Robin Pendoley Ed.M

The Transition to College

The Two Things Gen-I Needs the Most

A college counseling center director on meeting the needs of college freshmen

Posted Sep 28, 2017

This is a guest post by Gary Robinson, LMHC, NCC. He is the director of counseling at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY and mental health consultant to several gap year/experiential education programs as co-founder of P3 Mental Health Advisors

While much has been written, theorized, and postulated about the ways college faculty, staff, and employers can more productively interface with the “millennial generation,” relatively little has been offered in the way of guidance when it comes to the latest generation of young people to graduate from high school: “Generation I” or “Gen-I”, for short. Gen-I is distinguished by having been exposed to smartphones, tablets and laptops and the resultant instant access to information since their kindergarten years or before.

What forms the backdrop of Gen-I is that many in this generation have been or are being raised by parents who have been active almost minute-by-minute in their lives up to and including the college years. In some cases, this has involved “helicopter parenting” behavior: a general hovering, over-involved style which allows for little independent decision-making and freedom of thought on the part of young people. This is likely one of the several factors why so many Gen-I students struggle with lower resilience and less developed coping skills than previous generations.

All of this is not to say the situation is hopeless. Gen-I students have been more exposed to information and therefore are more worldly in many ways than their older counterparts. They tend to be more self-aware and outspoken when it comes to getting their needs met as well. Most of us who work closely with Gen-I students agree that this is the most interesting and at the same time challenging group we have seen come through our doors. College counseling centers are reporting record utilization of services; Gen-I experience very little stigma regarding seeking help and are quite willing in most cases to openly discuss their issues with caring adults. When one considers the upbringing of many Gen-I students, it all makes sense: we have raised them to feel comfortable around adults and have coached them virtually their entire lives to find most of their fun via adult-facilitated, supervised activities. But, every upside has a downside. Gen-I students also report, in general, higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thinking than at any time since these issues have been studied.

As someone who has been a college counseling center director and therapist for 30 years, I have had a birds-eye view of the cultural shift that has taken place. When I first entered the field of college counseling, the challenge was convincing students to avail themselves of the services offered. Stigma regarding mental health disorders ran high, and most campuses had very small counseling staffs as a result; it was difficult to assess the need as so few students came to counseling. In 30 short years, the situation has virtually reversed itself. College counseling centers struggle to keep up with the high demand for sessions, despite the valiant efforts of many campuses to increase the size of their counseling staff. Whereas 30 years ago, there were still vestiges of the 1960’s adage “Don’t trust anyone over 30” whispered amongst students, now most students would rather seek out professional help from older, confidential adults than from their peers. This may be partly due to the fear of having their issues exposed on social media if they dare tell a peer about their issues. But, more often than not, it’s because they have been used to close, friendly relationships with adults since their formative years.

My work in college counseling centers as well as a mental health consultant to several Gap Year and experiential education programs for youth has led me to conclude that there are two fundamental tasks that most Gen-I students must accomplish in order to increase their odds of success in building healthy, independent lives as they approach their college years and beyond:

  1. Involvement - As stated above, Gen-I has been mostly raised by well-intentioned but sometimes over-involved adults who have not always allowed them to “make their own fun." To assume that once out of the house, they can manage total freedom is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. They need positive activities such as sports, hobbies, clubs, part-time jobs, volunteer service, exercise routines, etc. with which to structure their free time. Perhaps no generation has handled their free time optimally, but Gen-I appears particularly at risk if they have too much unstructured time.
  2. Mentoring - Gen-I, unlike some earlier generations, often enjoy (read: “crave”) interaction with caring adults. Most Gen-I students thrive with a mentor or mentors in their lives for one obvious reason: that’s what they are used to. This could be an older student in a leadership position, a coach, a counselor/advisor, a teacher/professor, etc. but this task should not be ignored. Gone are the days when young people were told: “Swim or Sink”; Gen-I needs mentors to support their success. If they don’t find a mentor(s) after high school, they are at increased risk of floundering.

In short, as those who work with youth in a variety of settings, we must provide them with the right mix of challenge and support. In the case of Gen-I, we must figure out how to “meet them halfway” regarding looking at how they have been raised and melding that with what they will need to do to meet the challenges ahead. Whether Gen-I is less “mature” than other generations when they were the same age is an issue I’ll leave to the researchers. What I know for sure is that they are different, in both encouraging and concerning ways. Still, optimism abounds: with the right level of involvement and mentoring in their day-to-day lives, I have seen tremendous growth occur in relatively short periods of time.

Gap Year programs and other more “hands-on” experiential education programs may be the answer for those Gen-I students who are showing signs that they aren’t ready emotionally or aren’t motivated for traditional college study directly out of high school. Another year of “maturation time” before facing the stresses of college life may be the correct path to follow for some. Many parents have rightly embraced the notion that “college isn’t for everyone” and have assisted their children with securing other options including technical training, internships, etc. With increasing college costs, rising levels of student debt and a very competitive global economy, thinking outside the box may be a sound approach for some. But, even if a four-year college experience is the path chosen, we should remind ourselves that Gen-I needs mentoring and involvement once they leave home.