Great Expectations

There are certain things that come up in training that all Residence Life professionals hope to never face in their careers. I’ve previously mentioned my feelings towards fire in the residence halls. But you know what? Most of the time the fire alarm goes off in one of my buildings, it’s because somebody didn’t read the directions on their hot pocket. Many of you probably share my biggest fear – having a student die.

Earlier this week, 18 year old Martha Corey-Ochoa, a freshman at Columbia University, was found dead on the sidewalk next to her high rise residence hall. Her death has been ruled a suicide. Apparently, Martha had a history of depression and had even attempted suicide during high school.

While reading an article about this posted on The Frisky, I found something that really hit home for me. Dr. Kelly Posner, Columbia’s director of the Center for Suicide Risk Assessment, spoke about transition issues that incoming college students have. That’s nothing new. We all know about homesickness. But Dr. Posner isn’t just talking about students who are scared or nervous to be leaving home. She speaks about the students who are excited to be going to college and the expectations these students have. I feel that Dr. Posner could be speaking about two types of expectations – the students’ and the parents’.

Many people talk about how today’s kids are under too much stress. This might have been a contributing factor in Martha’s depression – her father was a Columbia alum. I don’t know the family personally, but he might have been pushing her to go there. Even outside that, there are PLENTY of families that won’t accept anything less than Ivy League for their children. You know what I don’t hear much about in the news? What happens to these overworked middle and high school students once they enter college. I’ve heard way too many students saying they are majoring in a subject because “their parents want them to”. For some students, the stress from trying to meet their parents lofty expectations might be too much.

Something I think that doesn’t get mentioned enough are the student’s expectations of what college is really like. There’s this message out there that college is supposed to be the best four years of your life. What happens when it’s not? What happens when a student gets to college and it’s not all it’s cracked up to me? I think this can lead to anxiety and depression in students as well. If a student goes off to school and doesn’t have a good time, he or she can be lead to believe that something is wrong with them.

I’m not even sure where to start with this, but I think an orientation session or two could be created from this. One could be able making sure in college “you do you” and not worry about pleasing your parents/anybody else. Your twenties are these wonderful few years that you can be just a bit selfish. Another session could compliment that session where they talk about all the fun things there are to do on campus. I know many orientations already have a session with somebody from the campus counseling center, but I think there could be a portion about your expectations not being met.

Martha’s death is a terrible tragedy. I can’t imagine how her parents, friends, and family feel. I also can’t imagine how her RA or Hall Director must feel because luckily I have not been in their shoes. Unfortunately, I know this won’t be the only student death on a college campus this year. One thing I want to do as a college administrator is try to learn something from each case and find a way to change and improve campus programs.

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