By Scott Sager
My daughter grew up in New York City, arguably the most diverse place in the United States, so it was hard to imagine that, when she went to college, she could meet anyone from outside her range of experience.
However, she immediately came in contact with students from other cultures and countries with different intellectual, religious and political perspectives, interacting with them closely and constantly at meals, in class and around the dorm. Living with so many new people was both exciting and challenging.
Getting to know people different from themselves — encountering new ideas and perspectives — is an essential part of the college experience. This may not be easy for every student, however.
In a 2014 survey, students identified stress as the second biggest problem on campus (Student Monitor). While “stress” can have a lot of sources, social issues are often part of the equation. Making friends, finding a social group, getting along with roommates and classmates are all part of adjusting to college life. A student’s ability to relate and work with peers from different backgrounds is an important tool for success.
My daughter’s first semester was a big change academically from high school and these challenges made for some tense moments. Her dorm room and hall were a place of refuge — with that group, she could vent frustrations, get support and just have fun. When other students on the hall weren’t getting along, the strain affected everyone.
“In the fall of 2014, students entered college confident in their abilities to interact with diverse peers,” according to a large study by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (The American Freshman 2014). While more than three-quarters of students considered this ability to be a personal strength, students who’d had less interaction with people from other backgrounds in high school had a harder time discussing and negotiating controversial issues, working cooperatively with diverse people and having their own views challenged.
Parents can help their student prepare for these social situations. Most important is giving your student opportunities to meet and connect with people from a wide range of backgrounds.
This kind of real-life interaction has many benefits. Interpersonal relationships are the bread and butter of campus life. In classes, dorms, sports and other activities, open, respectful contact and conversation is essential and leads to good relationships. Building a social network gives a student support during times of academic or personal stress and these friendships often last a lifetime. My daughter’s dorm was a diverse mix of people who found common ground in sharing the first year of college and provided her a social foundation to branch out from.
The ability to get along with diverse groups of people is a skill that will serve your student well beyond college. Work settings increasingly rely on teams working together and the globalization of industry increases the chance students will have careers dealing with colleagues and clients from other countries. For my daughter, her internship this summer involves hosting and working with attendees at conferences from all over the United States and beyond, requiring intense communication but also offering enormous opportunity to network and develop contacts in her field.
To boost our students’ interpersonal intelligence, we can make sure they unplug periodically. A 2010 study found that, in general, college students had less empathy for others and less ability to see the world from perspectives other than their own than students of generations past (Scientific American). Much of this change is attributed to the rise of social media, which can result in students having fewer face-to-face interactions with people.
Family dinners and time free from technology helps our students learn to converse with and listen to others. Encourage them to get off their computers and go out with friends — see a movie rather than watching on their laptop, for example. Talking in person with friends and relatives, not texting or messaging, puts your student on the right course.
Over vacations, my daughter’s college friends have visited and she’s gone to stay with them, too. She’s lucky to have found good friends who both care about her and challenge her. Together, she and her crew will be ready to face the world when graduation comes.
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