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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!


Hey! That’s Not Fair!

About three years ago on a now-defunct personal blog, I wrote a post about people in several separate incidents who were taking legal action — lawsuits, naturally — against schools and other various organizations.  These lawsuits were based on the fact that a person felt that some sort of action (or inaction) was wholly unfair to them or infringed on their rights in some way.  I thought about posting excerpts from my original post, but since this blog is specific to Higher Education, I would rather this post’s tone be proactive instead of reactive.  In sum, I described the situations in detail and concluded — among other things — that society is setting up its young people for a hard, cruel dose of reality that they are ill equipped to handle whenever it might appear.

I must admit that when I wrote that initial post, I had just graduated with my Master’s degree and had worked full-time in Higher Education for all of two months, so my actual experiences with this sort of behavior were limited to what I read in articles and the occasional story I gleaned through word-of-mouth.  Now, having completed three years of what I hope to be a lengthy career, I find that I am not only wiser and more experienced, but less idealistic and impetuous, which lends itself well to seeing “the big picture.”

With that being said, when we have students come through our offices who display their entitlements like badges of honor, what can we as college student administrators do to communicate understanding as well as provide teachable moments for them?  I would be lying to you if I said it is easy to have a young person sitting in front of us waxing poetic about the injustices that have been inflicted on them because their room is too hot (or cold) or they received a failing grade in a course, among many other things.  However, it is our responsibility to assist all students — including these — with a welcome ear and, when necessary, a civic-minded educational approach to their issues.  Therefore, in order to take on this responsibility, we educators need to first understand the larger picture before we start dissecting individual concerns.

With that in mind, where do we look for reasons as to what is causing/has caused this behavior?  I commonly hear the term “society” being tossed around as the evil-doer for all things big and small, but I believe that is slightly disingenuous to the problem at hand.  Simply saying society is the root cause for a student’s behavior is akin to a criminal saying ‘the devil made them do it.’  It passes the buck without taking any time to evaluate the situation or its causality.  What we need to begin to understand is that there can be just as many reasons for why a student feels entitled as there are students at our higher ed institutions.  What is really important is taking the time to learn about our students and discovering where they’ve come from and the experiences they’ve had before we begin to dole out the how’s, what’s, and why’s.

I understand this is not an easy proclamation to make, especially since our time is already stretched across numerous roles and responsibilities.  Yet we are called to be student-focused in our work, which means we need to holistically focus on the student if we are to have an impact and educate our young people.  As Napoleon Hill, one of the original self-help/personal success authors once wrote, “You must get involved to have an impact.  No one is impressed with the won-lost record of the referee.”  Let’s take this advice and put it forward in our work with students.  The more we get involved with our students and more we get involved in who they are, the better equipped we are to give them the tools they require to be ready for and succeed in the world outside of the university.

Do you have any stories or experiences where you took the time to learn about a student in order to better assist them?  What was that experience like?  How did the student respond?  Please share your insight below!

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