Students (and parents) often see the college experience as a time for finding answers.  Students come with the idea that questions yield answers, and once an answer is found, it’s time to move on to the next question.  Many classes, for example, emphasize the student mastering certain material so that the student can then provide the right answer to a multiple-choice question, an essay, or in the application of a formula.  Many students also come expecting to find clear answers to questions about the future (“What will I want my career to be after college?”), about personal ethics (“What’s right and wrong for me?”), about relationships (“What kind of person do I want to make a long-term commitment to?”), and a host of other matters of personal importance.

Experience teaches us otherwise.  Answers that made sense at one time in our lives often become questions later on.  Those questions, instead of leading to clear answers, often yield more and more questions.  This process happens throughout life, but the college years are perhaps the most intense question-laden times for many.

When I was a child, my brothers and I used to build race cars.  OK, they weren’t race cars, they were four-wheeled objects made of scrap lumber.  We took whatever 2x4s we could find and cut them so that we had one long one to use as the chassis.  A shorter piece was attached perpendicular to the chassis at the back. That was the rear axle.  We used several nails so that it was fixed.  A third piece of wood was attached perpendicular at the front of the chassis.  That was the front axle.  We attached that piece with only one nail so that it could pivot.  We then nailed a piece of plywood near the back for a seat and attached a rope to each end of the front axle so that we could steer it with our hands.  Finally, a lawnmower wheel was attached to each end of the front and rear axles using the biggest nails we could find.

It looked great sitting in the garage.  We were full of pride and excitement as we pushed it out and began taking turns going down the driveway.  It worked great for a while, but after a few times down the driveway the wheels began to wobble.  Soon, every trip or two we had to pound the nails back in to keep the wheels in place.  By the end of the afternoon, the nails were bent beyond repair and the car was useless.

Coming to college can be seen as a time when students take their constructed cars out of the garage.  The college experience encourages (or forces) them to head down the driveway to see what works and what doesn’t work so well.  With your help they have constructed a life that has gotten them from infancy through high school.  Inevitably, they will discover as they careen down the driveway that the wheels that they (and you) so carefully nailed in place begin to wobble.  Doubts, questions, confusion are necessary and important parts of the college experience.

Of course, the stakes are higher with a college experience than with a car made of scrap wood.  College students are faced with exciting challenges—learning to live in a diverse college culture, encountering new academic and career opportunities, living with increased independence.  At the Counseling Center my colleagues and I encounter students who are struggling with many of these intense but exciting challenges.  However, students are also faced with frightening challenges—binge drinking and substance abuse, gambling addictions, credit card debt, and a host of other problems on the rise among students.  We encounter students who are caught in the snare of these more dangerous concerns at the Counseling Center as well.

Don’t just ask your son or daughter about what they are learning and how their grades are.  Ask them about the questions that have arisen for them in their coursework and in their personal lives.  Listen for situations in which the wheels have begun to wobble.  These may be opportunities for you to help them find better ways to keep the wheels on.

Printed in the University of Illinois Moms and Dads Association Newsletter