John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Merits of Being Stranded

February 1, 2010John N. GardnerInsights0

I write this blog as I am “stranded” in an airport hotel for two nights, not home with my wife on our beautiful North Carolina mountain top as I want to be. This is as a result of my home airport of Asheville, NC being closed by a winter snow storm preventing me from getting in.

My challenge in addition to the expected travel hassles is somehow to make the most of this unplanned for adversity. I am reminded of the thinking and writing of my late, good friend, Al Siebert, who wrote and spoke about the so-called “survivor personality”. Basically, this is a fundamental trait of resiliency and adaptability. As I have been making decisions about how I would use my stranded time, my thoughts have turned to wondering how I am different/similar to the behavior of first-year college students when they are stranded?!

Al Siebert’s work on the “survivor personality” reminds me also of my friend Donald Lifton’s research on “hardiness”. Don is a Business professor at Ithaca College that has been exploring a trait in college students for over fifteen years, which he describes as “hardiness”. He is particularly interested in the correlation of “hardiness” in first-year students and the correlation with persistence in college.

So my thoughts have turned, perhaps to a fantasy, about what might be the value of contriving certain experiences where our first-year students might find themselves “stranded”, i.e. cut off from the ones they love, or at least normally associate socially with, cut off from the conventional surroundings. What would they do? How would they spend their time? How could we use this as an opportunity for reflection, self-appraisal, goal setting, decision making, who knows? Whatever?

I am reminded too of my son’s experience on an Outward Bound expedition. He was a high school senior and on this trip to the Everglades, he and the other students were each left totally alone for about a day, with absolutely none of the gadgets for contemporary distraction and mental occupation: no phones, radios, Ipods, music players of any kind. And they were given a note pad and asked to write their reflections. The experience for my son was quite transformative. Most notably, he discovered silence and its therapeutic effects.

Personally, I believe that the first year of college is an extraordinary “foundational” experience, both for college, and for life.

So, I leave you with these questions: what could you/we do to make our first-year students better “survivors” when life has a way of serendipitously “stranding” them? Make them more “hardy” in their all important temperaments? The knowledge transmission, acquisition, creation, discovery process is, of course, the preeminent academic mission. But how can that knowledge from the beginning college experience be used to increase “success when stranded?” Hundreds of thousands of college educated citizens, like my brother for instance, are asking themselves such questions in the Great Recession, which has “stranded” so many of our higher education graduates.

I know that my college experience is helping me cope with being stranded, but I would still rather not be stranded. I am coping better though because I am “grounded” and I have college to thank for much of that.

-John N. Gardner

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