À mon avis
In my opinion
Students need social supports
Let’s open our eyes to
by Elizabeth Flynn-Dastoor
is a PhD candidate and
psychology lab coordinator
at Wilfrid Laurier University.
atthew de grood was known as a good
student, heading off to law school, but
something was broken in him and it
snapped on the night that he stabbed
five of his University of Calgary peers
to death. I won’t begin to speculate about the
specifics of Matthew’s case or whether there is
anything that university staff could or should
have done. Clearly he was deeply troubled.
A question that arises is: If Matthew’s mental
state could become fragmented and fragile to the
point of such devastating actions – and no one,
apparently, noticed or intervened – then how many
other students in distress are we just not seeing?
It’s true that many students grow and thrive
under our collective guidance, but if an estimated
30 percent drop out and still more are struggling
and suffering under the radar, are we really doing
our jobs? Are we doing enough for them?
We must scrutinize how we introduce students to university life when they arrive for their
first year. Cases of academic misconduct are on
the rise, and incoming students often don’t have
the study skills they need to succeed at university. Many institutions try to bring students up
to speed with structured academic support, often
in the form of a first-year University 101 course
or discipline-specific learning communities.
There’s a clear case for investing in academic
interventions for first-year students to promote
academic success and retention. But is it enough?
This approach ignores the vast interpersonal
contexts in which students complete their stud-
ies. The possibilities that lie before these young
people are exciting, but the uncertainty and insta-
bility can be overwhelming. Many are vulnerable.
I sometimes wonder whether academic transition programs unintentionally contribute to
socializing our students to pursue grades at the
cost of their own well-being. Students need systemic social support at least as much as academic
support, so that they both graduate and become
whole, healthy grown-ups. If we start them out
with formal social support, we might socialize
them to expect assistance, to seek it out when
needed and to help their peers do the same.
Granted, universities are academic institutions, and our primary purpose is to educate and
graduate as many students as are willing and
able. But if we look at transitional programming
through that lens, it still makes sense to priori-tize social support. We are wasting resources on
academic interventions if students must use all
their personal resources to cope on a daily basis.
Some of these young people are also not
ready for the requirements of quasi-adulthood,
requirements that become a challenging reality
after the glow of orientation week fades. A struggling student who feels that others expect her to
be able to do well on her own will continue to
struggle alone. A struggling student who understands the shared nature of her difficulties and
believes the campus community to be a supportive environment will seek academic help.
Research tells us that emotional health and
social integration into the university environment
are particularly important influences on academic
success and on student decisions to persist or drop
out. But university education is not only about
getting that piece of paper, getting a better job,
and other easily measured outcomes. It’s also
about the development of intangibles that con-
tribute to a more meaningful sense of self and of
place in the local and global communities.
We can achieve the goal of better student
retention and nurture students’ development
through social support programs. At Wilfrid
Laurier University, students who participated in
a small, peer-led discussion group intervention
at the beginning of first year were followed by
Mark Pancer and colleagues up to four years
later. Not only did intervention participants have
a more positive outlook on student life compared
with controls but they also had a 72-percent
lower attrition rate.
Programming decisions often come down to
money: what will cost the least and give the biggest return in tuition dollars? Groups with features similar to the Laurier ones (a focus on
social support, peer leaders, up to 10 students,
confidentiality) could be incorporated into residence life and learning communities without
much additional cost to universities.
We must not let the students who commit
suicide, whom we read about every year, simply
become another attrition statistic. We must not
write off the binge-drinking, class-skipping,
Netflix marathon-watching students as irresponsible slackers. We can both educate and nurture
the young people who come to us, so that their
success when they leave might be evident in
much more than just a degree on the wall.
“ We can’t pretend that
development is separate
from the rest of their lives.”