I see the change in some of my first-year college students as the semester progresses. The once energetic, curious, wide-eyed faces start to develop dark circles around their eyes. They come and tell me they’re staying up late, that they feel overwhelmed, under pressure, uninspired, alienated.
What kind of students are these? Contrary to what you may be quick to conclude, they are some of my best! And I’m lucky enough to have some fantastic students.
As the semesters have passed, I’ve started to notice a pattern among my first-year students. Those who seem happiest in college are often the “average” students (in terms of grades) in their classes. And the students who seem to be floundering emotionally are often some of the brightest in their classes. I can’t help but think this comes from the disjunction between the intellectual climate of the classrooms and the social demands of college life. After all, residence life is supposed to be about having fun, partying, breaking rules, staying up late. Colleges have come to be defined in the eyes of most young people not by their intellectual promise, but by the potential social experiences they offer.
I remember the same feelings of alienation that my students tell me about. I think back on when I was an undergraduate and I came to the United States (for the first time) to go to college. I went from living in Karachi, Pakistan to Delaware, Ohio—from a sprawling metropolis of more than 10 million people to a town so tiny at the time that I often couldn’t find it on maps!
But interestingly, my feelings of alienation didn’t have all that much to do with “culture shock.” At least not in the sense that one would expect. I was in a completely new culture, and I was shocked, but it was the culture of American colleges that I was shocked by, not the culture of Delaware, Ohio. Before coming to college I had imagined college life to be one where I would be engaged in intellectual conversations with my fellow students, where we would be excited to learn, where our intellectual lives would spill over into our dorm rooms. It’s hard, even for me, to imagine how I could have been so naïve about what “college life” was about! I know I was disappointed. Not in my classes, not in my professors; but in the culture of colleges outside the classroom. I know I wasn’t alone in this. I have since spent a significant amount of time in many different types of institution and I can see the same cultural demands at work: “partying,” “living it up," making these four years “the best four years of your life.”
That’s why I don’t think you need to be a foreign student (although it doesn’t help sometimes!) to feel alienated in college. You merely have to be a student who is serious about learning and naively thinks that learning was the main reason you came to college. There is very little space for students like that, outside of the classroom, where they feel like they fit in.
Luckily, things get better after the first year in college for most students. But not because of any change in the culture of college campuses. For a small percentage of students it’s because they’ve found peers who share similar (intellectual and academic) interests. For others, conforming to the norms and expectations of college life (to various degrees) relieves them of the anxiety and stress that is brought about by going against group norms. It reminds me of the famous Asch experiments in group behavior and conformity. More recent follow-up studies of brain activity and brain scanning reveal that resistance to group norms creates an emotional burden on people. I think that’s the emotional burden that I see in some of my best students early on in their college careers. They are defying group norms and the expectations of most of their peers simply by being serious students.
We hear a lot of talk about preparing our future generations for college. But what’s missing from the conversation is a frank discussion of what campus life demands of its residents and how these are often contradictory to the intellectual demands of the classroom. Until we have that discussion, we’ll continue to see some of our best students flounder, and never quite know the potential of many others.
Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. She can be reached at email@example.com.