I’ve been a college professor for over 17 years. I love spending time with young people who are learning how to connect outside of their comfort zone. Freshman might often appear like deer in headlights and shy. But truthfully, they’re curious and ready to take on the world.
The phrase ‘real-world’ can’t possibly be the default goal for eventual graduates, because in fact many have already experienced significant milestones and tragedies in their lives. A hiccup in the day of a pre-teen, like misplacing a dollar bill, or a scolding by a teacher for being late - easily a ‘worst-day-ever!’ scenario in a young person’s mind. On the other end of the spectrum, a major moment like losing a sibling or surviving a car crash should by all means be considered a trigger that launches a minor, straight into adulthood.
Traditionally, the relationship between professor and student is hierarchical. Culturally speaking, that should be a given, considering age and respect for those who lead. Yet, students are also charged with embracing critical thinking and innovation. Problem solving is a learned and valuable tool in all environments and situations. And if experience is the algorithm of wisdom, then how do we measure knowledge? A student who is a survivor of abuse, poverty, rape and racism is potentially the most valuable asset to the evolution of human resilience. On a wider scope, a college campus that has emerged from the tragedy as a result of a gunman on a rampage, could foster strength and compassion in order to heal thousands.
What we usually don’t know is what lies beneath the surface of anyone, and what we forget to recognize is that this one person can be as complex as a whole community. In the trenches of a young person’s mind, and on the front lines of this person’s struggles lies a kernel of truth that could prompt consequences beyond anyone’s understanding or control.
Life is a road, and our minds record and playback the major accidents we’ve witnessed or experienced. And although ‘major’ might be a convoluted word, considering the wide spectrum of its potential meaning make the story at least ‘interesting’. That’s drama - the backbone and impetus behind countless evenings spent binge watching crime shows on Netflix.
The word ‘young adult’ in the US was coined sometime in the 1700s, and really only as an unremarkable observation in a long trajectory of the human intellectual and emotional storyline. Certainly, far more ‘major’ events were going on at that time then there might be now in comparison, including unrecognizable and severe human rights abuses, diseases, famine and wars around the world. So how do we measure the concept of ‘major’ moments given the fact that college students, faculty and staff generally have worked our collectively way up another rung in Maslow’s hierarchy? The student who bends, folds, expands, stretches, is a beautiful reminder of why we as humans have the potential to critically learn from our major moments. Connecting to others on the other side who have had their own share of setbacks may be the most profound example of empathy.
In the stream of possibilities, the particles and elements of experiences take a ride toward wherever gravity and inertia takes them. The beauty of the river of hope is in the reflection of the face that looks in. May our major moments lead us to that place.