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Let’s open our eyes to students’ distress

University Affairs by Elizabeth Flynn-Dastoor 10 September 2014

Matthew de Grood was known as a good student, heading off to law school, but something was broken in him and it snapped on the night that he stabbed five of his University of Calgary peers to death. I won’t begin to speculate about the specifics of Matthew’s case or whether there is anything that university staff could or should have done. Clearly he was deeply troubled.

A question that arises is: If Matthew’s mental state could become fragmented and fragile to the point of such devastating actions – and no one, apparently, noticed or intervened – then how many other students in distress are we just not seeing?

It’s true that many students grow and thrive under our collective guidance, but if an estimated 30 percent drop out and still more are struggling and suffering under the radar, are we really doing our jobs? Are we doing enough for them?

We must scrutinize how we introduce students to university life when they arrive for their first year. Cases of academic misconduct are on the rise, and incoming students often don’t have the study skills they need to succeed at university. Many institutions try to bring students up to speed with structured academic support, often in the form of a first-year University 101 course or discipline-specific learning communities.

There’s a clear case for investing in academic interventions for first-year students to promote academic success and retention. But is it enough? This approach ignores the vast interpersonal contexts in which students complete their studies. The possibilities that lie before these young people are exciting, but the uncertainty and instability can be overwhelming. Many are vulnerable.

I sometimes wonder whether academic transition programs unintentionally contribute to socializing our students to pursue grades at the cost of their own well-being. Students need systemic social support at least as much as academic support, so that they both graduate and become whole, healthy grown-ups. If we start them out with formal social support, we might socialize them to expect assistance, to seek it out when needed and to help their peers do the same.

Granted, universities are academic institutions, and our primary purpose is to educate and graduate as many students as are willing and able. But if we look at transitional programming through that lens, it still makes sense to prioritize social support. We are wasting resources on academic interventions if students must use all their personal resources to cope on a daily basis.

Some of these young people are also not ready for the requirements of quasi-adulthood, requirements that become a challenging reality after the glow of orientation week fades. A struggling student who feels that others expect her to be able to do well on her own will continue to struggle alone.  A struggling student who understands the shared nature of her difficulties and believes the campus community to be a supportive environment will seek academic help.

Research tells us that emotional health and social integration into the university environment are particularly important influences on academic success and on student decisions to persist or drop out. But university education is not only about getting that piece of paper, getting a better job, and other easily measured outcomes. It’s also about the development of intangibles that contribute to a more meaningful sense of self and of place in the local and global communities.

We can achieve the goal of better student retention and nurture students’ development through social support programs. At Wilfrid Laurier University, students who participated in a small, peer-led discussion group intervention at the beginning of first year were followed by Mark Pancer and colleagues up to four years later. Not only did intervention participants have a more positive outlook on student life compared with controls but they also had a 72-percent lower attrition rate.

Programming decisions often come down to money: what will cost the least and give the biggest return in tuition dollars? Groups with features similar to the Laurier ones (a focus on social support, peer leaders, up to 10 students, confidentiality) could be incorporated into residence life and learning communities without much additional cost to universities.

We must not let the students who commit suicide, whom we read about every year, simply become another attrition statistic. We must not write off the binge-drinking, class-skipping,
Netflix marathon-watching students as irresponsible slackers. We can both educate and nurture the young people who come to us, so that their success when they leave might be evident in much more than just a degree on the wall.

Elizabeth Flynn-Dastoor is a PhD candidate and psychology lab coordinator at Wilfrid Laurier University.