damaged goods

Damaged Goods

[Presented at #AFAAM 2017 by Jessica Gendron Williams, Jason Allen, KJ McNamara, and Matt Mattson]

Today’s college students might be the most edited, filtered, self-conscious and insecure population of their age range to date. And that’s not their fault. This generation, like those before them, are a product of their times. Social media, the previous election and its polarizing results, as well as the shame-producing economic crises they were raised in, have challenged current students’ ability to discuss opinions, feelings, and view points without feeling intense isolation. This is a population of students that are arriving to their university experience with very different baggage, very real scars, and very complex emotional identities.

And these are the students that are now filling our fraternities and sororities. Our fraternal industry promotes itself as this perfected and edited image of popularity and friendship — seemingly a shortcut to the living an idealized Instagrammable life — and that must be attactive to many of hte most insecure and socially frightened students in their peer group. This manifests into toxic expressions of masculinity, dangerous drug and alcohol cultures, and intensely suffering self-worth.

Let’s look at the realities of what these students are carrying around in their uniquely heavy baggage, then let’s consider the implications of this audience on the fraternity/sorority industry. There are at least six contributing factors that have shaped the emotional scars that they arrive at the university bearing.

1. SOCIAL MEDIA. Let’s start here. Today’s college students simply do not spend as much time, in person, with their friends. From this article (which cites a UCLA Higher Education Reseach Institute study) we learn that “The average freshman used to socialize for 16+ hours on any given week, but no longer. That percentage is at a record low, dropping from 34% to 18% of students in the past 10 years.” The article continues by pointing out that “Time spent on virtual social netowrking platforms continues to scale rapidly — from 19% of students spending 16+ hours per week in 2007, to 27% of students today.” This says nothing of the now commonly understood phenomenon of social media envy (easy article here); we see others through the lens of their posed, filtered, cropped, intentionally perfect-looking social media stories. The damage being done related to body image, self-worth, personal fulfillment, etc. is almost undeniable.

2. DEMOGRAPHIC SHIFTS. What many in higher education already know is that today’s college students are dramatically different than the stereotypical 4-year, 18-22 year-old, residential, mostly white, mostly socio-economically privileged students of lore. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provide a wonderful infographic and related resources here. Among other things, we learn that, “Today’s college students come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring an equally diverse set of needs. Among college students today, nearly half (40 percent) are age 25 or older—returning to advance their career or to re-train for a new opportunity. Many students hold full-time jobs while enrolled in classes, one-quarter are parents, and many are the first in their family to attend college.” This group of students is overburdened financially, over scheduled, reconsidering the very value of a college education, and having a very different college experience than their parents’ generation may have promised them.

3. MENTAL UN-WELLNESS. “According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute annual freshman survey, conducted since 1966, a record high of 11.9 percent of the students in the 2016 incoming class reported ‘frequently’ feeling depressed in the past year, and 13.9 percent said ‘there was a very good chance they would seek personal counseling in college.’ And for the first time in the survey’s history, less than half (47 percent) consider their mental health to be above average relative to their peers.” That passage comes from a great New York Times article you can dig into here. Dig deeper with this article from Psychology Today that reminds us of the increasing suicide rate among 15 to 24-year-olds, and most poignantly illuminates that “Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students.” Today’s students are dealing with what seems to be a far more anxiety-ridden life experience, and this is only exacerbated by the high usage rates of opiates and other drugs to mask these health challenges.

4. SOCIETAL DISCORD. The political and societal world around this generation, during their formative years, is in unprecedented turmoil. Weekly shooting rampages. A President from a TV show. Protests in the streets regularly. Trust in traditional institutions being publicly challenged (i.e. police). Identity upheaval (especially race and gender). The very underpinnings of society seem shaky and uncertain. Simply starting a conversation about gender roles or race relations seems irresponsible in a small section of a small article like these because these issues are so complex, so emotionally triggering, and so historically repressed that we couldn’t possibly explore them. But a few simple notes shine a light on these identity-rocking realities. What does it mean to be a man in 2018? Are women safe anywhere when a new high profile figure every day is accused of gross sexual misconduct? Where will the next public shooting rampage happen? How many other questions could we list that incite the same level of anxiety and lack of security to countless other segments of our population?

5. FAILURE TO FAIL. It is unnecessary to rail against “helicopter parents” or “the participation ribbon generation.” That’s been done (and it matters). But the young students who do show up at today’s colleges and universities do have less failure (and learned lessons from that failure) in their backgrounds. This point almost feels cliche at this point, but an interesting related anecdote comes from this NIH article that reports on a survey of high school students’ drug and alcohol use, “Use of many substances is at its lowest level since the survey’s inception, including alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, inhalants, and sedatives.” Students are arriving at college not only with the most trophies and participation ribbons, but also with the least experience with most dangerous substances that they’ll very quickly encounter. On a separate but equally relevant note, students are arriving at colleges and universities with inflated high school grades (see here) and quickly acquiring deflated egos upon their first college experiences.

6. GENERATIONAL CONTEXT. Much has been written on Generation Z. This generation that grew up post 9-11. This generation that experienced its formative years during a major economic crisis which left many of them (and their neighbors) losing their homes and dealing with significant economic uncertainty. This generation that is more diverse, more blended, and more pragmatic, and more worldly than any other. Here’s an article we wrote on our Innova blog a while ago that references Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace’s book, “Generation Z Goes To College.”

All of these factors have combined to create a group of college students many professionals in the industry might see as “damaged goods.” But whatever cracks, scars, or brokenness they bring to college makes them the norm, not the exception. These students are exactly the students who are currently filling our organizations rosters right now and for years to come. The question becomes, How do we shape our organizations — our fraternities and sororities — to meet their needs and set them up for success?