-on and utilize the many support services on the UWRF campus.

Brad Caskey is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. A 1980 UWRF alumnus, Caskey has received numerous awards including UWRF Distinguished Teacher (1997), UWRF Advisor of the Year (2004), and the Regents Award for Teaching Excellence for the UW System (2005).