I’ll always remember the day a young woman, “Victoria,” slouched into my office and asked to shut the door. This was unusual for her. A bright student with a clear path to graduation, Victoria usually popped in cheerfully to say hello as she rushed between classes and organization meetings. This time, she flopped forlornly into a chair, let her body go limp. With her hands over her eyes, she mournfully asked, “What am I even doing here?”
I have coached hundreds of young adults navigating the opportunities and risks of college, and many—even the best-prepared ones—are mystified. The most common question they bring me is a variation on Victoria’s: what is college for? The only person who can really answer that is the student herself.
It is extremely difficult to chart a course forward when you aren’t sure where you are attempting to land or even why you’re on the journey in the first place. College is independent adult life, accelerated, intensified, and graded. Students must contend with multiple competing demands on their time and they are still acquiring most of the strategies and resources that adults regularly use. Additionally, they are paying significant costs (and amassing considerable debt) to be where they are, and that exacerbates stress. Without a vision for their future that’s based on deeply-held values and beliefs, it can become overwhelming to face the day-to-day labor, expenses, and struggles of earning a degree--to say nothing of what it takes to really learn.
We can help our students thrive if we create space for them to articulate what matters to them, why it is important, and how their experiences in college relate to those priorities. Each student needs to decide what college is for, in her own life. Thoughtful, open-ended questions can support students’ engagement in the hard work of defining the personal meaning and value of their education.
Start a Conversation, Start Them Thinking
Here are a few suggestions to help you begin a conversation that will start them thinking:
How have you changed in the last year?
What aspect of yourself makes you feel proud?
Who do you admire? What is it about them or their life that impresses you?
Who was the best teacher you had? What did they do that made them so good?
What’s a difficult thing that you have learned in the last year? How did you learn it?
Who are you looking forward to meeting/seeing/hanging out with?
What do you know about [city/town] outside of your campus so far? What do you want to explore there?
Do you have places you want to travel to or study in your lifetime? What is it about those places that interests you?
What qualities do you want to be known for? Why are those significant to you?
These questions are tailored to elicit certain productive habits of mind—adopting a long-term perspective and focusing on enduring qualities rather than short-term tasks. These questions seek insight rather than dictating obligations or offering advice. This positions the student as the expert in her own life and positions you as a curious supporter. You are like an interviewer, making her the star of the story that she chooses to tell about herself. Practicing self-authorship helps young adults develop confidence and explore the personal values and strengths that contribute to their evolving sense of self.
Tips for Asking Powerful Questions
These open-ended questions should be posed lightly, over coffee or on a walk.
Select one topic to raise at a time so that you don’t accidentally slip into an interrogation.
You can help extend the discussion by offering a brief, previously-untold story about your own college experience; I recommend that you reveal a mistake and how you changed as a result. Disclosing new things about your past shows that you recognize their independence.
Accept that they may not answer your questions directly or deeply. That’s fine—and normal. Even if she does not engage in a dialogue on the subject, you have planted seeds in her mind that can encourage her recognize that she has authority over what happens next.
I asked Victoria a few of these questions, and listened while she thought and spoke and verbally sketched out a tentative answer to her own question. Slowly she sat up straight, cocked her head, and I saw her regain some of her spark as she explained to me—and herself—what exactly she was doing there. Now she’s graduated, working in her field, and finishing her Master’s degree. She still has questions, and as she works out the answers she more confidently illuminates her own way forward.
That’s what it’s for.