Monday, November 4, 2013

Small Town Choices: How Do We Convince Students that have the Academic Potential to Pursue a College Degree?

“What is the value of going to college?”  “Is another four years of school really worth the time and money?”  “Why don’t I just get a job after high school and start living my life?”  “But all my friends and family are here.”  “Some of my friends think it is not masculine to go to college.”  These are all thoughts and questions that went through my and my friends’ minds during our senior year in high school, as we were trying to figure out whether or not we should go to college.  At that time in our lives our minds were focused on the next big game and what we were going to do the next Friday night.  Coming from a small town in Maine it seemed as though that is all that mattered in the whole world.  In that environment everyone knows everything about everyone in the town. Everyone knew who was dating whom, who broke up with whom, and what notorious high school scandal was happening at that time.
At one time, my high school was very large and was nestled in a town that once boasted one of the largest shoe companies in the state of Maine.  During that time it was understood among all of the students in the high school that when you graduated, you would trade in your high school diploma for a position at the shoe shop.  A lot of my friends’ parents worked at the shoe shop and had actually graduated from my high school.  In this town that was the norm, but that all changed when the shoe shop closed its doors.
When the doors closed at the shoe shop everything seemed to change.  The town shrunk by a considerable amount, which ultimately made the high school shrink as well.  Now the students in my high school did not have a definitive answer of what they should do after they graduated.  This began to make myself and a lot of my friends question what it was that we should do when we graduated.  My family did not have much experience with going to college, but always instilled in me that I would be going no mater what.  I had the fortune of having a family that would support me through school and really pushed me into attending college.  A lot of my friends were not as lucky and because of that it seemed that they made college out to be a less masculine choice.  Their choice instead was to get a job right out of high school and that’s what many of them did.  They stayed with their “high school sweetheart” and kept the job that they had had all throughout high school.  
This is why some of my friends and I struggled with making the choice to go to college after we graduated.  We were all experiencing many different external forces, some good and some bad.  These forces were influencing the decisions that we would make for our future.  The friends that I had that were planning to stay in town were those that were the stereotypical rural town boys.  These guys worked on their trucks and rode their four-wheelers as much as possible yet were some of the smartest kids that I knew.  For a lot of them school came naturally.  They were brilliant students and only if they had applied themselves would have been able to attend any college that they would ever want.  For some reason though college was not appealing to them and during that time I really did not wonder why that was the case.  Looking back now I can slightly understand why that would have been the case.  They were experiencing negative external forces that seemed to be holding back their potential.
As a graduate student in Higher Education at the University of Maine, I now realize that these friends all experienced external forces that included; negative stereotypes towards attending college, low socioeconomic status pressures, pressure from significant others, and the feeling that they needed to help support their parents in some way, shape, or form. As Baxter Magolda (2009) suggests, following external formulas is a way that students can make decisions about who they are going to be, what they are going to accomplish in their lives, and in order to develop their own identity students must experience a period of crossroads in order to get to a self-authorship stage.  Yet for these students they were following these external formulas and at that point in their lives, not able to experience crossroads to make the decision to attend college.  This is not to say that these students did not experience self-authorship in their own way.  I am simply stating in their experience they eventually went through a crossroads and began to display self-authorship, but for them this was not in the college setting. Also, Brian D. Reed (2011) suggests that students that are of low socioeconomic status have lower educational aspirations and accept the fact that they will be a marginalized group within society.  These students that may have less contact with positive higher education role models do not want to aspire to attend a higher education institution.  So the question remains, how do we as higher education professionals convince students that have the potential to attend a higher education institution, make the choice to go to college after they graduate?
In my high school we had teachers and guidance counselors that would tell us that we needed to get out of this town and ultimately out of the state of Maine.  For some of my friends that was a very appealing concept and they felt as though in order to do well they would need to get out of here as fast as possible.  I think this is an interesting concept when advising students in what they should do after they graduate.  It makes students feel as though in order to be successful they must leave the state that they know and love.  However, for people that have deep roots to their family like myself, that seems like an option that is not worth the time and the money.  At that time these students want to attend a college where they can be far enough away to not have to go home every weekend, but close enough that they can if they really need to spend time with their family.
Also, as Arnett (2011) suggests the students that would make the choice to stay in my hometown may not have the opportunity to experience a phenomenon called emerging adulthood.  Simply put, these students would ultimately go from experiencing adolescence to experiencing a state of young adulthood.  That being said, they may miss the opportunity of experiencing the identity development that students in the college setting have in exploration, experimentation, and finally realizing just who exactly they would be in their adult life. 
Now there are many different TV shows and movies that may place college life in a negative light.  These include TV shows such as “Greek” (Piller & Segan, 2009) and “Glory Daze” (Becker & LeSieur, 2010), and movies such as “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (Reitman, Simmons & Landis, 1978), “American Pie Presents Beta House” (Border & Waller, 2007), and “Old School” (Medjuck, Goldberg, Reitman & Phillips, 2003). These TV shows and movies provide insight into the crazy life that college may inspire.  It seems as though because of these different media outlets, this may impact students in high school to make the choice to not attend college because it seems like a waste of time.  However, this could be farther from the point of what the college experience can be for students from rural towns. 
As a student from a rural town in Maine I can say that the experience that I had in my undergraduate career was both enlightening and fulfilling.  I gained insight into other cultures and backgrounds as well as learned a lot about who I am as a person.  I found long lasting friends that I would not have found if I did not attend a higher education institution.  A movie that really emulates the experience that one can find in college is “Monsters University” (Rae & Scanlon, 2013).  Although this creative Disney and Pixar movie is fun for all ages, it really touches upon how students at a higher education institution can find lifelong friends and really find out who they really are during their time in college.  This is the kind of experience that I wish my friends in high school who decided to go into the work force right after high school had had. 
As higher education and student affairs professionals, I think that it is our job to encourage students that have the academic potential in high school to pursue a degree from a higher education institution.  Not only for the academic opportunities, but also for the life-long experience that they will gain from being in an environment where they can establish their own identity.  Students in our high schools need to be encouraged to go to college and experience what Arnett (2011) suggests as emerging adulthood.  In order to do this we as higher education professionals should create and maintain programs with local high schools that provide positive insight about what the college experience truly entails.  These programs could be summer bridge programs that bring high school students to our college campuses and provide them with the opportunity to take classes towards their college degree while they are still in high school.
Finally, with a younger brother that is attending the same high school that I graduated from, I personally find it important to make sure that he and his friends understand the benefits of attending a higher education institution. I want them to realize that there is a way to be able to pursue and obtain a college degree while still being able to maintain those deep roots to a rural town, and the family that they may leave behind.  In order to break down the negative stereotypes of college we as higher education professionals should work personally with students from rural towns and provide them with the knowledge of what college life really entails through a fun and fulfilling high school developmental experience, so they too can have the opportunity to find life-long friends and establish their own identity for the rest of their lives.  

Arnett, J. J. (2011).  Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through
the twenties.  In M. Wilson (Ed.), ASHE reader on student development theory (2nd ed.,
pp 149-164).  Boston, MA: Pearson Publishing.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2009). The activity of meaning making: a holistic perspective on college
student development. In M. Wilson (Ed.), ASHE reader on student development theory
(2nd ed., pp 37-53). Boston, MA: Pearson Publishing.
Becker, W. & LeSieur, M. (Producers).(2010). Glory Daze. [Television Series]. Pasadena, CA:
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[Motion Picture]. Toronto, ON. Universal Pictures.
Medjuck, J., Goldberg, D., Phillips, T., & Reitman I. (Producers). Phillips, T. (Director). (2003).
Old School. [Motion Picture]. Los Angeles, CA: The Montecito Picture Company.
Piller, S. & Segan L. (Producers) (2007). Greek. [Television Series]. Los Angeles, CA: Walt
Disney Studios Home Entertainment.
Rae, K. (Producer). Scanlon, D. (Director). (2013). Monsters University [Motion Picture]   Burbank, CA, and Emeryville, CA: Walt Disney Pictures. Pixar Animation Studios.
Reed, B. D. (2011). Socio-economic and work identity intersection with masculinity and college success. In J. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations. New York, NY: Routledge.
Reitman, I. & Simmons, M. (Producers), Landis, J. (Director). (1978). National Lampoon’s
Animal House [Motion Picture]. Eugene, OR: Universal Pictures.

Joshua L. Stanhope is a first year graduate student in the Student Development in Higher
Education program at the University of Maine. He also serves as the graduate assistant for New
Student Programs at UMaine.  You can connect with him on Twitter @jstanhope17

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