So What’s a College Student Supposed to Do in College, Anyway?

Ask a group of 18 year olds that question and one might get answers such as “get a degree so that I can be a xxxx,” “have fun and meet new friends,” “find a mate,” and the more self aware of them might say, “grow up.”  When Arthur Chickering thought about student development, he created a set of ideas known commonly as Chickering’s Seven Vectors.  Below are Chickering’s vectors and what they might mean for a person trying to figure out what a college student should be doing in college.

Chickering asserted that while in college, students continue to develop into competent adults along seven pathways.  They learn to

  1. develop intellectual, interpersonal and physical competence
  2. manage emotions
  3. move through autonomy to interdependence
  4. develop mature interpersonal relationships
  5. establish identity
  6. developing purpose
  7. develop integrity

Further discussion of Chickering’s Seven Vectors can be found in Education and Identity (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series).

If Chickering’s observations are right, then students who reap the personal benefits of a college education  can expect to have some uncomfortable experiences and personal discoveries.  They can expect to discover that

  • They are not as smart as or as good as they thought they were (based on their high school sense of themselves).  In college, thought, they get to become even better thinkers (more analytical, better informed, wiser), savier and more mature in their relationships and able to relate to different sorts of people, and perhaps even more physically skilled as they have opportunity to participate in and learn new skills through college activities such as choirs, art classes, and  intramural sport programming (how many high schools had classes in racketball or backpacking?).
  • The new situations, the new environment, the new demands of college, in which they don’t have the same kind of family and friend network, makes for some rough emotional times.  Learning to recognize the range of emotions that situations can evoke and control them, channeling emotional energy into productive pathways, all by oneself can be really tough.  Many students coming to college have experienced a couple of different kinds of emotional environments.  Some have been told how to feel and what to do with those feelings by family and friends. College requires them to experience emotions and figure out what to do with them for themselves.  Others have been cut slack by parents and teachers regarding their emotional outbursts.  Many believe that adolescents are supposed to have nearly uncontrollable emotional drama and that it’s best to let them emote.  College students learn that emotional drama is counterproductive to successful college life, but that the college experience can provide them support and opportunities to figure out how to develop a more mature emotional outlook.
  • Some students who come to college are good at school, others aren’t.  Some students know how to be themselves, others have lived like chameleons. College provides opportunities for students to become individuals who know that they are personally competent even without lots of people telling them they are (or in spite of it). It also provides opportunities for students who are or become personally competent individuals academically to move to the next level…to learn to rely on others, building teams of academically competent people, to accomplish tasks too large for one person to accomplish.
  • In college, students from lots of different backgrounds come to live and learn in close proximity to each other.  Faculty encourage active participation and critical thinking in classes.  Some students find that their view of the world is not shared by everyone.  Developing mature interpersonal relationships requires students to figure out how to tolerate and appreciate those different from them.  Maturity in interpersonal relationships also means that students have to figure out how to develop healthy intimate relationships, with appropriate boundaries.  Girls and Guys Gone Wild, stalkers, passive-aggressives, possessors, and other “bad news” kinds of improperly bounded relationships are legendary parts of college life.  Good colleges help students develop mature interpersonal relationships that value individual worth and promote relational health.
  • Unstrung from the family social network, college students often struggle with “Who am I?” questions in profound ways.  In college they often put on different kinds of identities in order to explore the comfort of the fit.  An oft heard saying is that a college student will change his/her major at least three times in their career.  That can be scary, but it’s natural and its just the tip of the iceberg of a whole gamut of issues that students have to figure out for themselves that include “(1) comfort with body and appearance, (2) comfort with gender and sexual orientation, (3) sense of self in a social, historical, and cultural context, (4) clarification of self-concept through roles and life-style, (5) sense of self in response to feedback from valued others, (6) self-acceptance and self-esteem, and (7) personal stability and integration” (Chickering and Reisser, 1993, p. 49).
  • Who will I be? is another question that seems urgent and alarming to many college students.  This goes back to changing the major three times or more.  One of the tasks of college in terms of developing a sense of one’s purpose revolves around participation in experiential learning opportunities, service projects, and developing networks of friends while in college that will continue to be important to one’s life network in the future. Faculty who actively mentor students contribute significantly to helping students discover and resolve how they will answer the question of who they will be “when they grow up.”
  • Developing integrity is one of the most important things that students do in college.  Most come to college with a received view of world.  Their parents played a significant role in shaping that worldview.  Most leave college with one similar to what they came in with.  However, part of the college experience at a good college is to put that worldview through the fire and refine it.  College should help students learn to think openly and critically about ideas.  Being willing to change one’s mind in response to sound, evidence based reasoning, even if it means giving up something one has held dear, is the mark of a mature person and a person who will be able to make the world a better place.  A college education should provide students with opportunities to learn how to formulate good questions, gather sound information, analyze truth claims, identify assumptions and control for presuppositions, identify (develop) and apply useful conceptual tools,  see the problem from other points of view, draw conclusions based on reasoning informed by this process and identify the implications that those conclusions have for a persons beliefs and actions.  In addition to being able to think for oneself, which is fundamental to the well-being of a free society, one needs the ability make decisions within an good ethical framework…one that is less egocentric than most adolescents initially possess.  In college, students learn that doing what is right means acting in a manner that values others, builds rather than destroys relationships, values life, encourages and takes individual responsibility and participates in the development of a just society.

So what’s a college student supposed to be doing in college?  Growing up is part of it, learning to think, having healthy fun, making mistakes and learning how not to make them again, learning how to be a whole and real person, learning how to be true to oneself and one’s beliefs while valuing and respecting others are other parts.  College students have their work cut out for them, and those who design college experiences do to.


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