Choice and the college student

From the cradle young Americans are told they can be whatever they want. It's not true.
Katie Hinderer | Dec 7 2010 | comment  

For the average American college student, the word “commitment” is worse than any four-letter word and not as easily pronounced. To commit means eliminating dozens of other viable options in the pursuit of one choice -- a daunting and nearly impossible task. Pick a major. Pick a career. Pick a dorm or a roommate. Pick an ice cream flavor. Each of these choices, no matter how great or how small, means that something else gets set aside, something else remains un-chosen. And with that comes the gnawing feeling that begs the question, “What if option B was better?”

It is during the college years and subsequent young professional phase that the inability to commit begins to be noticeable. Prior to that, parents are still the primary decision makers. And yet the fear of finalizing a choice starts well before college.

It starts from the time a child is born. Parents, grandparents and older siblings crowd around the growing child and fill it with notions of being anything it wants to be. Anything at all. The sky is the limit, nothing will hold them back, nothing will stand in the way of fulfilling their greatest desires. Only through life experience do we learn that this mantra just isn’t true. I might have had the desire to be the best musical talent in the world, but if I lack the natural gift, even an intense inner drive will not propel me into the top of the charts; it probably would not even get me signed to a record label, and it certainly will not get me into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But, that inner voice argues back: “Don’t forget; you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Thus launched, the American teen enters high school aspiring to be a rocket scientist, winning a Noble Prize and being world famous. Unlike other in countries, such as Spain or Portugal, where you already are beginning to whittle down your professional choices, in the United States teenagers are encouraged to try out anything and everything that interests them. Take as many advanced placement and honors courses as possible. Join a handful of clubs, play on every sports team, run for student government, act in the play. Do it all, because you can. Because you should.

College advisers say that being involved in all these activities will look good on your college transcripts. But for many students it is impossible to fully commit to any of the groups. They are stretched too thin. Then it becomes a matter of choosing by default between the groups where are they absolutely needed and those they can skip. The idea of commitment to a team or group is watered down to a “when it’s possible to appear” basis.

When it is finally time to decide on a university and an area of study, the student has no clear-cut idea of what they want to be. Some choose a university because it is where a relative went, or because it is known for being good, others because of the scholarship they received or because their best friend is going there. I opted for my school because it offered both a degree in nursing and in journalism – the two careers I couldn’t choose between. The decision is always made with the idea in mind, “If I don’t like it I can always transfer.” And many do change course. They don’t commit to four years, they commit to as long as they want in. There is no commitment involved because that would be too restricting.

The same goes for a student’s field of study. Since it is difficult to settle on just one area of interest, a liberal arts education is encouraged as it allows for studying many areas and, in theory, allows the best choice. But interestingly enough, when there are more things to choose from the decision always becomes harder, not easier. It’s too hard to narrow down the options and nearly impossible to choose just one. What if I’m better at the other thing? Or what if I would be more happy in the other profession?

For me, as a declared journalism major hedging my bets about becoming a nurse, my liberal arts education had me taking classes in philosophy, economics, political science, history, English, theology, sociology, film, anthropology… I knew from the first week that political science and economics were not my cup of tea, but a film class on Alfred Hitchcock made me consider switching to that field, and a class on death and dying had me wanting to abandon writing altogether to study psychology… for a month. The options did not help my quest; they only confused me.

Beyond the bigger decisions of college life, like, where to attend and what to study, students also have the small day-to-day choices to make. Attend class or sleep in? Study for this exam or go to the bar? Watch this movie for the fifth time or go to the gym? When one option is taken, the other cannot also win. And when it becomes too difficult to pick, emotions take over. Tiredness means sleeping in, excitement means heading to the bar, dealing with consequences later. Or you combine the two, like the students in my science class who used to bring a water bottle full of vodka to our Friday afternoon class.

As if the decisions about what to study and how to study are not challenging enough, students are encouraged to join as many groups, organizations and sport teams as possible. Stay busy, stay active, meet people, get out. They sign up for numerous clubs they couldn’t possibly attend with the plan to zero in, after sporadic attendance of meetings, on those that are the most fun or most helpful.

For many, the inability to commit in college leads to a difficult transition into the working world. Suddenly they have committed to appearing some place from 9am until 5pm five days a week. They have agreed to sit in work clothes in a small cubicle and stare at a computer screen day in and day out. After the initial month of excitement wears off, doubts begin to creep in. This isn’t the “I can do anything I want” lifestyle they were told about from childhood. It isn’t even the “go ahead and experiment” college ideal. This is every day, rain or shine, sleep or none, headache or birthday. This is an inkling of commitment and it’s petrifying to even the most well prepared person, because… what if there really is something else out there?

Perhaps this inability to commit has always been a part of the American psyche. The poet, Robert Frost, wrote about it in “The Road Not Taken”. Inspirational posters quote the last lines (“I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”) in order to show the value of non-conformity and making one’s own decisions. But really, the poem is about two equally traveled paths, the decision to take one and the wonder at what would have happened if the other had been chosen instead:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair...

Rather than waxing poetic on commitment and the automatic fear it inspires, however, we need to start training ourselves and, in turn, the younger generation to take decisions seriously. Starting young, and with the little things. Agree to attend a party and actually go even if something more exciting comes up. Join a soccer team and play all the games; be an active team member and attend the scheduled practices.

Commit to a schedule, getting up when the alarm goes off and turning off the computer when it's time to call it a day. It is in a million little “yeses” throughout the day that we will be fortified in order to commit to the bigger things -- those ones that really matter. We will then be able to say yes to something without worrying about all the other things we are saying no to. It starts with one little commitment.

Katie Hinderer is a freelance journalist currently based in Boston and editor of the MercatorNet blog, Tiger Print.

This article is published by Katie Hinderer and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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