Tag Archives: college

‘Am I the only one …’: On college, isolation and social media

Active Minds'

Active Minds’ “Send Silence Packing” display visited SUNY Oswego.

At first I thought it perhaps a rhetorical quirk. But as I saw it more and more in posts by incoming students in our Facebook group, it emerged as a pattern. And one that causes a bit of concern.

  • “Am I the only one who doesn’t have a roommate yet?”
  • “Am I the only one without a housing assignment?”
  • “So I’m the only person without a full schedule.”
  • “Looks like I’m the only person who doesn’t have a roommate yet.”

Beyond the fact that, no, they were never “the only one” in that situation — in fact, most of their peers were in the same boat — the wording is intriguing. Not “does anybody else have …” or “who else doesn’t have …” but about being the “only” person missing out on the fun. There’s a fear of exclusion pattern among these posts — sure, it’s partly concern that others have something they don’t, but the phrase speaks to isolation.

But then reading an outstanding, troubling New York Times piece, Campus suicide and the pressure of perfection, drove home the point that thinking you’re an outsider, isolated and lonely when entering college can make an already-stressful situation worse. Couple that with a social media where everybody seems to having more fun and fabulous lives than you, and it’s an issue that needs more attention.

Stranger in a strange land

I can identify with how students can feel isolated all too well. After finishing my associate’s degree at home, I went away to a college where I did not know a single soul (one place social media certainly helps). My roommate was a nice guy, but we didn’t click. Within a couple days, it seemed my suitemates were already making plans where I wasn’t invited. The dorm had an ice cream social in the lounge where I had ice cream but was too shy to be social.

The loneliest I’ve ever been and on the edge of despondency, I’d wander out to stare at the nearby canal. “College was supposed to be awesome, but am I the only one not having any fun?” I thought to myself. “Everybody else is enjoying themselves way more than me.” I felt homesick, isolated, unsure why what was supposed to be the best time of my life suddenly felt like one of the worst. But I was determined to make college work — I’d be the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and after two weeks of loneliness despite being surrounded by friendly people, I made my way to the college newspaper, quickly found a tribe and soon found college the enjoyable experience I expected.

Even in this supposedly more interconnected society, many students entering colleges across the country will feel the same way I did — wondering if they’re “the only one” who feels so lonely — but perhaps do not find their lifeline. Some may drop out, some may turn to drugs or alcohol … and some may decide they can’t go on at all.

The Internet is an illusion

The most famous poem from his engrossing “Spoon River Anthology,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” tells the story of a man who was “a gentleman from sole to crown” and “richer than a king,” a man everybody in town envied. But for whatever reason, he also was unspeakably unhappy, as the poem ends:

So on we worked, and waited for the light
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yet that jarring conclusion pales in comparison with tales of real life, such as Penn State student Madison Holleran. Talented, pretty, a successful student-athlete and with seemingly plenty of friends, Madison’s Instagram feed showed a life many a lonely student would envy. But according to an excellent ESPN feature by Kate Fagan, Split Image, Madison was a perfectionist who could not deal with failure or disappointment — or her perception of falling short. A 19-year-old with seemingly everything to live for, Madison Holleran committed suicide in January 2014.

According to Active Minds, a group that attempts to empower students, change the stigma of mental illness on campuses and steer students toward healthier choices, some 1,100 students take their own lives every year. The New York Times piece references helicopter parenting — where students aren’t given the opportunity to solve their own problems — as a contributing factor. But it’s not the only evolution that has raised the stakes.

Is it a competition?

College once was for elites, then in the ’50s/’60s the Baby Boom, GI Bill and many other socioeconomic factors led to college systems offering greater accessibility. Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the cold war politics led to the U.S. government pouring money into higher education to produce scientists who could win the technological race. Suddenly college was more widely available, a rite of passage depicted in popular culture. When I went to college, probably about half of my graduating class did not, which was not necessarily uncommon.

Now, for most, college is an expectation of getting ahead. Private courses and consultants show high school students how to excel at standardized tests and make themselves more attractive to institutions. Cottage industries have emerged for both those choosing colleges and the colleges courting them, setting it up as a high-pressure matchmaking exercise. Parents and students make it not only about going to college but more critically about getting into the right school offering the right experiences. And not just any experiences, but experiences where students need to succeed and feel fulfilled. Getting one bad grade in a class can be a big blow; failing a class is devastating.

Put all that into a crucible that is young people coming of age and coming to terms with feelings and coming into a world where they feel they must do everything perfectly — and then project their way of seeing the world, social media, as a place where everybody is happy and successful and winning this perceived competition. So the student asking “am I the only one …” can start believing that they are the outsider, the freak, the failure because of how well everybody else appears to be doing.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But here is the one thing I’d like everybody to take away from it: Social media is not real life. Don’t compare your daily struggles to the highlight reel you see online. We are all dealing with problems, but there are so many people also willing to help.

Be kind, the old saying goes, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. The start of college could be an important intersection with the future, but it’s just the start (we hope!) of a long journey that may have twists and turns and tribulations and triumphs. But it’s a road we travel together. You are never “the only one,” ever.

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social coverage of commencement: an evolving process.

Higher-ed web types everywhere have been discussing who’s doing what to cover commencement. Streaming it live? Making it social? Turning it into a real-time multimedia production?

At SUNY Oswego, we similarly discussed options, and chose to keep moving forward and evolving. Thanks to some outstanding work by our web developer, Rick Buck, and some folks in Campus Technology Services, we greatly upgraded our Commencement webcast. Not every user would have noticed a change in quality, but many viewers — especially those on Macs and most mobile devices — may have had their first chance to actually watch. We moved to a transcoder that exported H264 … a fancy way of saying we broadcast in a format used widely in those devices.

Was that important? Consider the following: 22% of our Commencement viewers did so on mobile devices. This is a huge figure, compared to 11% of hits last year (many of those visitors unable to fully view the broadcast). This continued to underscore our current priority of thinking more and more about mobile in all web projects.

The Facebook plugin collected some nice tales of congratulations, and the interns we had monitoring the feed reported no issues. While we did not assemble a post-graduation Storify or comprehensive multimedia wrapup as some other schools did, we saw a huge amount of activity when we posted a Commencement photo gallery to our Facebook page.

A whole HigherEdLive program last week explored what institutions are doing, and other colleges had their tales of success and woe. The latter includes one university that had an f-bomb show up in its Commencement Twitter feed that caused some stress. But almost anyone who made their ceremonies widely accessible and social had few regrets.

Graduation is a happy culmination of an arduous process and — for the grads and their families — one of the happiest days of their lives. Sharing the joy, in any way possible, ultimately is a good thing.

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before the rise of silos: jimmy moreland and 1950 education.

I was reading the other day about the death of Jimmy Moreland. It came as no surprise, as he passed away nearly 60 years ago, but it showed me how much different higher education was in the bygone era. And perhaps, in some ways, better.

Moreland died young in 1950 after 15 years teaching, recruiting and advising at Oswego. Er, sorry, make that Jimmy. He asked everyone to call him Jimmy. He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community.

Jimmy “taught his classes, not from a textbook, but rather from his great wealth of knowledge,” the student body president recalled. The president of the alumni association valued how Jimmy’s “informal talks in the co-op, in the halls, on the front steps or anywhere that a group of students would gather helped to mould the thinking and philosophy of students and teachers alike.” Jimmy “imparted a great love of learning, he imparted some of his own goodness, he imparted his own unbounded curiosity and optimism to his students as they learned with him in his classes,” said then-president Harvey Rice. “As freshman advisor through the years he, more than anyone else, helped youngsters to find their bearings away from home. His friendship won them, his understanding comforted them, his love sustained them.”

In short, Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.

In contrast, recent trends in higher education bend toward staffing many specialists, while spurning the benefits of being a generalist. When we develop a mentality we can only help students with x but not y, we see them less as humans than checkmarks on a report. Anyone who knows me would attest I’m one of the busier folks around, but I never mind helping one of my students with something that falls outside my so-called job description. Why? The Golden Rule. I appreciate all the people who helped me as a student, treated me as a person and not a category.

I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.

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one fan page to rule them all?

I see and field a lot of questions about Facebook fan pages on Twitter and in real life. One of the most common is whether colleges should focus on an extra-special overall fans page or seek a more decentralized approach for specialized audiences.

Our philosophy remains to prioritize a primary Facebook fan page serving all audiences. Sure, plenty of pages with smaller memberships have arose (some by us, most by others) serving specific audiences, academic programs and student organizations, but having this kind of interaction underscores the value of having a central page:

This just happened this week, as a brief post of mine about the upcoming application deadline led to positive comments from three parents of students, one proud alum and one incoming student. Say what you will about parental involvement, but I consider pleased parents who say good things to all their friends with children considering colleges among our most valuable ambassadors. In this post, each mother had her high opinion of our school reinforced by two other parents, an alum and a future student.

That interaction would not have taken place if we just ran separate fan pages dedicated to admissions, alumni and parents. I love the alchemy that arises when potential students, current students, faculty/staff, parents and alumni have one community where they can chat. I’ve seen current students and alumni give great advice to incoming students. I’ve seen current students and alumni swap stories about what makes Oswego so special to them. If you think of your institution as a brand belonging to many generations and stakeholders, the primary fan page is the main marketplace of memories, shared knowledge and institutional pride. Having so many different groups involved just confirms this continuum.

Other solutions let any page play multiple roles. By using the FBML app, you can create new tabs on your page that appeal to specific audiences or functions, such as admissions. I begrudgingly admit that Plattsburgh, our athletic archrival, and its Web wiz Devin Mason do a great job with audience-specific navigation tabs on their page. And with our college, related and approved fan pages also appear in the sidebar Favorite Pages tab.

You can still break down separate specific efforts under the big umbrella. We created an Official Class of 2014 group, with most membership built so far through references from our official page. I intend to turn the 2014 group increasingly over to students, first interns and potentially incoming students who show interest, aptitude and dependability. The more collaborative it becomes, the better for its members and the overall institution. But we can say that about any Web 2.0 community. Ultimately the rubber meets the road for all travelers, and so many interesting paths intersect, on our official and central fan page.

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drake walks the walk, gets A+

Come college commencement season, you see a lot of status games: Who’s speaking? Who’s streaming it on the Web? Who’s live-tweeting it? But frankly, Drake University has us all beat, and it has nothing to do with VIP speakers or use of fancy technology.

Drake’s graduation day started with a nightmare scenario as Glenn Koenen, whose daughter Cassaundra was set to receive her sheepskin, suffered a heart attack while waiting for the ceremony. According to the Des Moines Register, an ER nurse attending to see her niece graduate, a doctor and two Drake staffers sprang into action and restarted Glenn’s heart with a defibrillator. And while that kind of life-saving heroism is commendable, what happened next is perhaps even more remarkable.

As Cassaundra sat beside his hospital bed, Glenn rued that he’d ruined her graduation day. A nurse contacted the college to see what they could do. What they did exceeded anyone’s expectations: Drake’s college president and other administrators came straight to the hospital room to present Cassaundra with her diploma in front of her dad.

Think about that: A college that cares enough that its president goes to the hospital on graduation day to present a diploma! If you are a student considering Drake, have a child attending the college or are an alum, you’ve got to feel really good about what this says about the institution.

As we all look at and discuss what social-media tools and other gadgets we use to promote our institutions, we can never forget the most important lesson: People matter. What any college does for one of its students in his or her hour of need is its greatest test. By that measure, Drake University scores an A+ and provides a lesson for us all.

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sweeping away preconceptions.

Whenever I hear people talk of students or prospective students as some kind of homogeneous group, or in generational terms, I recall the first time I ever saw a streetsweeper.

During my senior year of college, I’d crashed at a friend’s house after a late night. Woke around 5 a.m., hopped in the ’78 Chevy Malibu and that’s when I saw it. This strange little vehicle with large rotating scrub-brushes cleaning the street. Coming from a town under 2,000, I’d never before experienced such a fantastical machine. But when I told my friends from cities of any size about it after, they eyeballed me as every bit the rube I often felt.

Similarly, our students come from so many different places and experiences, and have such a variety of needs and interests. So it’s curious that, after we’re taught while growing up not to stereotype, so many involved in higher education are quick to, well, stereotype students. They talk of a reductionist Gen Y or Millennial stereotype (founded on fairly shaky ‘research’ and assumptions) and use broad reductionism in spewing generalizations. Don’t our students deserve better?

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of interacting with even a handful of students know what a diverse bunch they are. The young man from the farming community is quite different from the young lady from the Bronx, even if demographers try to pigeonhole them with the same one-size-fits-all label. Isn’t it arrogant to assume they have all these similarities just because they were born within years of each other? To just classify all as Millennials or Gen Yers or whatever oversimplified stereotype someone will invent for the next generation is to do them a disservice. And, in the process, doing all of us a disservice.

So next time you’re thinking of what students may want, here’s a simple suggestion: Don’t box them into a stereotype. Instead, talk to them. You may be amazed. Moreover, you could sweep away preconceptions and assure a clearer road to understanding.

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follow the future?

So I’m checking out Addict-o-Matic the other day, where I track online buzz and mentions for our college, and I see a Twitter entry from a prospective student who received a scholarship letter from the school and is considering it. We have a Twitter account, @sunyoswego, so the question arises: Should we have that account follow the potential student?

Pros: It’s unlikely any other colleges have paid this type of attention to the student. By following back, the student would receive news, our student blog entries and daily updates of what’s happening on campus … and perhaps find it interesting. I know that when I was looking at colleges, the personal attention Brockport showed me was a big factor in its favor. This could also provide an opportunity for the student to ask questions in a relaxed environment.

Cons: It could seem kind of creepy, no? The student could find it intrusive, perhaps some breach of institution-person etiquette. And … did I mention it could seem kind of creepy?

Do you think, in such a case, a college should follow? What would you think if you were the student being followed by a college Twitter account?

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