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At college, even choice is a challenge Q&A with college-stress expert Karen Levin Coburn '63
At college, even choice is a challenge
Karen Levin Coburn ’63 is co-author of the best-selling Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years. She has been an educator for twenty-eight years at Washington University in St. Louis, most recently as associate dean for the freshman transition and assistant vice chancellor for students. (At Skidmore the annual Coburn Lecture was established in her honor by a gift from her husband.) Below, she shares some personal and professional insights.
Q. How did you see health and wellness in your
A. Alcohol was banned from the residence halls, yet the drinking culture was very much alive; we drank downtown (the drinking age was eighteen) and at other colleges. Our housemothers could offer a sympathetic ear—they literally gave us milk and cookies—but they weren’t trained to detect or respond if a student was having real trouble. In those days, nobody talked in terms of unhealthy behaviors. At most we might say, “Oh, that person drinks a lot.” Some classmates left school abruptly—perhaps they suffered from depression or an eating disorder or substance abuse, or they were in an abusive relationship or were pregnant. Though their best friends may have known, it was mostly hush-hush and we never heard what happened to them.
We ate whatever was served to us. Although we might have dieted, most of us knew nothing about nutrition and relished our fat-filled snacks—donuts and pizza and corned-beef sandwiches. Exercise consisted of whatever we had to do in phys-ed classes; though some of us skied and skated, no one except perhaps PE majors worked out. A bike ride to Yaddo and back was about as far as most of us went.
Q. How different are student services today?
A. There’s much more acknowledgment of the issues, and much more public conversation about health and well-being. Access to care and medication has improved too. When colleges dropped “in loco parentis” and gave students more responsibility, they began to offer more educational programs and services to support them as “emerging adults.”
Q. Do students have more problems now, or are
we just hyper-aware of them?
A. There has probably been some overdiagnosing—of attention-deficit disorders, for example. But that doesn’t begin
to outweigh the tragedies I’ve seen when diagnoses were missed or ignored. It’s true that more students now come to college already under treatment for learning or psychological disorders, and most can do very well if they arrange for continuity of care.
For any college student, the stresses are very high. Competition is fierce to get into medical or law school, to do more, achieve more. The available majors and minors, cocurricular groups, summer job or internship options, study abroad, and research opportunities all have expanded. Students can choose what (and when and where) to eat and where to live. The profusion of choices can be enriching and stimulating, but also overwhelming. Students today have access to more information, more forms of communication, than any prior generation, yet they have less time to contemplate or figure out what it all means.
Often parents have been so involved in their children’s upbringing that students have no experience with decision-making or failure; many don’t know how to deal with disappointment or how to take action and not feel helpless. Faced with that stress, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as binge drinking, or overexercising, or misuse of prescription drugs.
Q. Can colleges afford to be in the business of
A. In order for students to succeed and make the most of their college years, they need to be healthy. It’s absolutely essential to provide an integrated approach to health and wellness—to take an ecological approach that focuses on the total college environment. Residential colleges have a unique opportunity to influence the whole environment in which students live, and to help them develop habits of health and well-being. This is good for the student today, and also for his or her future.
Every college has to draw its limits; resources aren’t infinite. But it’s clear that students who are healthy, or who get needed treatment, earn better grades and are less likely to drop out. Any student who withdraws is a person who doesn’t have the benefit of a college education, doesn’t become a dedicated alum, likely earns a lower salary, and so on.
Q. What’s the scariest trend you see in student
A. The seemingly intractable phenomenon of binge drinking. Though there is a great deal of research and laudable efforts by colleges and universities to reduce this problem, the tragedies—and near misses—that occur every year continue to frighten all of us who work with students.
Q. What’s the most hopeful trend?
A. I feel optimistic when I see the number of students and groups who actively promote healthy lifestyles and habits among their peers. And the recent growth of the college health-promotion field—with highly trained professionals, like Skidmore’s Jen Burden, who foster an evidence-based, proactive rather than reactive approach—is very encouraging.