Our Universities: What or Who am I?

Universities help students answer the question, What am I? Accountant, architect, engineer, teacher, butcher, baker or candlestick maker. But the equally important question, Who am I? is abandoned for the perceived efficiency and cultural clarity of the “what.” A value-free, valueless educational process is embraced.

He gave me hope when hope was gone,

He gave me strength to carry on,

Who am I, I’m Jean Valjean,

Who am I, 24601.

Jean Valjean


Most indicators of student propensity for success in college are deeply embedded. Before a student arrives on campus family life and experience begin shaping the “who.”

According to a May 2000 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, “Family Structure and Children’s Success: A Comparison of Widowed and Divorced Single Mother Families,” college students raised in single mother families whether fatherlessness was caused by death or divorce, attain lower educational levels, have weaker job prospects, and are not as happy as adults as students in a two-parent family.

As an advisor to countless undergraduate students for more than three decades, I found that students who consistently performed well and then hit a brick wall are often dogged by family turmoil. Too frequently divorce. Students confessed that their parents felt the divorce would have little impact because the students had left the house and were enrolled in college. Parent and family status affects how students perceive who they are. Forever.

Sira Park and Susan Holloway agree in a piece in the Journal of Educational Research this month. Parental influence is important and can be increased through effective parent-school relationships. While this study addressed high school success, the principles carry into college life as well. Students determine who they are based on family experience.

Additionally, students on every step of the learning ladder are in some measure defined by whom they run with. A forthcoming February 2013 entry in the Educational Research Journal, “Along for the Ride: Best Friends’ Resources and Adolescents’ College Completion” unsurprisingly suggests friends and peers affect student likelihood for success. In fact, a student who has a best friend whose mother is a college completer significantly increases his or her likelihood of college completion. The environmental effects are pervasive in addressing the “who.”

A BYU and Rice University investigation published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion concluded that, “churchgoing teens are 40% more likely to graduate from high school and 70% more likely to enroll in college.” Students from Catholic, mainline Protestant, and black Protestant congregations were twice as likely to finish high school and 80% more likely to enroll in college. Maybe they had a sound answer to the query, “Who am I?” Among forceful, faith-coupled influences were mentors in the lives of young men and women.

A January 2013 Journal of Counseling and Development piece called “Parental Characteristics, Ecological Factors, and the Academic Achievement of African American Males” suggests that a father’s educational level and expectation are powerful predictors of African American male achievement. There are countless mitigating factors, but fathers who likely spend time engaged in discussions with their sons address the question, who am I?

A university might have many reactions to this loose collection of observations.

Possibly, faculty and staff believe students’ self perceptions are fully established when they arrive to pick up their class schedule and football tickets. If that’s the case, I am forty years overdue. Or, maybe such excursions are above the pay grade: struggles of identity are personal and off-limits. The worst case scenario is the ill-formed concept that the “who” and the “what” are unrelated and/or disconnected.

The unfortunate reality of contemporary college life is that, for reasons of convenience or disengagement, educators hesitatingly, if ever, tread on the ground where the answer to the question “Who am I” lies. If the expedition is shrouded in the gauze of political correctness, the essence of the question is lost. The outing becomes a fool’s errand as commitment and passion are hidden in assumed institutional acceptability. Groupthink.

What a tragedy.

The question, “What am I?”… Engineer, historian, lawyer, is nearly meaningless devoid of the answer to the more probing, piercing, powerful question, “Who am I?” Absent the “who,” the “what,” carries little value: A smidgen of worth that can be attained by enrolling at the University of Phoenix. A $10,000 online bachelor’s degree is child’s play for the “what”: In fact, it’s bling-bling.

The marketplace says buyer beware.

The educational experience cannot be segregated from the personality development process that helps create engaged citizens — the Holy Grail of learning in a free society.

Jean Valjean understood it.



One thought on “Our Universities: What or Who am I?

  1. Walter,
    Having just finished going through the process, I would like to suggest an addition – a preamble – to your discussion. For those students who are sufficently engaged and motivated – or who have parents to induce them to be, a critical qualifier – the very process of applying to college today provides a remarkable service in terms of helping kids get a better handle on who they are and what they want out of life.
    You’re the academic and I’m sure there’s research out there somewhere to support this, but our experience has been that the process of deciding what they want to study, what sort of program, what sort of school, where, and most importantly, of answering the piercingly self-reflective essay prompts on college applications, especially upper-tier schools, requires a degree of self-examination that can be enormously helpful for teenagers trying to get a grip on things before they head out into the big world.
    The key here for most but not all kids is the degree of parental support or perhaps support from their local high school. In the case of our oldest son, he started out thinking he would head off in a certain direction, and while he ended up applying schools and programs in the same general area, his focus sharpened to a great extent – and schools were added or removed from his “list” – through the process of writing down answers to questions that boil down to “Who am I?” and “What do I want out of life?” By mapping those questions onto the various programs, strengths and weaknesses – at least as perceived externally – I can tell you that our son knows himself and what he wants a lot better, and we also know, understand and appreciate him a lot more.
    The point is that for more academically oriented kids this introspective process starts in earnest a lot sooner than college. It’s also that inevitably those students whose main goal is just to get into college, and figure the bigger stuff out once they get there, must inevitably track (and I assume research would support this) to academic achievement in college, how many classes are dropped or majors changed (and therefore the total cost/expense of the education), levels of commitment/engagement with the school (which would translate to things like levels of alumni support), etc.
    While I have your attention I want to pass along one thing we’ve learned also that may help schools like SIU be more competitive – residential colleges. This is especially important at larger schools – a smaller school like Johns Hopkins or Dartmouth is essentially one large residential college. Michigan has made a major move in that direction but for schools that have a large percentage of students in on-campus housing, that four-year, school-within-the-big-U feel of a residential college is very appealing to parents. It appears to us like a much better option, for example, than either floating around a series of student slums or living in a fraternity house (I say the latter as someone who made that particular mistake).
    I don’t know if SIU has enough dorms to make this viable but given that SIU wants to draw students from the Chicago metro area, having housing continuity and smaller identity that far from home (and yet still in-state) would be appealing and a differentiator among your competitors. Anyway, for what it’s worth.

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