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YOLO – Empowering Message or Excusing Bad Decisions?

I recently got back from a long-awaited and much-needed vacation, and several of those days were spent on the beach.  I know, tough life, right?  Something interesting to me during this vacation was that I had the opportunity to experience what it is like to be on a boardwalk, which is simply a bunch of arcades, fair-style games, eateries, and beach shops.  This is unknown to me, since I spent the better part of my summer vacations as a youth in Florida, where the closest thing we had to a boardwalk was a nearby pier with a bar/club at the base and a seafood restaurant at the end – nothing like the boardwalks in Ocean City, MD or what I can only assume are in NJ (from what I’ve seen on the Jersey Shore).

Anyways, after walking past several beach stores on my boardwalk adventure, I can only assume that the new fashionable thing for our young ones today is bright neon-colored tank tops with pop culture messages on them.  One of these tank tops specifically caught my attention, which simply had the acronym “YOLO” on it, which stands for “You Only Live Once.”  Now I can’t speak for other universities, but at my current institution, I can’t walk through the student center without hearing at least one of the students proclaiming YOLO as a reason to do something, for doing something, or simply quoting the Drake song from which YOLO sprung into our present day vernacular.  It’s bigger right now that “OMG” or “LOL.” Therefore, to see this on a boardwalk where many a young person – high school and above – was congregating wasn’t surprising, yet I started to think about the method in which this message is followed by our current generation.

As adults, we hear the phrase “you only live once” and probably consider how precious and valuable the life that we’ve been given is, or maybe even think about our personal aspirations in a motivated way.  But what about for our students?  YOLO has started making its rounds for both incoming and graduating college students as a theme for their next step, which for the most part is empowering – you only live once; make the most of your time! – but as this phrase settles into our language, one has to wonder whether YOLO in the hands of a ‘nothing can stop me’ young person provides them with enough impetus to shirk rules, reason, and responsibility for the sake of having fun.

You can almost see it playing out like a scene from a movie: a college freshman at their first campus party, wanting to have fun but still hearing the words of their parents ringing through their head – be responsible…make smart choices – torn between first impressions with their peers and past parental lessons.  He/she begin to meet people while making their way through the party, various illegal substances in sight.  Across the room, a group of students proclaim “YOLO!” before putting a tablet of something in their mouths and washing it down with a shot. The student continues to see more and more people enjoying themselves throughout the party, every so often hearing YOLO from various places.  The edge the student was teetering on starts to tip toward the direction of fun, their parents’ voices become quieter and more muffled.  He/she walks over to the nearest keg, barely able to hear those voices now through the music and the overall party dissonance.  The student fills up their red plastic cup and…YOLO.

Although it might not look this way in real life (right?), we would be foolish to think that YOLO isn’t being used as a tool by our students to ignore the right way and go with the wrong way.  Alright, so this is happening….now what?

It’s shortsighted to think that simply addressing the YOLO phenomenon with our students is going to quell the negative effects of its message, but it is equally shortsighted to understand what is happening and do nothing to confront it.  What can we as student administrators do to start these conversations? It’s not as easy as meeting with a student in a corrective action/judicial meeting and say, “Was it because of YOLO?”  As it took creativity to come up with the YOLO acronym and use it in a song, we need to use that same creativity to develop methods/programs/approaches to address this phenomenon – not to eliminate it, but to put a positive spin on it.  Create a YOLO program for first-year students that discusses goals and aspirations while they are at school, or for upper-class students focused on what they want after graduation.  Develop a bulletin board around fun – and, more importantly – legal ways for students to use YOLO with their friends (have a dance party in the rain, fill up a friend’s room with balloons, take an impromptu weekend road trip somewhere, etc.). There are plenty of ideas out there if we just open our minds and think creatively.  And hey, if you are on the fence about a particular idea or worried that one of these programs might not go the way you want it to, just remember…YOLO. 😉

Do you have any ideas to contribute on how to incorporate YOLO into our work with students?  Is this something that you’ve already done?  Please share your creativity and insight below!


Let’s Talk About Music

Each person has several immutable truths which provide definition and direction to their lives, and embracing/capitalizing on those truths very often lead to creative explosions, greater understanding of the world around them, and experiencing deep emotional/physical/spiritual connections.  These truths can be personality traits, tastes and preferences, passions, or as Mike Brown, founder of The Brainzooming™ Group, details, “distinctive talents.”

Chances are that if you’ve ever had a 5-10 minute conversation with me, you may have discovered that one of my truths revolves around music, specifically that it exists and communicates to the very core of my being.  This is also evident to those who have seen my iTunes library or slightly excessive record collection.  Getting back to the point, this truth is not only a passion of mine, but a distinctive talent as well.  Now, I can’t play a coherent note on any instrument and I’m not going to be winning a reality show singing contest any time soon, but ask me to put together a playlist that has a specific theme, communicates a certain emotion, or that supplements a conference experience, and I become a hyper-focused musical producer.  This is all well and good for me, but how does this relate to why you’re here (I’m assuming), which is higher education?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently posted a wonderfully well-written article by Mark Edmundson entitled, “Can Music Save Your Life?” which, among other things, speculated about the impact that music has on our students’ behaviors and discussed how impressively inarticulate most of us are when it comes to how/why music affects us.  Obviously this article stood out to me, but it did so on a much larger scale, especially when it comes my work with students.  It’s not a stretch to say that nearly all of our college students listen to and enjoy music on a daily basis, but how often have we related their experiences with and connections to the music they surround themselves with in our conversations with them?  I’d venture to say rarely, if ever.

Consider for a moment the idea I discussed in my previous blog post about speaking the language of our students.  In it, I provided numerous statistics and examples of why it is so important to use social media to connect with our students in ways which they connect and communicate.  However, if we stick with the theme of speaking their language, social media — for all of its popularity and usage — pales in comparison to the universal access and usage of music, and yet this is almost never focused on when discussing student development and understanding student behavior.  Why is that?  Surely even we spend a good deal of time connecting in our own ways to music, if for no other reason but it passes the time and provides us with a modicum of enjoyment, but we don’t even consider relating this common bond we share with students in our work with them.  Again, why is that?

Mark Edmundson shared in his article that the perspective students have that the music they listen to doesn’t affect their behavior/attitudes/beliefs is roughly the same as saying the food you eat doesn’t affect how you physically feel.  This is a wonderful insight he provides, because it perfectly illustrates the connection music has to the inner workings of our students.  Learning about and understanding the music college students listen to gives us a glimpse into who they are and potentially what they believe, which is invaluable to us as higher education professionals.  To compound on this further, Mark discusses the struggle he had growing up understanding why/how music resonated with him and how most of our students are no different, falling silent when approached about what music means to them.  We might even feel the same in this regard, and that’s important to note.  If we can understand the gravity music plays in our own lives, we become much more tuned in to the effect it can have in our student’s lives, as well as being able to facilitate discussions delving into the student-music relationship.

Combining the connection to music and the dialogue of understanding with our work with students can improve our working relationships with them, give us another tool to connect with and help them develop, and do so in a fun, outside-the-box method that heel-turns away from the canned “tell me a little about yourself” approach that tends to fall a little short in working with our current generation.  Henry Ward Beecher once said that “music cleanses the understanding; inspires it, and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if left to itself.”  I believe this statement only further serves to reinforce the importance this medium has in our world, especially with our young people.  Therefore, it is up to us to start speaking this language with them and become trailblazers to the hearts and minds of our college students.

Do you have any stories/experiences that combine Higher Education and music?  What about your own personal connections to music?  Please take the time and share your insights below!

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