As the Class of 2020 settles in to their new home at Wake Forest, they have had to make some adjustments. How to manage classes, homework, and studying. Living communally in residence halls and/or sharing a room with a roommate. Finding a niche on campus. They are also adjusting to new people and new ideas.
For many people, their high school experience was largely dictated by geography, and it might have been a homogeneous existence. Same type of people, same hometown, similar regional attitudes or behaviors. In college, all of that changes. Your students are now living with and interacting with other people who are new and different.
This could mean people from different backgrounds or walks of life, different ideologies, political affiliations, sexual orientations, faith practices, races, etc. People who have close families, and people whose family relationships are strained. People who come from idyllic backgrounds, and people who have experienced some challenges. We have some first generation college students, some families of considerable means, and everything in between. There are students of color and white students, international students and US citizens. Republicans and Democrats, Independents and Libertarians (and in this election year, there are no shortages of opinions about the candidates!)
Having a wide range of people and perspectives can be exciting, disconcerting, and/or intriguing all at once. Some students relish the idea of learning about other students’ beliefs and backgrounds, others might be more reticent, particularly if they disagree with – or are conflicted about – the other person’s stance or worldview. There are lots of polarizing issues in the media, and those can dribble down to campus. Not everyone will agree. But we hope that the discourse will always be civil.
Why is it important for your students to get comfortable with differences in a respectful way? We live in an increasingly flat world, one where the internet has eroded boundaries between countries and cultures. Your students will graduate in four years and will be working and living in this flat, global world. In work and in their communities, they will encounter people different from themselves. The most successful people will likely be those who are able to navigate these differences with compassion and understanding.
So now is the time for students to begin to get comfortable with new people and different ideas. It does not mean your student has to change his or her beliefs or adopt practices that are not genuine. It does not mean students should change who they are. It does mean they ought to consider how they can learn about other people, understand their differences, value their common humanity, and be respectful of one another.
Parents and families can help encourage their students’ personal growth by challenging your students to go outside their normal comfort zone. If your student has not had a chance to study abroad or meet people from different cultures, encourage him or her to take advantage of campus activities for international students. If your student has never had a friend of a different race, faith practice, or sexual orientation, encourage him to get to know others of different backgrounds and have meaningful dialogue, while respecting each other. Exposure to new things doesn’t just mean people. If your student has traditionally been more of a sporty type, encourage him or her to go to a campus artistic event. You get the idea.
Part of what we hope students will do at Wake Forest is stretch themselves. They get a lot of mental stretching in class through their academics, but a holistic education means exposure to new experiences, new places, new people, new ideas. And with that comes examining and challenging old assumptions or stereotypes in light of new information.
Stretching yourself can be uncomfortable. That’s where trusted advisers come in. Your student might want to reflect on and unpack those experiences with a faculty member, RA, a staff member, counselor, mentor, campus minister, etc. Help your students know that immense personal growth – and great satisfaction – can come from meeting people unlike yourself.