Helping Students Navigate Familial Pressure

katie smith at duke university

Katie Smith, assistant director, Duke University Career Center,
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ksmith258/
Twitter: @ksmith258

 

“The most important job of the adviser…is to help students understand themselves, to face and take responsibility for their decisions, and to support and to free them to make choices that are at odds with the expectations other have for them. Students look to mentors—figures ‘more attuned to their rising hopes’—to give them what their parents won’t or can’t: the permission to go their own way and the reassurance that their path is valid,” William Deresiewicz quotes Harvard faculty member Harry R. Lewis comments in his recent book, Excellent Sheep.

The quote is one that many career professionals can identify with, as we often pride ourselves in providing a safe space for students to explore and articulate their interests while helping them to identify a career to fitting to their skills, talents, and needs. If only it was that easy!

Most people who work with college students have encountered a student who is torn between what she wants and what her parents or family members want. This is an incredibly challenging situation for students, mentally and emotionally taxing, often without an easy solution.

As college tuition continues to rise, so does the discussion on ROI. Parents are, understandably, especially attuned to this issue. What will my child study, and what will he be able to do with that? Is it a competitive field? Can she get the “right” experience in classes or internships? How much money will he make?

In short, is it worth it?

For some students, there’s a lot at stake in academic and career decision making. This decision could compromise the financial support of their education, narrow options (particularly in the case of international students), or could injure, or even sever, a relationship between student and their parents or other family members. In many cases, it’s also a decision that could affect a student’s success in school, as well as their well-being throughout college and beyond.

In recent weeks, I’ve worked with a student who studied engineering due his parents’ refusal to assist with his tuition if he pursued another major. Additionally, another student passionate about education is receiving pressure to commit to a more lucrative field, as her family is depending on her for financial support. Both of these students are navigating a challenging path balancing familial pressures, both real and perceived, and their own goals and aspirations.

As counselors, coaches, advisers, and mentors, working with these students can be difficult. Generally, we encourage students to follow their interests, and to choose a field that they get excited about. However, when the field they want to choose doesn’t align with others’ expectations, we carefully venture into new territory. “Is it possible to find the best of both worlds?” We might find ourselves asking. Where do fields such as art history and medicine or computer science and philosophy converge? If the student recognizes that his family’s opinion has a major stake in his decision, is it possible for him to pursue both his interests, and theirs?

For some students, this compromise is a possibility, but for others, this may not be the case. As career professionals, it is our role to help students identify their priorities, and to find a path that maximizes opportunity and fit given the present constraints.

As Deresiewicz quotes an observant student commenting on her mother, “she wanted me to have everything instead of wanting me to have what I wanted.”

The question is, where is the line?

2 thoughts on “Helping Students Navigate Familial Pressure

  1. This is a useful dissection of the challenge faced by college staff in helping students navigate this topic; thank you for the post. It touches on themes including our fundamental perspectives on the responsibilities of higher education and on how we define (and aim to facilitate) student success.

    In addition to helping students consider ways to integrate internal interests and external expectations, an opportunity for career advisers, coaches, mentors and others may be to focus on supporting students with their core decision-making processes — first helping students think about how they can approach resolving competing and/or contradictory pressures, then (if valuable) helping them explore potential solutions.

  2. Hi Katie,
    Great post! And a topic that, as you mention, we as career services professionals face on a regular basis. I find myself having discussions with both students and parents about the return on investment piece in terms of it not only being relevant to financial gain or levels of “success”, it is also about levels of self-worth and true happiness once the student is established in their career. I strongly believe that part of our practice is teaching the importance of developing decision-making and self-advocacy skills. If a student does decide to pursue a career path purely to appease his or her parents, the level of burnout rapidly increases. This, tied with the idea of making a career change, and the frustration that goes along with that can become incredibly overwhelming and easily create imbalance in all areas of their life. This validates the importance of us staying connected with our alumni and providing services to them as well as to our current students.

    Andrea Peeters
    Career Services Specialist
    Menlo College
    http://www.menlo.edu

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