Holiday Blues for Students

Your students may be suffering more than you know.

Thanksgiving is upon us, and Channukah and Christmas are around the corner. This time is usually a time of rest for students. However, some are facing going home with dread.

Today one of those students told me how they thought about jumping off of the top of a parking garage. As the fall semester comes to a close many students, like this one, are anxious about going home and telling their families that they are failing classes. Rather than face the disappointment, ridicule, or wrath of family and friends, some students would rather end their lives.

This is the time when families start asking students about their classes and school life. What many families don’t realize is that the how, when, and why these questions are asked impact their student psychologically.

Consider asking your student how they are doing in private rather than at the family dinner table. When these questions are asked in front of others it can feel as though the student is on display rather than truly being cared for. What’s worse is if the student isn’t performing well then they don’t have any room to tell the whole truth without facing the embarrassment of failing in front of family and friends.

Pull your student aside well before the hullabaloo of the holidays so that you can have an honest one-on-one with them. If the student is in their first year then do not necessarily panic if their grades are not where you think they should be. Nearly everyone has an adjustment period. Listening to your student talk through what they are going through, both negative and positive, can help them cope with their challenges, and follow through with the last few weeks of the semester to be as successful as they can be.

Students’ mental health can be especially fragile around the holidays as they are met with the hopes and expectations of loved ones. How loved ones respond can determine if students are able to cope well or feel as though they have no way out.

Finally, if a student is suicidal there are people that can help. Most schools have a helpline students can call 24 hours a day. Counseling staffpersons are not off during break, and at least one person will be in the office to answer questions about how to get help for your student even at home. In addition, if you, or anyone else needs help immediately, then please call the National Suicide Hotline at 800.273.8255.


Hiding from the Economy With Loans

Dear Student:

I know that the American employment landscape is quite frightening and has been for a while. Friends of mine are moving home to regroup and figure out how to survive while looking for work, or even as full time employees! It is tough for everyone and I want to fully acknowledge that. However, despite how safe school feels you have to go ahead and get out there.

I’m quite saddened and, quite frankly, startled to see young people staying in school unnecessarily to avoid facing the economy. Most colleges only require 120 credits to graduate, but I am seeing students with 150 and more. Some of these students say they are adding a second major to be more competitive. However, I implore you to figure out the long term costs.

Tuition at my institution is quite expensive. Tuition, fees, room and board tops 56 thousand dollars. 56 thousand dollars is more than many Americans earn per year. Staying in school to add extra credits at a cost of 56 thousand dollars does not make long term fiscal sense. Even if your university expenses are less think about what your starting salary may be and how you will pay off that extra year of schooling.

Even though the economy is tough it is better to get out there and start your career and build experience. You may have to live at home and that’s okay. You may have to share an apartment or house with several friends. Again, doing so is okay, and actually pretty fiscally sound if you put away the money you save on rent and pay down student loan or credit card debt contribute to your retirement or put it in a good old savings account.

If you insist on staying in school then I suggest that you earn another credential. Adding credits to your bachelor’s degree does not help in the marketplace. Also, employers may question why you did not graduate on time. Earn a certificate or master’s degree if you can instead. You may not be able to use the graduate education right away, but at least there will be tangible evidence of your extra time in school.



What are your fears about graduating and getting out there? Maybe we can offer some solutions. Leave a comment.

Getting Entrepreneurial with Your Major

A student came in this week interested in one of the great, though struggling industries – magazine publishing. This student is quite bright and curious, but I had to caution that the publishing industry is struggling and jobs are scarce in the field. While choosing the right major is important, the student is interested in journalism, I suggested that what is more important is obtaining the right skills and standing out. The student may be able to do that through the journalism major, but that isn’t the only option.

This particular student is interested in fashion magazines. Since Sex and the City many young women dream of heading to NYC to write thrilling articles about fabric, accessories, and trends. That dream is doable, but no major alone is going to produce that result. To even land the internship that leads to that kind of job this student will need experience. She’s landed an internship for the summer, but I also stridently urged her to make a name for herself. With all of the resources on campus for funding, and the world wide web, a fashionista without clips or a web presence is doomed.

Our campus newspaper doesn’t have a fashion writer. I suggested she pitch herself. Maybe she should start a blog, or a podcast. Whatever the method one chooses for distinguishing herself she should know that employers are indeed looking for go-getters. Employers haven’t had training programs for new employees since the 1980s, and especially not in competitive fields. They want people to be ready to go on day one. This reality is not always fair because job seekers then must shoulder huge costs trying to get their foot in the door, but knowing that the market is as it is helps one to plan accordingly.

In choosing a major, and job seeking, the world is almost like seeking out a romantic partner.

  • Employers want someone interesting and different, and not just another person like the one they already have or the one they just fired. BE YOURSELF.
  • Just like a particular outfit can get you noticed on the quad, so can the great internships or experience get you noticed in a pile of resumes. If you created a job for yourself then even better! You’ve already shown leadership. Continue to amass experiences that fit your interests and the type of work you want to do.
  • There is no set formula for snagging the job. An employer likes what they like and there is no guaranteed combination of major or experience that does the trick.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Low-Income Students SHOULD Be Applying to Top Colleges

The research shows over and over again that low-income students do well at “elite” colleges. However, top schools, including the Ivies, keep stating that they do not get applications from these students even if they are highly qualified.

A recent NPR report reemphasized the problem and hypothesized that part of the issue is that low-income students in areas where there isn’t a top performing high school just aren’t being encouraged to push and apply to these schools. You can check out the report here.

In the Washington, D.C. area we have several high schools that are geared toward preparing our varied population to attend college. However, even many of these students, as our own program shows do not necessarily know how to select a list of schools to which they want to apply, and how to prepare a competitive application.

We who work with young people have to encourage them to apply to all types of colleges. Many of these schools will provide a fee waiver for the application if a student reaches out and asks. One of the problems I find is that students are afraid to ask, or do not know to whom to write. We have to teach them to craft professional emails to people in power. This is one of the first lessons we teach in our program.

Another issue is that many times those of us who went to college rely on our own experiences. We have to remember that when we attended we were working with information that was relevant at the time. Just because we didn’t like a particular institution, or it wasn’t affordable to us doesn’t mean that the young people we mentor will have the same experience.

Encourage low-income students with great grades to apply to the schools of their dreams.  The schools are waiting for them.


On “Constructive” Criticism

Part of my role as an advisor is to work with students interested in applying to graduate school. Graduate school is a very expensive, and time consuming proposition, and in meetings with students I am very honest about with them about the experience.

Recently, a student was not happy with my advice as evidenced by the nastygram, disguised as a thank you note, sent to my office. This student objected to me noting that her grades and grade point average were not up to the standards of the schools in which she is interested.

Sometimes the truth hurts and there is no way around the facts. For competitive doctoral programs, that often only admit 6-8 students, obtaining admission directly out of an undergraduate program with a gpa under a 3.5 and low GRE scores would take a bit of luck. There is no way to artfully explain that, nor do I think it would have been a service to the student to not be straight with her. The graduate school application process alone can cost a minimum of $500 once one considers GRE fees, application fees, and transcript request fees. Furthermore, more and more people are heading to graduate school to hide from the recession. The competition is fierce for anyone.

I’m not sure what the student expected regarding her appointment. Her complaint was that telling her the numbers for graduate school admission was not “constructive.” However, what I do know that providing sound advice, even if it isn’t what the student wants to hear is my job.I do hope that she is accepted at her schools of choice.


No Such Thing as “Backup” Education

I met with a nervous and scared student recently. This student thrives in artistic arenas. However, instead of following her gut and just majoring in theater she was double majoring in a subject in which she had no interest. You could tell that the student had zero interest in the subject through both her body language and her grades! While in my office she was crunched into a ball while talking about the second major, and her grades in the classes were quite different from her stellar marks in theater.

So why was the student torturing herself? She believed the hype. She believed that there are no jobs out there for people in the arts, and she added the second major to boost her chances of getting a job. However, what she didn’t know has tanked her grade point average. First, the second major she undertook requires a graduate degree to even begin to make more money than she could as an artist. Second, the job market for that sector isn’t strong either. Third, there are plenty of theater venues in Washington, D.C. and her time would have been better spent gaining experience than taking on coursework for which she had no zeal.

Fortunately, this student has one-year remaining of her formal undergraduate education, and she came to check-in with her advisor instead of waiting until the last minute to do a graduation review. The lessons I hope students learn from this young lady is that there really is no such thing as backup education. If you aren’t invested in what you’re learning then you simply won’t do well, and low GPAs can make life more challenging than being in the “wrong” major.

Follow your talents.

Fish in the Wrong Water

This morning I spoke with a very concerned mother regarding her son’s ability to cope with the social environment of the University.  This family is affluent enough to afford private school tuition, but doesn’t take trips to Aspen every weekend to ski, nor do they vacation in Europe on a regular basis.  The family is making sacrifices to give this student the opportunity to attend this very expensive institution.

What is the problem you say? Well, many, though not all, students here are able to afford lavish lifestyles, and it makes other students feel as though they cannot keep up or fit in.  What the mom and student do not know is that MOST of our students are receiving some sort of financial aid.  That MOST of our students aren’t traveling the world.  This student feels out of place when he really is the norm.  Nonetheless, these facts don’t negate this student’s feelings of inadequacy.

Here are a few tips to combat the affluence blues:

1) Before you apply ask students about the social climate of the school.  Usually, the admissions office will pair prospective students with current students. Ask them to honestly tell you what the campus environment is like.  What is even better is a visit before you sign on the dotted line committing to attend.

2) Find activities where you can be an All-Star Rookie Freshman. One of the biggest problems for students is not finding a venue where they excel. They are bored with their high school activities, or are unable to continue them at the college level, and don’t know what to do next. College is the time to try things you’ll never have time to do when you have a full-time job so try what interests you.  Join a greek organization, intern somewhere, play ultimate frisbee and touch football, and attend student government meetings.  Feeling like you excel at something is one of the easiest ways to be happy.

3) Choose a major that matches your abilities.  Number three should probably be number one.  Many students want a proscribed career track that guarantees a lifetime of comfortable earnings.  However, many of these same students actually hate the classes that go with that proscribed major. They are prospective pre-med students who hate biology and chemistry.  They are engineering students who hate math.  These students end up failing these courses not because they aren’t capable, but because they are following a path that is a bad fit for them.  One of the best things you can do for yourself is be honest about your desires and abilities and act on them.  The path may not be straight and narrow, but it’ll be one where you can succeed above your expectations.

Lean Into Your Gifts

Everyone has some sort of gift. Yes, everyone. It may be one that you were born with, or one that you cultivated over time based on your interests, but yes, you have one. However, unless the gift is something that is readily marketable people either ignore it, don’t value how much it’s really worth, or believe the naysayers who tell them that it’s not a gift at all.

Will You Stand Out?

Everyone has some sort of gift.  Yes, everyone.  It may be one that you were born with, or one that you cultivated over time based on your interests, but yes,  you have one.  However, unless the gift is something that is readily marketable people either ignore it, don’t value how much it’s really worth, or believe the naysayers who tell them that it’s not a gift at all.

Let’s look at the first group: those who ignore their gifts.  Somehow we’ve (I’ve fallen into this category many a time) got it into our brains that life should be as hard as possible.  We do a few things remarkably well with the greatest of ease, but yet, we ignore those accomplishments to pursue what is difficult.  Sure people should challenge themselves, but why must one ALWAYS challenge him or herself?  It’s perfectly okay to follow your natural or cultivated gift.  Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen turned their love of computers into a billion dollar company.  Are they geniuses?  Maybe. However, they may also be two guys who found something they loved and rode it to profitability.  The point is that there may be unexplored opportunities in areas in which you are gifted, and sometimes those opportunities aren’t the ones that are readily apparent.  Any singer who got their start writing songs for other people can tell you just that.  There isn’t anything wrong at all with pursuing what comes easily to you.  In fact that may be the best method of all.

The idea that you don’t pursue what you’re best at leads to my next point.  Sometimes people don’t value their own skills.  They spend time wishing they were better basketball players, but they write poems and short stories with the greatest of ease.  Or they desire to be scientists, but have the aptitude to teach.  Sometimes this devaluing of skills is a result of what is glorified in society.  The excellent basketball player is revered more often than even the best novelist by most people.  Nonetheless, why spend useless time pining away for a skill you won’t ever have when you have great material within yourself?  Someone, somewhere is probably asking God for the very thing that comes naturally to you.  Think about that, and then go out and work on being the best at that thing.

Finally, there will be people who will tell you that your gift is no gift at all.  That you should learn to do something practical because there is no money in X.  Okay, sometimes they are right, there may not be immediate money in X, and you should plan for that. However, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case.  There are occasions where you may work in a low paying job for a while before your gift turns into your career.  Or you may have to pursue higher education so that you have the credentials to do what you’re that which is your best skill.  None of this matters.  If you can’t pursue your gift right away that is still no reason to discard it wholeheartedly!

Leaning into your gifts can be challenging, but ultimately the most fulfilling thing you can do for yourself.  The final product may look nothing like what you originally envisioned yourself doing, but nonetheless your work is valuable.  So to  every novelist who becomes a technical writer, and chemist who discovers a new nail polish that isn’t toxic, or every artist who is behind the scenes – kudos!

Culture Shock: On Being an International Student

Attending college in the United States can be an exciting but scary time for an
international student. It is likely that you were exposed to enough U.S. culture through the media in your home country for some things to feel very familiar, and yet there will be lots of other things that will surprise you.

by Ashika Brinkley

International students hail from all over the world

Attending college in the United States can be an exciting but scary time for an international student. It is likely that you were exposed to enough U.S. culture through the media in your home country for some things to feel very familiar, and yet there will be lots of other things that will surprise you. I remember not being able to figure out why I kept bouncing into people all the time. It never occurred to me that at home we both drove and walked on the other side. As you begin this journey it is important to remember that you control the college experience you have. Sure there will be unexpected bumps in the road but you control your response to both the unexpected and mundane. A positive outlook will allow you to connect with others and seize opportunities in ways that will truly enrich your experience.

College is a time to acquire knowledge and some expertise in a subject matter of your choosing but more importantly, college is a time to learn new things about yourself. With that in mind I would like to share my top three bits of advice for a positive international student experience.

  • 1 . Pursue Excellence-It is likely that a lifetime of rigorous and stressful academic preparation has brought you to this point. Continue to challenge yourself in the classroom and keep those grades up. Strive to be on the Dean’s list, and look for those honor society invitations in the mail. That being said excellence is not just about academic performance. Excellence means fully immersing yourself in your college experience and challenging yourself to find opportunities to be well rounded. Get involved in campus life. Most campuses have an international student organization that you can get started with, but don’t stop there. Get involved in student government, find a place to practice your faith, read your campus newspaper, attend athletic events, pay attention to local politics and volunteer. Excellence means bringing your best self to every situation and challenging yourself to move beyond your comfort zone in and out of the classroom.
  • 2 . You’re an Ambassador. . . deal with it. Whether you like it or not you are an ambassador for your country. Pay attention to superficial things like your dress and deportment, but more importantly pay attention to how you respond to others. People will make assumptions about your culture and ask what may seem like ridiculous questions. Use these opportunities to invite others to get to know you better. I remember being asked why we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving at home.  I thought about the story of the first Thanksgiving and the Mayflower and was incredulous at the thought that someone could not understand why this was not a part of my culture. In the end it was just a well intentioned albeit awkward invitation to spend the holiday with their family. By and large you will find that people are well intentioned. Even when they may seem ignorant about the rest of the world, or even xenophobic, most people do want to connect with others. If you are open to that possibility you will find yourself having made friends in the oddest of places at the end of those four years.
  • 3 . Get out of your dorm room! – International students don’t corner the market on loneliness and homesickness. Home does not have to be thousands of miles away for you to miss it. Chances are most other students are feeling scared, anxious and alone just like you are. An empathetic new friend can often be found right across the hallway, in the cafeteria, in the television lounge or in the quad. Force yourself out of your dorm room. It is normal to want to hold on to your culture for dear life when you’re feeling the loneliest. Resist the urge to insulate yourself from U.S. culture as a way of holding on to the culture and comforts of home. Connecting with others is the best way to mitigate homesickness. If you’re shy, start off making small talk with cafeteria staff, the people in the mail room and shuttle bus drivers. Either way make a conscious effort to have meaningful human contact everyday.

So there you have it. Here’s to a good first semester and a great four years!

Ashika Brinkley is originally from the island of St. Lucia.  She graduated with honors from Morgan State University with a bachelor of science in chemistry, and earned her master of public health at Yale University.  Ashika is also the Owner of Funding Finder Consulting, which works with organizations to help them maximize their fund raising potential. She is also a member of the higher education community serving as an Adjunct Instructor of chemistry at Tunxis Community College and of chemistry and public health at Goodwin College.

Ask for help

Entering college can be a scary time. Making new friends, maintaining your studies, and being on your own can present challenges that even the most mature and responsible student has difficulty mastering.

Don't go it alone

Entering college can be a scary time.  For many of you it may be the first time you are away from home for a significant amount of time.  For others you may be meeting people who are nothing like you, and have a completely different set of values for the first time.  Making new friends, maintaining your studies, and being on your own can present challenges that even the most mature and responsible student has difficulty mastering.

Most strong universities have a counseling center students can visit if they feel overwhelmed by things.  A misconception is that counseling is for people with major problems, but, as many people can tell you, major problems do not get that way overnight.  They start with small things such as text anxiety, roommate troubles, and general loneliness.  There is absolutely no shame in scheduling an initial appointment to talk out some of the things that are swirling in your head.  After your first visit you can make a decision on whether or not you want to continue.  If you don’t know where your counseling center is, or you do not have one on your campus chat with your RA or another student affairs professional or advisor that you trust.  These people are not just your campus spirit squad.  They are also there to assist you in finding the resources you need to be successful in college.

If everything has become overwhelming to the point of becoming an emotional emergency some campuses even have a 24/7 talk line to help you work through the immediate need.  Sometimes this number is in your student handbook, on campus billboards, and possibly the counseling center website.

The  best thing you can do to be successful in college is take care of yourself. You’re not going to be productive in your studies if you are stuck focusing on some of the very real challenges that can be a part of the college experience.  There is not point in remaining stuck if you don’t have to.  Never be too proud to ask for help.