When the firecracker blew up in my hand, I knew I needed help.  Steve and I had been playing in his back yard doing what most 11 year-old boys do when unsupervised; taking unnecessary risks.  We were lighting firecrackers, holding them until the fuse burned down a bit, then throwing them.  That’s fine as long as you’re working with a normal fuse.  I lit one that burned down almost instantly.  BAM!

I could count on Steve for almost anything.  From the second to the sixth grade we were inseparable.  However, when the firecracker went off, it didn’t take me long to realize in my pain and panic that Steve’s skills as a best friend were not going to be of much use to me.  I needed someone who could do more.  We ran into the kitchen where his mother was cooking dinner.  I hastily confessed what we had been doing.  It would have been useless to deny it, and I knew that the faster I confessed, the faster I could plead for her help.  She took a look at the damage and then began the process of doing what highly qualified moms do.  She put some gooey stuff on it, wrapped it in gauze, and told me to go home so my mother could take a look at it.  She had the grace not to scold or shame us at that moment.  She reserved that for a later time when she had our undivided attention.

The point is this.  It is important to go to the right person for the right kind of help.  This seems so basic, yet most of us have to relearn this lesson many times.  I found it easy to run to parents or other adults for help when I was a child.  Beyond childhood, though, finding the right person became more complicated, but at the same time even more important.

In my years of working with college students, this was a recurring theme for the students who came to my office.  Considering the enormous array of new experiences involved in college or early work experience, it only makes sense that identifying the right resources for specific concerns becomes a primary life lesson.  Young adults, on their own for the first time, encounter increasingly complex and demanding tasks.  Whether as a college student or a new employee, they are thrust into situations of greater responsibility for managing their personal lives, their finances, their time, their relationships, and their plans for the future.

While some students, for example, are mastering Experimental Spectroscopy, they are also learning to cook for themselves and establishing a monthly budget.  Other students are struggling through Macroeconomics Policy at the same time they are trying to stay on top of the debt incurred with their credit card.  Meeting the requirements for Organismal and Evolutionary Biology may not be as challenging for some as managing their current romantic relationship.  Adjusting to the demands of a new job may be far easier than adjusting to the demands of a monthly rent payment and utility bills.

Most of the time students rely heavily on friends for the struggles they face.  This makes sense.  Friends can provide support and insight because they are also in the thick of it.  However, because these friends are in the thick of it, they may not be able to provide another perspective.  There are times when the perspective of someone further down the road is crucial.

I talked with hundreds of students who were struggling academically, but they had never talked with a professor or teaching assistant.  They had never used one of the professor’s office hours or signed up for a study group or met with a tutor provided by the department.

The same is true for students who were drowning in credit card debt, in total despair over a relationship, or suffering under crushing family pressures.  Seeking the right kind of help from the right resources can be lifesaving.  Of course, it all starts with the willingness (or desperation) to seek help.  Many are hesitant to ask for help, believing that even admitting they need help is a bad sign.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In most cases, it is an act of wisdom and courage.  Whether it’s a firecracker, a relationship, a credit card debt, or an exam that blows up, it’s important is to get the right kind of help.

One final note.  My wife was one of my teachers in this.  When I was a doctoral student working on my dissertation, I frequently came home in the evenings complaining about my utter confusion or the slow progress I was experiencing.  I frequently used her as a sounding board, a role she gladly accepted.  However, at times I also expected her to give me information or advice related to my dissertation.  During one of my pleading, complaining episodes, she gently but forcefully said, “I’m happy to listen to you and support you emotionally.  But I don’t know anything about your dissertation.  I can’t give you advice about your dissertation.  If you want that, go talk to you advisor.  Don’t come to me for that anymore.”

Message received.  Lesson learned.