Making College the Right Kind of Sexy

College is appealing to students, but for all the wrong reasons.

Posted Mar 13, 2014

College is sexy. On TV, in the movies, and on Facebook, college is defined by parties, spring break, and a non-stop social scene.

But, given the incredible cost of college, shouldn’t students be turned on for a different reason?

Shouldn’t the appeal of college be that it is four years when you immerse yourself in whatever you are most curious about? Shouldn’t we be turned on by having the world’s experts in everything support the uninhibited exploration of our passions?

Getting Turned On

College is where we go to study theory, and theories are not sexy. They are flat, two dimensional, and lack in emotion and tactile dynamism. The real world is sexy. It is where subjects have meaning, are palpable, and where one can relate personally.

If you want to get 18-year-old students turned on, put them in the real world with appropriate developmental supports. They are highly social and will create relationships to support their exploration of how their values define their worldview and sense of self. Their expanding metacognitive abilities enable them to understand dynamic systems. And, once they’re turned on, it’s hard to turn them off again. Real world experiences spark a curiosity that brings theories to life by giving them meaning.

Gap Years Make College the Right Kind of Sexy

It’s not really higher ed’s fault that students aren’t turned on. As stated in a previous blog post, high school is about students getting good grades and test scores to get into college. There’s nothing personal or engaging about that.

Gap years are opportunities for the types of real world experiences that turn students on. They unbind learning from books and challenge students with an array of perspectives that lead to critical reflection upon themselves and the world. Once they’re turned on, their learning takes on a whole new shape and meaning.

Top colleges are beginning to offer gap years. Princeton, UNC, and Tufts University are offering programs and funding. These colleges are trying to be the right kind of sexy. They know that the top jobs of the future are going to those who love to learn and know how to put it to use in the real world. They are going to those who can think critically, lead with self awareness, push boundaries and not be afraid to fail (see Thomas Friedman). Such learning requires students who are driven by uninhibited passion.

Passion Spills Over

When Claire started her gap year she did not know what she wanted to major in; a common sentiment expressed by many students. She hoped her gap year would help her find direction before she began college.

Clare Gap Year Ecuador

Clare on her gap year in Ecuador

Before her gap year, Claire was unaware of the environment; she didn’t turn lights off in her house and didn’t think twice about where her food came from. While not a shy girl, Claire didn’t contribute to discussions because she was not confident enough to share her ideas and opinions with the group. She was inhibited by the fear she might be wrong. Over five weeks in rural Ecuador, Claire helped a community build a greenhouse to grow indigenous plants and lived with a family that grew most of their own food. This exposed Claire to a completely different way of life. Coupled with seminars that helped push her thinking about resource use, her role as a consumer, and the effects that has on communities around the globe, she began to question how she lived before her gap year and how she wanted to live after.  

Claire understands that the environment and natural resource use is not static, that it’s tied to economics, history, politics, and gender. This understanding came from living and working in the real world, coupled with readings and facilitated discussions. Claire’s learning became personal, rooted in new relationships with people, places, and herself. Questions began to mount and they haven’t stopped. Simple answers are no longer enough. Her passion for learning is now uninhibited.

In her sophomore year of college, Claire is no longer afraid to share her ideas. She has taken a lead role in her college’s outdoor program and become an active participant in their divestment campaign. To her, environmental issues became of primary importance because of her gap year experiences.

Claire’s gap year turned her on. By connecting to the real world and forming valuable relationships, her learning became meaningful and personal. Now that she’s found her passion, it has spilled over into the classroom and her leadership activities as she takes advantage of the learning opportunities her campus offers. For Claire, college isn’t just the right kind of sexy. She also loves it for all the right reasons.

About the Author

Robin Pendoley is an educator working at the forefront of the gap year movement in the US. 

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