Transitions are a way of life: some expected, some planned, some unplanned and some forced by circumstances. Examples of these transitions include changing jobs, getting married, moving to a new town, changing schools. In any event, these transitions take us out of our comfort zones. They cause a certain amount of stress and readjustment, and call for relooking at the way one has lived life, and giving up what one has taken for granted. Psychologists popularly call these transitions life stress events.
A very significant transition occurs when young adults, already coping with the issues of late adolescence, step out of school and into college. Heralding the abrupt onset of adulthood, this significant transition takes them by the scruff of the neck and hurls them into a world they are quite unprepared for. There are several factors that make this a challenging and significant transition for students who leave our schools.
How do adults perceive the eighteen-year-old?
Age can be both chronological as well as a matter of perception. When I ask a young adult—say, an eighteen-year-old—what she is doing, and she replies ‘I am in college’, almost immediately my entire way of looking at and interacting with her changes. Somehow this person is more like me—an ‘adult’. If this same young person tells me that she is in class 12, my interactions with her change. Our conditioning makes us believe that somebody in college is on the way to being an adult, while three months earlier, in school, she was a kid. These perceptions or stereotypes are probably reinforced at every step of the young adult’s journey. Oft-repeated innocent statements such as, ‘Soon you will be in college and that means responsibility’ or ‘You have to look after yourself in this big bad world’ add to the burden of transition.
How does the young adult respond?
Wow, I am free. No parent, teacher, house-parent looking over my shoulder, nagging me—It’s PT time, have you had breakfast, what about homework, stop playing, start studying! Classes are there, but I have the choice to attend or not. Okay, attendance is compulsory. . .but let me see how I can wriggle my way out of this.
Such choices abound in the young adult’s life. They have to learn the fine art of balancing their new-found freedom and the need for rigour with the understanding that they are now totally and wholly responsible for the way they live. This has to be achieved without the benefit of having an adult looking over your shoulder. Suddenly, the security provided by the parent or teacher is no longer immediately available.
Let us look at some of the issues these young adults face when they step out of the protective confines of a school system. These become more pronounced if they live away from home.
It is an entirely new world out there: new town, new buildings, new teachers and new friends. By this time the young adult’s head is filled with stories of college from well-meaning (!) seniors. Nothing of the familiar remains. Struggling with a maelstrom of emotions, this young person has to find ways of not only coping with, but also making the best of, what this new world has to offer.
New paradigms and the need to fit in
In many ways, the young adults leaving the secure confines of the KFI schools—with backgrounds somewhat different from the homogenizing urban middle-class culture—find it necessary, at least in the initial few months, to ‘fit in’. There seems to be a world of difference in attitudes, ideas, language (the jargon or slang in colleges), street-smartness, dress-sense and ways of ‘hanging out’. Most important for any new college student is the need to establish new friendships and form new relationships with groups and individuals who may be vastly different from what one has grown up with.
Whether one is from a residential school or from a day school, one has to get used to staying in hostels (some of which are poorly kept) or paying guest accommodations. Room-mates are new and all sorts of adjustments are needed in the room to make one’s accommodation liveable. Food is different, toilets are not as clean or tiled, rooms are small and so on. Adjustments to these physical changes typically take about six months to a year.
For many a young adult, this would probably be the first time that they would be handling cash, living on a budget and buying things for themselves. With a minimal idea of the costs and how much a rupee is worth, they find themselves at sea. There is a tendency either to splurge—a manifestation of a new-found freedom—or to become miserly or insecure about money.
Competitiveness and aggression
There is no denying that competitiveness is more pronounced in colleges than in our schools. More so in professional colleges, where every fraction of a mark makes a difference, particularly in GPA-based assessments. Suddenly the openness with which these young adults would share notes or help out a fellow student is no longer there. They find that some students take advantage of such open attitudes in order for them to make it to the top. Trust, a concept taken so much for granted in school, flies out of the window. Suddenly, one may grow suspicious of fellow students. One tends to read between the lines. Questions such as ‘Why is so-and-so friendly with me?’ assume importance.
Issues arising out of this transition
Loneliness is the single most important issue that the young adults have to deal with. This is, in a sense, something that would stay with them even as they begin to find their way in the world. One can be in the midst of many and yet feel lonely. Even a simple sharing of happiness is, many a time, not possible. Many factors account for this: questions of identity, differences with peers and friends (some reconcilable, some irreconcilable), relationships with even near ones, and so on.
In many colleges, you would be hard pressed to find a lecturer who knows your name. Imagine the young adult fostered in an atmosphere of care —where not only the teacher(s) but also the parents form a part of the whole—to be thrust into an atmosphere where you are suddenly reduced to an impersonal roll number?
For many of us, our identity is defined by the institutions we are associated with: where you have studied, where you work/live/shop. For the young adult entering college, the question of identity becomes paramount. College is the time when one’s adult identity takes shape. While in school, a composite sense of identity forms over a longer period of time; even the occasional ‘oddball’ is accepted as belonging to a larger whole. But in college, groups quickly form around region, language, social status, religion and caste. From this flows an expectation of behaviour. If you are from Andhra Pradesh, you must be seen to speak Telugu, eat spicy food, be rustic in behaviour—in short, fit a preconceived image. So where do students stepping out of cosmopolitan residential schools fit in?
Relationships and communication
While this is a complex issue at any time of one’s life, it takes on a whole new dimension in college. Let us look at three axes of relationships.
With peers: In college, a group of young adults who are mostly strangers to each other are thrown together. A few may be from the same school, or there may be some seniors to guide them. They are in the process of getting used to a new institutional ethos, understanding shifting paradigms of behaviour, of what is accepted and what is not. Here again, students from different backgrounds may find themselves alienated from one another. Young adults during their college years also come to terms with their own sexuality and orientation. Acceptance that there could be both homosexual as well heterosexual relationships amongst adults is something new. Casual sexual relationships tend to happen more frequently. This brings with it the usual problems of emotional upheaval, heartbreak, parental non-acceptance, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
With adults: Students from our schools tend to be casual, at times seemingly disrespectful. Standing up when the teacher walks in, raising your hand before asking a question, or using ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ are all unfamiliar to students brought up in a more informal environment. The dress code too in some colleges is stricter than what they have experienced. The process of learning about this happens rather quickly. What most students, however, miss most is a teacher with whom they can talk freely and discuss whatever strikes their fancy. A patient hearing, helping the young adults along, seems to be lacking in many colleges. To be fair to the lecturers, they themselves are probably overwhelmed by the numbers they have to teach and perhaps labour under the same misapprehension that anyway their students are adults and so can take care of themselves.
With parents: There is a sea change in this relationship as well. The so-called generational divide becomes starker. Parents now seem over-protective and old-fashioned. This situation becomes more difficult if the young adult continues to stay at home. Parents find it difficult to deal with and accept late nights, parties, dating and all the ‘freedom’ that goes with college life. This gap becomes more pronounced for students in courses such as film making or design, as opposed to the standard degree courses.
Engaging with academics
The purpose of going to college is to acquire a higher education and from then on to find a suitable career. However, there are so many other interesting activities in college (dramatics, debates, quizzes and generally ‘hanging out’) which might draw students away from their classes. Students need to be helped to focus on this important aspect so that they can get the most out of their education. And yet who is there to help them find the balance? Young adults need to realize, often on their own, that if they take the initiative there are actually opportunities galore to explore and excel in their chosen subject areas, apart from in extra-curricular activities. College experiences come at a time when the students are more capable of thinking for themselves, of discerning differing value systems and making crucial life choices, and therefore they do ultimately shape the students.
What are the support systems available to young adults in college?
The support systems available are mainly informal. The peer network is very active and functions like a large support group. The availability of instant communication and social networking is a huge help. Seniors within the college system also are sources of help, particularly if they are also alumni of the same school. Some institutions have student as well as campus counsellors. Student counsellors are generally older students, identified by the institution to help freshers settle in. Campus counsellors are psychologists, trained to deal with young adult problems.
What role can adults in schools play in supporting young adults in this transition?
There is a need to build a life skills programme, particularly in class 12, when thoughts of leaving school come to the fore. These could be a series of sessions covering various aspects: from making choices, to setting limits, to saying no. Briefly set out below is an outline of such a programme conducted by the author.
The programme delves into various practical aspects of life after school. While we would like our students to set an example, be the ideal student in college, not get lost in indulgences or stray off the straight and narrow path, the reality of temptation is powerful. It is to be expected that students will experiment and explore. The idea is that students are able to follow some safety norms in the process of growing up into adulthood.
Sex: Students need to be educated on safe sexual practices.
- Students should recognize that many relationships are sexually driven.
- There will be explorations of sexuality with all its consequences.
- There are rules of safe sex.
- Say NO to intercourse (whether homosexual or heterosexual) before one is ready for a long- term commitment.
- Students should learn how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and how to avoid sexually transmitted infections.
- Stay safe in parties to avoid date rape.
- Know what to do in case there is a campus rape, or if there is an unplanned or forced sexual encounter.
Substance use and abuse
- Say NO to drugs.
- Know how to say NO, how to be careful; e.g. not accepting a cigarette which is either crumpled or hand-made, as it could be laced with marijuana popularly called a joint or a reefer.
- Discuss various types of narcotic as well as non-narcotic drugs.
- Discuss recent laws that legalize the use of marijuana in some countries.
- Explain the neurological effects of substance use/abuse.
- Use real-life examples to emphasize the deleterious effects of substances.
- Discuss the effects of addiction on the individual as well as on the family.
- Recognize potential addiction or dependence either in oneself or amongst friends.
Alcohol: As with sex, many, if not all, will indulge in it at some stage and it is important to help students understand that while it is best not to have a drink, they need to know what safe drinking is.
- Know what alcohol is and understand how it works.
- Know the stages of intoxication and recognize these symptoms.
- Know about the delayed effects of alcohol.
- Understand aspects of safe drinking: setting limits, never drinking alone, having a designated driver, and ensuring that at least a few people in a group remain sober.
- Be aware of surroundings especially when there is a mixed group (women are particularly vulnerable in a pub).
- Recognize dependency, habituation and addiction.
The other important message given is that when they suspect that a friend is depressed and is getting dependent on alcohol or drugs, the matter needs to be reported to a responsible adult, so that appropriate and timely help is given. This is not sneaking or letting a friend down; rather it is a way of saving a life and a family.
Firewall (online security): There have been reams written about it, from ensuring the safety of debit/credit cards to online financial transactions, to recognizing and dealing with cyber-bullying or cyber-stalking. Students are advised not to accede immediately to online friend requests and not to click on a link however official or inviting it may appear. These are all dealt with briefly as students tend to be broadly aware of these issues, albeit theoretically.
Explorations: This is in the form of a general discussion, broadly exploring one’s physical neighbourhood/city, one’s own individuality, figuring out what makes one tick and what does not. We also look at the influence of media, the culture of ‘hanging out’ and what produces group dynamics. An important message to all students is that they need to be aware of themselves and their environment at all times.
Tobacco: Tobacco use has decreased over the last couple of decades. What is worrying is that this dreaded substance is making a reappearance in colleges. The long-term effects of tobacco use are discussed. The bottom line is to say NO and never start using tobacco products.
You: Last but not the least, it is how you as an individual respond to changing situations in life. We talk about communication with peers, parents, trusted adults and what comes in the way of communication. Here again the emphasis is on ensuring that channels of communication with parents, responsible adults and peers are always open. A few safety tips generally rounds off the discussion.
A very important message shared at the end of the sessions is that college life is an exciting time of life which shapes one’s future and individuality. Such an opportunity to explore and live life to its fullest comes only once in a lifetime, so seize it wisely.