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The Way I See It

At a recent national conference for student affairs professionals, hosted at St. Norbert College, experts from around the country gathered to consider the convention’s theme: Catholic Higher Education Through the Eyes of Our Students.

Chutzpah, stick-to-it-iveness, or guts. Call it what you will, but this all-important X factor can separate the brilliant underachievers from those who steadily plug away at an interest, overcoming obstacles with a sense of resilience.

Leaders in the field of positive psychology have discovered that, unlike static factors such as I.Q., this special blend of passion and persistence commonly referred to in educational circles as “grit” is something that can actually be learned and developed. And notably, it may be just as important as intelligence in determining success in life.

Why does this matter? Well, in the words of new Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, because “the times they are a-changin’.”

Altered adulthood
Take a close look at twenty-somethings in the United States of the 1950s or ’60s, and here’s what you’ll find: husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and financial support from the man of the house. Manufacturing generated plenty of work that paid a good living wage, creating the company man and the company job. An individual could join a business and stay put for 40 years. If a worker demonstrated loyalty to the company, the company demonstrated loyalty in return.

Those days are gone, says Tim Clydesdale of The College of New Jersey. The professor of sociology – at St. Norbert this summer for a national conference for student-affairs professionals – notes the disappearance of manufacturing and rise in the service industry, which has led to a loss of middle-income jobs and a rise in both low-skill, low-wage occupations and positions that require advanced degrees and plenty of experience. Job security has vanished, incomes have remained stagnant and high divorce rates have made many skeptical about the prospect of marriage. Meanwhile, lifestyle expectations have continued to creep up over time, perpetuating a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.

In 1960, the majority of young adults had completed all five of the traditional markers of adulthood by the age of 30. They’d left home, finished school, gotten married, had children and become financially independent. Today, the majority have not. According to Clydesdale, keynote speaker at the ASACCU conference, this is one of the most significant and unrecognized social changes to occur in the last half-century. It has essentially transformed our idea of adulthood and delayed the entire process.

There are a number of theories to explain away this so-called failure to launch. Some have called this cohort of young adults the dumbest, the laziest and the most narcissistic. “I would say take 80 to 90 percent of what you’ve heard about millennials and throw it in the garbage can,” Clydesdale says. The reality is that adulthood is much harder now.

And the path toward adulthood has only grown bumpier, lengthier and more complex. Many enter college simply because our culture indicates that it’s the next logical step beyond high school. That can lead to plenty of floundering in the first year. Almost one out of two who begin college do not wind up finishing.

College students are taking on extraordinary amounts of debt and feel pressure to counteract the price tag of their education. One in three full-time undergrads is putting in more than 20 hours of work per week, Clydesdale says, and one in 10 is working a full-time job. (Beyond 15 hours’ work per week, GPA tends to be negatively impacted.)

And don’t forget the added pressure, uttered over and over again to those entering their college years, to make this time the “best four years of your life.”

For some, this combination is creating an enormous amount of anxiety, stress and pain. About one in four college students has been treated by a mental-health practitioner within a year, and estimates indicate that one out of two young adults ages 18-25 has been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

This may paint a grim picture, but Clydesdale insists hope isn’t lost.

Beyond academics
This very different path to adulthood means the identity exploration that used to mark adolescence has shifted to a later stage of life. In other words, colleges are presented with an incredible opportunity to shape the character of students, and faith-based institutions are perhaps uniquely suited to this endeavor. The Association for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges & Universities conference July 19-22 brought professionals from some 44 institutions to St. Norbert to explore that opportunity through the perspectives of their own students.

Moral growth occurs at an incredible rate during this time, especially in those participating in a four-year residential setting, says Kerry Cronin of the Lonergan Institute and the Center for Student Formation at Boston College.

Preaching at students is not the solution. Telling them the answers falls short, too. Trust and friendship are required to have good, open, honest conversation, and the ability to ask good questions is the key to teaching students to become good citizens. Thoughtful questions can lead toward deep and profound insights into their own actions and attitudes, Cronin says, but it’s impossible to know which questions to ask if college and university personnel do not know the students.

The solution, or part of it anyways, is love. When members of the college community love their students more than the content of classes, more than deadlines, more than assessments and more than meetings, she says, a greater potential to bring about a powerful and lasting impact exists.

According to responses from the Spring 2015 Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership, which included 97 colleges and 15 Catholic colleges, meaningful relationships are, indeed, being developed. As part of an independent-study project, Morgan Lanahan ’17 helped unpack data gathered from this survey.

One of the most striking differences between the Catholic colleges and the national sample related to mentors, or those who intentionally assist students’ growth or connect them to opportunities for career or personal development, notes Shelly Morris Mumma (Leadership, Student Engagement/First Year Experience). When students were asked if they had been mentored at their current college or university, the data indicated higher rates in all categories (faculty/instructor, academic or student affairs staff, employer, parent/guardian and other student) at the Catholic institutions.

While all of these relationships offer up potential for powerful learning opportunities, research tells us the most influential person in a student’s life during college is another student, Cronin says. So finding ways to meaningfully enter into student conversations is a useful way to empower students to help one another.

“We’re trying to connect students with each other and we can’t always do that from on high,” agrees Bob Pyne (Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice & Public Understanding). “We need student voices to reach out to other students.”

He cites Fouad AlKhouri ’17 as a powerful example of a student who has helped facilitate increased awareness and understanding. Back home in the Gaza Strip, Alkhouri is a Palestinian Christian in an area where most people are Muslim.

“He has seen issues of faith and conflict all his life,” Pyne says, and his involvement with interfaith programming on campus is significant. “He’s able to help us build bridges, which is a great thing.”

Holy grit
As students navigate their college careers, learning and growing along the way, the path to adulthood doesn’t magically come to an end on graduation day. Part of the secret to success, therefore, relates to the foundation built during these formative years on campus.

While conducting interviews and research that examined programming geared toward the theological exploration of vocation, there was one aspect that really blew Clydesdale away. He found that students who were given the opportunity to sort out their life trajectories and think about their purpose and calling during college were better able to step back from the array of anxieties bombarding them in order to design more meaningful lives.

“The story of life after college is really a story of mishaps, setbacks and disappointments,” he says. “And the big difference here was that those who spent time thinking about these things held on to the long view.” They figured a way around the setbacks and hung on to their sense of purpose, and what it was that they felt they were called to do. Those who did not have this preparation, on the other hand, would commonly hit a wall, recover, and pivot into a completely different field – potentially losing sight of true interests and passions in the process.

In other words, he found indications that these students had developed a sense of grit. But it was more than that: What Clydesdale found in the young adults who had been given the opportunity to thoughtfully consider vocation is something he likes to call “holy grit.”

“They wanted their lives to make a difference for God,” he says. “They wanted their lives to make a difference to humankind. They wanted to serve other people.” They discovered a larger sense of purpose, graduating with the tools to go both with and against the current as well as the ability to steer around hurdles.

“Purposeful graduates are marked by this type of intentionality and productivity and resilience,” he says, and faith-based higher-educational institutions have the potential to send students out into the world with this powerful combination.

For a case in point, look no further than Nicholas Schilling, a third-year student at Notre Dame Law School. While Schilling says he may still be trying to figure out what his professional life might look like, he feels he’s been equipped with the tools to stick with a path that suits him well. And, in a hyperactive culture, his education has taught him the valuable lesson that reflection, as he puts it, is the soil in which true cultivation occurs.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Patrick Schley, a DePaul University alum and application support specialist for the Tessitura Network for arts and cultural services. Schley joined Schilling and Rachelle Barina ’09 for an alumni panel at the conference. He has fond memories of the ways in which his alma mater made good use of the city of Chicago as a classroom of sorts. But equally important, he says, was the repeated encouragement to contemplate the significance of service opportunities in order to elevate them from “just work” into profound and even transformative learning experiences – like those that Barina also found at the intersection of classroom concepts and “real world” experiences gained through service work.

These, she says, were the sorts of learning experiences that tended to have the greatest and most lasting impact on her. In conjunction with her other campus opportunities, St. Norbert College ultimately played a formative role in shaping not only the direction in which she is headed but also the way she thinks, the way she interacts, and the values she has developed along the way.

Ultimately, Barina left with a genuine sense of purpose. “I learned to encounter people, I learned to listen to people, and I learned to recognize that everybody has needs,” she says, “and I developed an ability to respond to that in some way.”

After completing a master’s in theological studies at Vanderbilt and then a Ph.D. at Saint Louis University in health-care ethics, she became the system director of ethics and formation at SSM Health. It’s a role that has merged many of Barina’s life and learning experiences, allowing her to see the best of the Catholic tradition in action every day. 

Nov. 14, 2016