Today, students can be categorized in many different ways. Domestic, international, first generation and stealth are all terms used frequently in higher education. Through the application process to college, students may also be categorized as a “legacy,” having a learning challenge or even down to their demographic background. As our society and world changes with time, is there a new category of student emerging? One that reflects and includes a student who has witnessed first-hand or experienced a traumatic and life changing event? We can see this from students whose parents were involved in 9/11, both first responders and victims. We can see this from victims of Hurricane Katrina and Ike. We see this from the victims of shootings like Aurora, Colorado. We are starting to see it more and more.
From Hurricane Sandy to Sandy Hook, education has been greatly affected these past few months. In the realm of higher ed, the question bears on college applicants. The college application process is stressful as is, with applications to fill out, essays to write, financial aid forms to complete and the even harder part; making a decision among a group of acceptance letters. Between losing power and losing a loved one, how do students look to the future when their present is so radically changed?
For most students, these sometimes distant events won’t affect them in any way. But what about the students who are affected? How can you expect 18-year-old adolescents to start looking toward their future when they may not even be sure what happens tomorrow? In the world of higher education, I believe admission staff members are the answer. From the director through the support staff, these individuals play a key role in a college-bound student’s life. Now more than ever, they should be present at indescribable times like these.
It’s crucial to remember to expect the unexpected. What does this actually mean in academia and higher education? For one thing, students affected by events such as these may use college as a vehicle for rehabilitation and solace. Students may immerse themselves with their newly befriended peers, student groups and campus events. Students may also find a new field of concentration to study, something that connects them to the life changing event at the present. Whatever it is, as higher education professionals, it is our duty to aid these college-bound students as much as possible.
How can we aid them in the correct manner? Every student is different, every family is different and even more importantly; we are all different as institutions and professionals. The bigger picture here is to aid these students and provide counseling, knowledge and support during an already fragile situation. It is our professional responsibility to be sensitive, compassionate, understanding and diligent when situations like these arise. It is important to keep in mind who and what is sitting “across the desk” from us collegiate professionals. A family accustomed to having Sunday dinner together now can’t because their home has been ripped to pieces by hurricane forces. A baseball player no longer able to teach his younger brother how to throw a ball across the front yard. A dancer no longer able to perform on stage in front of her mother at a recital. These are the students and families that may sit in front of us at any given point. We have to remember, these students’ lives have been changed forever, even though they’re going through the motions we as professionals are accustomed to everyday. We must step back and remember to evaluate each situation and find what is best for the student. Counseling to these students and families must have the bigger picture of the student’s best interest at the forefront.
During times of grievance, loss and denial, students may jump to rash and irrational solutions. As admission professionals, it is our duty to be as open-minded and level-headed as possible. We need to understand as best as we can where the student and his/her family are coming from. We need to understand what the student’s goal is in life, has it changed since the event or has it remained the same? Are there new goals in the student’s life because of the event? Is the student now passionate about a field of study because he/she wants to make a difference or feels the need to be involved? Is the student now afraid to pursue a passion in fear of it being torn away? These are all questions we need to keep in mind as we help students through the application and selection process.
As our world changes with different events, as our campuses change with new goals, there is one thing that remains constant. Our students. Our students are being exposed and forced to deal with new crises every day. When it comes time to move on from their childhood, we must remember what that childhood may have been like and what that student may have endured.
Christopher M. Gray is an admission counselor at Lasell College.
Yes, these observations are accurate and we, as educators and institutions, are not sufficiently skilled to deal with students across the educational landscape who have experienced trauma — and it gets retriggered. I have named this generation of students “GenT” — Generation Trauma — and I discuss them and how to help them in my forthcoming book from Columbia Teachers College Press titled Educating for Trauma: Strategies for Helping Students and Educators. Book will be released in 2020 although excerpts will be made available pre-release. One observation: trauma is not disappearing. We have to name it, tame it and frame it so we can enable student success in schools, workplaces, families and communities.