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Packing for College: The Real Essentials

By: Joel Ingersoll, Ph.D.

· Parenting,College,High School

I’d like you to join me in the student parking lot of LaSalle University in late August, 1988. An 18 year-old boy is unpacking the college essentials from every square inch of his car: typewriter, boom-box, cassette & VHS tapes, bottles of Sea Breeze, and hair mousse. It’s freshman move-in day!

His mind is filled with both excitement and anxiety while anticipating the adjustment to this new scene. LaSalle was his top college choice, but he’s a bit sad knowing he's left behind a home with a single parent mom and two younger siblings.

Despite an initial roommate change, he forms friendships quickly over cheap beer and pickup basketball games. His social adjustment is easy, nothing short of spectacular.

Academically, it's a different story. He was an average high school student; procrastination and low self-motivation had always been his major challenges to academic success. He unwittingly brought the same academic approach to college -- where the work is harder and expectations higher.

Initially, he and the other first-year students are eased into coursework, but then the professors lower the boom. Studying is difficult. His tests and papers come back with C’s, D’s, and F’s. He doesn’t read his teachers' comments and makes no effort to consult with any professors outside of class. He lies to his friends and family, bragging about achieving better grades and blaming professors for subpar performance.

His stress only increases during midterms, exacerbated by caffeinated all-nighters and fueled by snickers bars and Ramen noodles. He makes no changes in the second half of the semester. During the final eight weeks his book bag is heavy even when he's skipping class, because he's also carrying embarrassment, anxiety, and self-doubt. "Why bother?" he thinks. “It won’t matter now.”

He never once asks for help.

Despite that first semester experience (which ends with a GPA that leads his mother to ask, “Is that mathematically possible?”), he chooses the same approach for another two semesters. At the start of each he makes promises to do better and plans to study more. And just as with most New Year's resolutions, his plans come to nothing. The same habits and outcomes reassert themselves.

The achievement of future goals seems impossible until the first week of his 4th college semester, when he tries something new and simple. He creates a clear workspace at his dorm-room desk and commits to writing, in the margin of an assigned philosophy book, a one-to-eight word summary of each paragraph he reads. He does this with all his reading assignments, and a simple exercise becomes a new discipline.

This is his 'Ah-ha!' moment, this powerful experience of opening his mind to personal assessment and making simple behavioral adjustments. It works! He earns his first A in that philosophy class. But even more important than the good grade, he finds himself increasingly confident and motivated. His academic trajectory is forever changed.

I was that boy, and that was how and when I discovered the value of self-awareness. I didn’t unpack it from my car on move-in day in August, 1988, because I'd never considered the value of packing it in the first place.

There is a set of skills for which students have never received a grade, skills that fall under the umbrella of Emotional Intelligence. These are skills like self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, leadership, and motivation. Development of such strengths has a huge impact on college transition and college success, but most students don't recognize the value of these skills, nor take the time to acquire them -- especially when conditioned for years by emphasis on standardized test scores. The good news is that it's never too late for our students, or ourselves, to cultivate and master them.

I learned about emotional intelligence the hard way, but my daughter doesn't have to. Because of my experience, she's developing self-awareness and self-discipline now, before her own college adventure begins. Our family life reinforces empathy and self-regulation, and the value of seeking out resources for self-growth. So when my daughter arrives at college on her move-in day, she'll be unpacking some of the real essentials she'll need to succeed.

I share my story so that you can observe your child’s upcoming experience in middle school, high school, or college with eyes wide open. My goal is to teach students how to master crucial skills in their educational journey.

Dr. Joel's workshops offer a one-time, 2-hour intensive training to prepare your child for their new upcoming educational experience, especially before their very first step on college campus. Sign up here:

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