College: time for passionate pursuits

I sometimes wonder where the passion went. I remember a spring-quarter class I was teaching a few years back, when a bunch of college seniors straggled in late, looking a bit shell-shocked. I assumed they were stressed about an upcoming deadline.

Hardly, one said. Turns out she and several of the others had just had an "exit" interview with their financial-aid counselor and found exactly how much a month their four years of student loans were going to cost.

I wanted to defuse the gloom. So I tried playing Mom. "C'mon," I said. "Don't obsess about the money. I'm only going to tell you what your own parents would: Never sell out your passion for a paycheck."

Dead silence. Then finally, hoots of laughter as one guy in the back of the room - baseball cap on backwards, tattooed ankle resting on the desk - burst out, "My parents would never say that."

Ever since, I've wondered why dreams die. I remember my oldest child's "graduation" from kindergarten. She and her classmates, sporting construction-paper mortarboards and armed with an unsinkable sense of possibility and wonder, stood on tiptoe behind a microphone and told their adoring parents, videocams rolling, what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were ballerinas and ballplayers. Artists and writers. Firemen. Rock stars. Zookeepers.

But what experience tells me is that, after four years of college, most of those kids will be doing none of the above. If history holds, they'll head for a cubicle, doing something safe, risk free, but with a good starting salary.

Over the years, I've had conversations with students who tell me they not only have no time to pursue their passion - be it music or art or dance - but have never actually had the time to discover one. They mourn that fact. So do I.

What saddens me is that many students come to college to get a job, rather than an education. For them, the university is not so much a place where they experience the joy of discovery, but simply a means to yet one more end. To be sure, these are good kids: reliable, responsible, hard-working, and eager to please. Still, they are always worried about what comes next, and the grades it takes to get there. Rarely do they ever get too close to the edge, staying instead on their safe and proscribed five-year path.

When I teach my intro journalism students the fundamentals of interviewing, I often use myself as guinea pig to give them hands-on practice. Inevitably one asks what seems to be the most sensible question: Where do you see yourself in five years? I usually shrug and answer that I just don't think in those terms. My students are usually a bit flummoxed. They think I'm quaint - in a nice little '60s kind of way.

I suspect the past quarter century of competitive parenting is starting to take its toll. These are kids raised on books like "How To Raise Your Child To Be A Winner" or "Kids Who Succeed." They were nurtured, loved, and, well, micromanaged by adoring parents who made sure they always gave their kids an edge - from preschool to play dates to piano teachers. By ninth grade, many of them were starting to work seriously on their résumés, in hopes of gaining admission to increasingly competitive - and expensive - universities.

Apparently, this pressure to succeed has trickled down. My daughter told me she recently spotted this very stressed-out little girl, wearing grade-school plaid, at a local coffee house, drinking a latte as she anxiously went over problems in a Princeton Review workbook with her tutor. She said she was cramming for a private high school entrance exam. What baffles me is that few people think even her caffeine fix was weird.

I once interviewed David Elkind, Tufts University child development guru and author of "The Hurried Child," for a piece I was writing on overbooked kids. He told me that he is often dismayed by what he sees on campus: "I see too many kids at the college level who are sort of desperate because they always tried to do what their parents wanted them to do, and now they feel really inauthentic. They get very torn - they're thinking, 'What am I really? I've always done what my parents wanted, and I never discovered who I really am.' "

Maybe that's what happened to the passion.

The good news is that it hasn't disappeared completely: At our school, a small but growing cadre of students spend summers, breaks, and the year after graduation feeding their passion for social justice by working with the poor anywhere from Appalachia to India. Just this week, I received e-mails from former students who haven't given up their dreams of becoming journalists. One has subsidized an increasingly competitive slate of internships by waiting tables, and has just applied for another internship at Mother Jones. The other has endured summer heat in California's Central Valley to intern at a small daily there. She says she loves it.

And that kid from the back of the room? Right after graduation, he took off for a big city in Southern California, working for a caterer until he could talk his way into a staff position at a local paper, where he is now a sports columnist. When last we spoke, he told me that he had used his column to propose marriage to his girlfriend.

She said yes.

Barbara Kelley is a journalism professor at Santa Clara University in California.

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