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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!

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