John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How about an Independence Day for new students?

This is a blog written with July 4th in mind. This is the annual holiday to commemorate the announcement that Britain’s 13 colonies in North America were separating from the British Empire. With all the references to the “Declaration of Independence” my thoughts this year included connecting this concept of a “declaration of independence” to the transition into college.

When we look at today’s students transitioning into college, many are “independent” in that they are fully adult, self-supporting, highly focused and “decided.” These are not students who are being supported by parents, although, hopefully, they are being encouraged and in that way “supported” by their significant others. And, of course, in contrast, there are still a very large number of students who are being supported by families. My point here is that our students enter at various points on an “independent” to “dependent” continuum.

But setting aside that gross difference, my mind has wandered to thinking about how could we mark at some appropriate point a “declaration of independence” for new students? At what point in the new student experience have they reached their readiness and ability to reject their former colonial overlords of immaturity, bias, prejudice, uncertainty about an academic direction, etc? Are there some markers that we could agree upon which would denote they have finally become autonomous members of the college community? They have arrived?

What would be the advantages of noting and celebrating the attainment of such markers? Well, affirmation and hence enhanced self esteem. Raised expectations and hence probability of increased student efforts and learning outcomes. Reduction of family anxiety about how their family member was transitioning, to name only a few.

We do, of course, or at least some of us do provide recognition and rituals for markers of growing independence and a form of “declaration”, to wit:

1. Mid-term grade reports
2. End of first-term grade reports
3. Convocations
4. Orientation
5. Pledging and initiation into social organizations
6. Declaration of major (and thus having performed sufficiently well to gain admission to selective admissions majors)
7. Allowing students to move off campus after a residency requirement has been fulfilled
8. Being informed that conditions of exception for full, unqualified admission, have been satisfied
9. Learning that you have “made the team”

So, yes, we do have markers. But are these sufficient to have perhaps a more powerful impact that you have truly turned the corner, moved from your former High School Harry self and become Joe College? I don’t think so. But what else could we do? And is this even worth thinking about? You tell me. I hope our annual holiday stimulated your thinking in some productive ways too.

-John Gardner

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