I recently came across an opinion piece by Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at USC. It's about the importance of colleges in developing “the whole student.” This article hit on a thought I’ve had lately: what is the role of universities and colleges in developing a student beyond their academic education? And why should they take part or not take part in that?
For centuries universities and colleges stuck to teaching academic subject matter. But over time clubs and organizations formed on campuses. These could be fraternal or academic groups. Sports also became a part of the university setting. As medical schools became prevalent, health care became available for students on campus, too. The amount of events, organizations, and departments at colleges today would amaze students from hundreds of years ago.
Nowadays, schools also try to focus on developing students’ social lives as well as their mental health. It's safe to say we can agree it's a good thing anytime a person’s mental health improves. (That includes by developing connections and finding belonging with others). Unfortunately, many higher ed institutions appear confused about the degree to which they should support mental health issues. They would rather align their budgets with what brings in the money for the university. This often means athletics and entertainment.
Universities often pay a lot of lip service to wanting to develop “the whole student” but fail to do so. Sure, some departments (primarily Health and Wellness Centers) embark on programs to create awareness with the student population about opportunities to help make connections. But far too often they relegate these to some links on a website. (I saw one counseling center link to WebMD and Dr. Oz—the TV doctor. This is a horrible idea. Please do not turn to television doctors for medical advice.)
It’s not the fault of counseling centers on campus, though. They’re often strapped for cash, which is a shame. Nothing is more important in a human being’s life than their physical and mental health. If someone’s brain isn’t working well, they’re not going to be able to focus on school. From a practical, capitalist sense, it would seem logical to invest money to help students with their mental health. This includes the means by which they can make connections.
For many of us, our parents may have genuinely loved us. Yet many parents didn’t teach us how to make friends and establish connections. It seems like such a simple thing, but it can be difficult, especially when you’re a college student in a new environment and know few, if any, people. Thus, someone somewhere along the way is going to have to pick up the slack and educate students on this subject.
Some critics of wellness programs may find fault with the spending of money on activities such as those at USC. These are programs that try to make connections between students. It’s imperative, though, that universities and colleges educate and motivate students to develop connections. The time of relying on universities to only educate students in the academic sense is over. Schools have a responsibility to educate the whole person. This is if for no other reasons than a) it’s good for the university’s bottom line if students find those connections because they will be less likely to drop out and b) often students aren’t learning these skills other places.
That said, it’ll take a serious investment from higher education institutions to address loneliness on campus. This investment must be more than the lip service schools have often given the topic. Or, schools need to be aware of how loneliness (and to a larger degree mental health) fits into the picture when it comes to their strategic vision.
It’s not too late for schools to act on this, but it needs to become a priority. In doing so we can hopefully stem the tide of loneliness felt all too often by students and which is detrimental to their mental health.
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This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.