#RealCollege Students Are Real, Ordinary People

By: Rainesford Stauffer

Someone recently told me about an app their elementary schooler was supposed to be using. Or rather, an app that was supposed to be scoring them. Evidently, their teachers added points throughout the (virtual and remote) school day and their parent(s) added points at home. Now, I’m far from an expert in educational technology, but I had some immediate thoughts. This app was another thing for an already-overworked-and-unpaid teacher to have to do. This app was another thing for an already-spread-too-thin parent to have to do. And this app was another one of the seemingly limitless ways we seem to measure children: this time literally ranking, assessing, and calculating their performance, and by extension, their worth.

I haven’t stopped thinking about this app since I found out about it. This was the technological equivalent (for elementary school!) of something I heard over and over again while interviewing twenty-somethings for my book, An Ordinary Age. That they have never been without a laundry list of things they should be doing, as students and workers and friends and as people. They have never known themselves outside the context of “earning it” — because when would that have happened? They have always felt beholden to upholding standards that were a stark disconnect from their real lives, and real circumstances that impact them.

The pressure to be exceptional, to be extraordinary, to meet these standards, did not just switch on when someone joined Instagram and entered young adulthood. They are embedded in education before most of us have even learned to do multiplication tables.

I’ve thought often about how our educations shape us, especially as I wrote the chapter on the myth of the “college experience.” The idea that college must be the “best four years of your life” or you’ve flunked a significant cultural touchpoint of young adulthood. Never mind, of course, that not every college student is a young adult, that not every young adult will go to college, and that the college experience should not be one-size-fits-all.

Our society loves to score and rank young people, not just on what they’ve “earned,” but on how well they fit the mold of what it means to be a “successful young person.” It’s one of the reasons the “traditional” college experience talking point persists. We consider “on-track” something young people are supposed to be, as if their lives unfold separate from the economics, circumstances, and personal preferences that define their choices. Not everyone’s “track” is the same.

But just as we love points that tell us whether a student did well at school that day, we love ways to measure young people. And still, the myth persists that young adulthood exists in a silo. “Real life” hasn’t begun yet, the talking point goes, so how can young adults be experiencing pressure?

It shouldn’t have to be pointed out how deeply flawed this mentality is, and how many people it fundamentally leaves out. The young adults I spoke to over the past several years for this book were parents, caretakers, and breadwinners. They were individuals who had experienced tremendous losses and astounding joys in their personal and professional lives. A lot of them were students. Most of them wondered why the expectations put on them felt so fundamentally incompatible with their existence, not as employees or students, but as a real human being. A real human being with thoughts, fears, and ideas, with expansive inner and outer life that doesn’t just happen in the context of classrooms, homework, and exams.

When I think of real students I think of these people:

I think of Alexis, a first-generation, low-income student who was fired from her job as a resident assistant due to, ironically, her being outspoken about the significant lack of support her university gave resident assistants. She had to take a mental health leave from school, and I think of how her voice sounded when she told me, “When we say we can’t afford to fail, we really do mean it.”

I think of Ashae, the first person in her family to graduate from college, who spoke about the pressure of knowing it would be on her to take care of her family. She dreamed of buying a house in a nice neighborhood for her mother, and being able to afford the best doctors for her grandmother. Now, she lives in fear of being fired. “Who would take care of my grandmother?,” she wondered. That pressure was with her in college, and it didn’t vanish after.

I think of Xorah, a 16-year-old community college student, who pointed out that the myth of every college student being between the ages of 18 and 22 and attending a 4-year university was “a part of this American dream ideal that we have about owning a house and having a specific number of kids and being married.” Xorah has found that to be untrue in the context of her life. Why hasn’t society noticed?

We tell our young people that what is most important can’t be measured, weighed, and assessed. We tell them that the best things in life aren’t money or stuff or accomplishments. Yet we constantly put them up against a measuring stick, and tell them that it is preparing them for the “real world.”

Inevitably, when I write or tweet about students having various circumstances, someone inevitably tells me how important it is that young people earn things, how important it is to measure them, and why a little bit of pressure isn’t a bad thing. But I ask: shouldn’t students need more resources and support, instead of ranking them? Shouldn’t it be more individualized than a score? And this isn’t a “little bit” of pressure: it’s an overwhelming feeling as though they are one false step/mediocre grade/sick day away from their life completely unraveling.

Instead of what young adults are going to earn, I’d like to ask what they are going to be given. One thing that became wildly evident while reporting for the book, is that most young people are going through much more than most of us will ever see. They are worrying about paying rent, if they have enough to eat for dinner, and whether they should skip work or skip their final, since they can’t be in two places at once. They are profoundly impacted by systemic issues, and are often without resources. It should not be complicated to acknowledge their humanity before society sums them up as “students,” “millennials,” “Gen Z,” or “lazy.” They do not need another extraordinary expectation. Instead, they need resources that should be ordinary: enough to eat, living wages, and affordable, safe housing. These are not things that should have to be earned.

In my book, I talked to real, ordinary young adults, who have real, ordinary needs. When I think about young adulthood, now, I think of that elementary school app, and how early all of this begins. I wonder if creating a better young adulthood means valuing the fundamental worth and complexity of young adults themselves. Just ordinary people, who deserve support and have infinite value when everything we can measure falls away.

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