THE BRIDGE TO COLLEGE
From IB to State U: the Challenge of Change
In my opinion, no high school curriculum is more challenging than the International Baccalaureate Program. IB prepares students very well for the rigors of the college classroom. However, IB does not prepare students at all for the overall college environment. In our experience, IB students struggle more than any others with the culture shock of adjusting to college.
The college environment is as different from IB as night is different from day. IB is quite structured and keeps students extremely busy. IB students spend a lot of time doing their homework, CAS, and other schools activities. Furthermore, the IB group mindset provides natural support for individuals in crisis. Then, in college, this support structure disappears in the same moment that time requirements dissipate.
Students who complete IB and then enroll in major public universities seem to struggle more than their non-IB classmates. IB students are well-prepared for class, but not for what happens outside of class. They are astounded by the differences. One student, during his second week at a state university, made a striking observation: “Don’t they know they’re supposed to go to class?!”
The dysfunction of the new environment burrows deeply into IB students. One student wrote: “I was told by previous IB graduates that college was a breeze, so it was extremely stressful for me when things did not go as smoothly as they were foretold. I stressed myself out beyond belief.”
Another described his first year as full of emptiness. “At first, I felt like I was lacking something. I no longer had a strict routine day to day. It was no longer wake up at 5:30, get ready for school, go to school from 7:30 to 3, go home, do homework, exercise, do more homework, then sleep. Although I had a lot more control over my own time, it was a tough transition.”
Without the structure within which they grew, IB students feel lost in large environments: “IB prepares you very poorly for a state university experience. IB provides a clear path with a clear endgame if you do everything right. College offers no such luxuries. You need to learn how to function in such a massive, overwhelming educational environment without the support of your friends, teachers, and guidance counselors. You must work very, very hard to maintain friendships and relationships that automatically refresh themselves daily in high school. When you stress out in freshman year at a big university, you will be doing so alone. In those moments, it can be nearly impossible to maintain motivation.”
Large environments are harder to navigate than small ones, especially for IB students. At medium-sized universities and small colleges, the adjustment seems to be easier. One IB student attending a private college told me that although her first week was uncomfortable, she was amazed at how connected and interactive everyone was by the second week of school.
For IB students at major public universities, the key is to find small social groups, and that means making an effort to get involved in campus activities. A sophomore who had only recently become comfortable in his surroundings provided this recommendation: “My advice for people dealing with a tough transition is to try and get involved with organizations or activities that they find interesting. The best way to get over the feeling of emptiness is to get involved. Really, just try everything.”
Major, public universities offer amazing assets. Once students become accustomed to the new environment (and gain some seniority), they can take advantage of all that is available to them. Unfortunately, for IB students, the transition from high school to State U is more dramatic, and the adjustment takes longer than most people anticipate.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Spring break in Washington D.C. was wonderful. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, the weather was balmy and the monuments magnificent. Heaven for a history buff, but I think the moment that really gave me the feels was when I walked into the hushed Rotunda of the National Archives and looked right down at the actual Declaration of Independence. There it was, the real thing, granting us our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It gave me goose bumps — and fodder for thought.
Life and liberty are easily interpreted. But happiness? That’s a word we throw around without too much thought. Previous generations’ hopes for their children’s future centered on stability —health, duty, career and family — than around some ephemeral state of joy. However, when my kids ask me what they should be when they grow up, I unthinkingly resort to the cliché, “I just want you to be happy.”
What a burden to thrust on a child. The pursuit of happiness in today’s world of endless options and instant gratification can be a constant and futile task, and the sustaining of joy an even more exhausting one. Just ask Riley, the young protagonist of last year’s insightful Pixar film, “Inside Out.” She moves from the Midwest to San Francisco and struggles to navigate her new life, but is prevented from fully expressing her feelings by her parents who count on her to always be joyful. Like Riley, our kids are often told: “Smile!” “What do you have to be sad about? You have everything you could want!”
We may be doing more damage than we think. In May’s “Tampa Bay Parenting” Magazine, writer Krista Lyons states that of the 40 million Americans who report feeling anxiety, 75 percent of them have their first anxiety episode by age 22. She quotes Leila Durr, Ph.D., licensed psychologist at the University of South Florida Counseling Center, who warns about today’s college kids being stuck in a “happiness trap:” the constant need to only feel happy, leading them to ignore other feelings, causing even higher levels of fear and anxiety.
Who’s to blame? Social media is a usual suspect. And hey — we live in Florida, land of constant sunshine and Magic Kingdom, the Happiest Place on Earth. Coca Cola takes its responsibility as a purveyor of happiness so seriously it has a website devoted to the feeling, complete with steps on how to achieve it and peppy quotes about happiness from the likes of the Dalai Lama. Subtext: If you’re not happy all the time, it must be your fault, and there’s probably something wrong with you.
Don’t underestimate the role that we as parents play in the problem, either. Lyons writes that we may have paved the way too much for our kids, leaving them unprepared for challenges. She quotes Durr again: “If we protect kids too much from any kinds of pain, disappointment or setbacks, when they do experience one it is so much more devastating.”
Today’s parents have a hard time separating our children’s tragedies from ourselves, giving the children the double burden of being the happiness keeper for both themselves and us. Our kids may feel that failure is not an option when it means breaking our hearts, but we need to show them that we will get over it. They have to stumble while they’re little, so we can guide them back up and teach them to carry on. We need to resist the temptation to ask, “What will make you happy?” rather than, “What’s the right thing to do here, even if it doesn’t work in your favor?”
I’m not advocating offering our kids a joyless future. Rather — at the risk of proselytizing — I’m advocating a loose interpretation of the Hindu concept of dharma, which may have been what Thomas Jefferson intended when he wrote those words into the Declaration of Independence. Writer Carol Hamilton explains in an article for historynewsnetwork.org that Jefferson drew inspiration from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, writing in a letter to a friend that: “Happiness the aim of life. Virtue the foundation of happiness. Utility a test of virtue.”
So, instead of the unreliable party animal Happiness, let’s offer our kids its less flashy cousins Satisfaction and Contentment as lifelong companions, which are attainable through true introspection and work well and sincerely done. And if Happiness does show up, invite her in and enjoy her company, but understand she’s a guest and can go just as fleetingly as she came to grace our lives.
Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of www.YourEditingSolutions.com