AUTHENTICITY:  How Young Adults Find Their Niches in a Competitive World

Michael R. Wing, Ph.D. and Shelia Souder, M.A.

“Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.” – T. H. White, The Once and Future King

Authenticity Sample Cover

Introduction: The need for this book.

We are a counselor and a teacher at a public high school north of San Francisco; the kind parents say “that’s a good school” to each other about in the grocery store line.  Most of our students attend well known four-year colleges after they graduate.  Their school years are filled with classes, sports, homework, schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and thoughts of college.  They have lots of opportunities.  Our own teenagers have attended our school too, so we experience the place as employees, as parents, and as taxpayers in the district.  We love our school and almost everyone in it – especially our students, who are clever, funny and more emotionally honest than adults.  So we are lucky.

But… like most teachers and counselors, we know that a lot of students are just doing school.  They talk about grades, tests, their teachers, their classmates, and the mechanics of their classes; less so about knowledge, ideas or the skills they are acquiring.  They are much more concerned about their grades than they are about the subject matter which their grades are supposed to reflect.  Many don’t seem as happy or as engaged in life as they could be, and this applies just as much to the students who earn high grades as to the rest.  When we ask them about their plans for the future, the plans are always variations on “go to college.”  Considering the privilege our students start from, that’s not ambitious.  College is a forgone conclusion for most of them.  The few that have specific goals beyond college are not always grounded in reality:  “to act on Broadway.”  “I’m interested in being a fashion designer.” “I’m going to design video games.”  “My goal is to get my picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.”  “I want to write fantasy novels.”  The next generation will surely have artists, writers and designers but the students who talk to us about these extremely competitive fields usually aren’t doing that much to develop their skills. They often don’t realize much competition there is, how skilled the competition is, or how difficult it is for an adult to earn money doing these things.  Our colleague Paul Grifo dryly remarks “Drama is to middle class white kids what basketball is to poor black kids.  Everybody is going to be a star.”  He used to teach at an impoverished middle school in Oakland.

Small children do not have this problem.  One of us (Wing) recently visited a second grade class bringing some rocks, minerals and fossils.   The second graders were adorably eager to share their prior knowledge of rocks and minerals, to do the activities, and to ask dozens of questions each.  They brought rocks they had found to identify.  Not one said “how many points is this worth?”  So we asked our high school classes “why are the second graders more enthusiastic than you?  Weren’t you all second graders once?”  They were unanimous: they don’t have enough time or mental energy to get excited about rocks.  They have so much schoolwork to do.  It’s like the difference between enjoying a cold glass of ice water on a hot day and drinking all the time from a fire hose.  As soon as one assignment is done they have to start the next.  They feel like trained circus dogs jumping through hoops, rewarded by points, grades, and college admissions.  “Take away the homework and grades and maybe we’ll be like those kids” they told us.  Many of our students lead highly structured lives.  They go from class to sports or music lessons or mock trial, and then go home to eat a hurried dinner while completing hours of homework.  When bedtime arrives they update their social media accounts, text their friends, and perhaps watch a show on Netflix or play some video games.  The amount of sleep they get each night leaves them depleted.  Sometimes they awake early to finish homework or get to an early athletic practice.

At the other end of the pipeline, we run into ex-students who are now in their twenties and don’t know what they want.  It typically goes like this: “Ms. Souder!” Or, “Doc!” (They call Wing that.)

We look at the person standing in front of us who has changed so much.  “Alex?  Is that you?  How are you!  How great to see you!  What are you up to these days?  You went to the University of___, right?”  We both have good memories for details like where they went to college.  We try not to let our happy expressions change as we learn that this intelligent young adult, who always got good grades and has graduated from a well-known university, is now living with his or her parents and working at an unskilled job at a retail store or restaurant and isn’t sure what to do next.  They talk in unfocused ways about internships, travel or maybe graduate school.  Everyone says the master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree.

How is this OK?  College consumes four or more years of a young adult’s life and costs tens of thousands of dollars at least; often hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Isn’t that enough time and resources to get traction in life?  The cranky old person inside our heads starts to whisper: “When I was that age I was married and owned a house; I had a real job…”  “Young people these days…”  But this situation is too common to be the individual student’s fault, and it’s not unique to our community.  Raised on a steady diet of “You will go to college, and that experience will define your future”, how would they know anything else?  It’s up to the adults in their lives – parents, teachers, counselors and mentors– to show them how the world really works.  In our community we haven’t done a good job of that.  “Follow your passion” is a staple of high school graduation speeches, but the hard truth is that most teenagers don’t have a passion.  Many of their parents don’t have one either.  This is the cost of jumping through too many hoops.

The reason telling high school students to “follow your passion” feels fake is that so many of them have no time to figure out what, if anything, they are passionate about.  When we ask our students how much free time they have to daydream, write poetry, read for fun, paint, or take a walk, many look at us with incredulity.  There is no “free time” anymore, they tell us.  When we ask “what would you do if you had a whole year to yourself?” and wait patiently for an answer (and not providing them with a list of options), we hear some pretty amazing things.  Students who have told us they want to study architecture might say that they don’t actually like math or drawing.  They demonstrate a consistent disconnect between what our community expects them to say and what they actually feel.

We started to keep a list.  Every time a student of ours did an offbeat, unusual thing for its own sake (outside of the sports-schoolwork-homework-college juggernaut) or took advantage of an opportunity most people don’t know about we wrote it down.  Every time a student entered an unusual college program or even found a rewarding alternative to college we added it to the list.  The list grew long.  One of us posed it online.  We started to get feedback, mostly from parents and a little from our own students.  Then total strangers from other parts of the country began to email us.  “Great job” they would say.  “These ideas are fantastic.  I hope you know how inspirational your site is.”  We were getting a couple of thousand visits per month and we didn’t know who these visitors were.  We started the list for ourselves, mostly, and for any interested students and parents in the towns of San Anslemo and Fairfax, California.  We hadn’t advertised its existence to anybody.  Clearly, others were interested in these questions too.  But the thing that sent us into overdrive to write this book is that we finally learned what happens to our own students long-term.  For most of the history of our school it was impossible to know this.  All we had were anecdotes and perceptions because nobody tracked our graduates.  Then a few years ago an agency called the National Student Clearinghouse began to gather longitudinal data on how our students (and everyone else’s) are doing after they leave us.  Here’s what we learned, and it isn’t pretty:

In a recent year, a little over 80% of our district’s high school graduates enrolled in college after graduating.  This includes four-year colleges and two-year colleges.  About seventy percent of those had a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree six years later.  (In California it is common to take longer than four years to earn a degree at public universities.)  In the end, 59% of our graduates ended up with some kind of college degree even though 80% had aspired to one.  These numbers represent our entire district, which includes two other comprehensive high schools that are as good academically as we are.  Our district serves the communities of Sausalito, Mill Valley, Tiburon, Belvedere, Larkspur, Corte Madera, Ross, Kentfield, San Anselmo and Fairfax, California and a few outlying areas.  These towns are the richest part of Marin County.  Marin County is the richest of California’s fifty counties, or at least it was when these students were enrolled.  California is one of the most prosperous states in the Union.  And these numbers apply to our graduates, not to the kids who dropped out or moved away.  So, for every five of our students four enrolled in college and three completed college.

We’re not so chagrined about the ones who never went.  Maybe they had other plans.  It’s the 20% who enrolled in college but never earned any kind of degree that bother us the most.  That has a whiff of failure about it.  It means that each of them lacked the skills, motivation or money to succeed in college but did not believe they had a more attractive option.  If twenty percent of the students enrolled in one of our classes consistently failed the principal would scrutinize that very closely and question why we lose so many.  Apparently when the same thing happens to a whole district we get a pass.

This book has several main ideas.  First, you don’t have to wait until later to start doing authentic things.  Many of our students view high school as a grueling long-distance race to the finish line, with arbitrary rules, and acceptance to a selective college as the reward for having run it especially fast and well.  College is then supposed to lead you to authentic achievement and happiness.  But there are many fun and rewarding things a high school student can start doing right now.  “Follow your passion” may be a cliché of graduation speeches, but the truth is nobody finds a passion overnight.  It has to start with an interest.  Too many of our students don’t even allow themselves that.  The satisfaction and sense of accomplishment you get from working on your outside-of-school interest are what make real life worth living.  Northern California offers opportunities for high school and college students in science, medicine and the environment, foreign travel, summer programs at universities, the arts, writing, the outdoors, unusual sports and public policy.  We have located similar opportunities in other parts of the United States particularly in the major metropolitan areas where they are most concentrated.  If we didn’t write about opportunities in your region, it wasn’t from a lack of respect.  We just can’t research every possible opportunity in every possible place because there are so many.

Secondly, while college is (for most of us) still worth the considerable time, effort and expense it demands, an excessive focus on the prestige of your college really isn’t – in fact, it’s counterproductive.  It leads to stress, unhappiness and depression even in those who are successful at the college admissions game.  It interferes with the lifelong development of your authentic interests.  Where you go to college simply matters a lot less than everybody believes it does.  So go to a school that’s good enough to give you what you need, and then make the most of it.  Students who are motivated are successful no matter what school they attend, and it’s the authentic interest that provides the motivation.  This means you can stop working too hard to get into college.  You can sleep more, enjoy life more, and do more of what you like and still come out ahead.

Once you come to believe that prestige is overrated when it comes to colleges, you might notice a whole universe of special-purpose colleges and universities in intriguing locations that you hadn’t considered before.  Nobody winds up at these places by default or by following the herd.  They all require making an active choice motivated by a specific passion.  We’re fans of these places because of that.  These include women’s colleges, historically black colleges, extension schools, small liberal arts colleges, great books programs, art schools, maritime academies, service academies, honors colleges, colleges that cost nothing, and universities in Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Alaska and Hawaii.  You may fall totally in love with one of these places precisely because of what makes it so different.

Wherever you go, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for that can degrade the college experience for you and make it less worthwhile than it might have been.  These include rising costs and student debt, low academic standards, substance abuse, partying and sexual assault, transferring, dropping out and/or taking an excessive amount of time to earn your degree.  None of these are reasons to skip college, and the risks of all of them can be mitigated or avoided.  But not all of our students do mitigate or avoid them, and we have seen some promising college careers end in disappointment or worse.  So there are a few simple-to-avoid mistakes you shouldn’t make.

Finally, when you go to college be sure you do it right.  This means you pick your program or major thoughtfully, understanding how it affects your future options.  It also means having a specific and realistic plan for the first years after college.  Savvy working professionals know better than to quit their jobs without having lined up the next one.  As a student, going to college is your “job.”  It confers status and a sense of purpose and you shouldn’t quit it (graduate) without lining up the next one first.  So you talk to working adults and learn some marketable workplace skills while you are still in college, and you don’t wait until the last semester to do it.  You can still go to parties and major in something fanciful if you want to because four or five years are plenty of time to have fun, chase your dreams if you have them, and to develop practical goals.  Just be aware that your four-year college may not be the best place to acquire those workplace skills you’ll need.  You may have to pick them up outside of your college program.  For some, trade school is the new grad school.

Why doesn’t your guidance counselor tell you all this?  Maybe she does and you haven’t been listening!  We’re all influenced by our peers, our community, and the US News & World Report college rankings.  It’s funny how little most of us value good advice when it’s free.  You also have to remember that your counselor has hundreds of students and probably spends a lot of her time on a few that are especially needy.  The average ratio of students to counselors at public high schools nationwide is nearly 500 to one.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease in counseling departments.  Also, school administrators judge their success based on graduation rates and college admissions, so that’s what many school counselors focus on.  They can’t always afford to take the long view with every student.  You’re the one who needs to do that.

Chapter 1: Don’t Wait for College to have an Authentic Life
Write Something (Profile:  Elizabeth W. and her typewriter “Elvira”)
Teen Writing Contests, Journals, Magazines, Anthologies, and Playwriting Competitions
Science and Technology (Profile: Kyla B. at the Buck Institute)
Laboratory Science Opportunities
Technology Opportunities
Get Involved with a Museum (Profile: Sarah S. Exploratorium to Stanford to NASA)
Volunteer or Work in a Hospital (Profile:  Alex Z. in the Marin General ER; Graham D. oncology at UCSF)
Work with Animals (Profile: Kushi B. and her baby elephant seal; Katy W. big cat rescue)
Volunteer in Latin America (Profile: any Amigos volunteer; Amanda G. – Costa Rica?)
Go Abroad for High School (Profile:  Jonah A. in Israel)
Do a Summer Program or Enrichment Program at a University (Profile: Taylor R.)
Draw/ Act/ Sing/ Make Something (Profile: Melanie V. – sings til Dawn; Amanda G. – Jewelry Business)
Try an Unusual Sport (Proflie: Gabe W., Mountain Biking Champ)
Get Outdoors (Profile: Savanna Y. Search & Rescue)
Do Trail Work (Profile:  George W. on the merits of pick and shovel work)
Become a Certified Naturalist (Profile: Ryan H., fish whisperer)
Hike the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail (Profile: Michelle K. and her trail dog)
Government, Law and Social Sciences Opportunities (Profile – Hannah S. gets a hug from the Gov; Isabella M. page in DC)
Get out of High School Early (Profile: Erin F. writes at College of Marin)
Go Abroad after you Graduate (Profile: Skyler P. on the farm WOOF; Makenna F., Noah C.)
Need to be Reminded what your Authentic Interests are?  Some Activities & Questionnaires

Chapter 2: College is Worth It; Exclusivity Isn’t
The Case for College
Which four-year college you go to matters far less than you think  (Profile: Dr. B. Duff, Oregon Duck)
The Pressure to Be Perfect
Learn from Henry David Thoreau’s Example
Chapter 3: Some Special College Options You May Not Have Considered
Women’s Colleges (Profile Maggie P.?; Carter S. Mills to woodwooker)
Historically Black Colleges
Extension Schools at Major Universities
Consider a Small Liberal Arts College  (Profile Geena T.?)
Great Books Programs (Profile: Sarah D. at St. John’s College)
Art Schools (Profile Giula P. at MICA??)
Maritime Academies (Profile: Liz B. at the Coast Guard Academy)
Honors Colleges at State Universities (Profile Mika W.?)
Colleges that don’t charge Tuition (profiles Sebastian W. or Alison B. at Olin)
College in Canada (profile? Robby P. at UBC; Simon B-E at Emily Carr)
College in the United Kingdom (Profile Natasha P. Sctoland, Michael K. London)
College in Germany or Scandinavia? (Profiles Jeremy S., Jonas F. in Germany)
Make the University of Alaska or the University of Hawaii your Safety School? (Profile Estelle C.?)

Chapter 4: College Pitfalls to Avoid
Rising Cost and Student Debt
Low Academic Standards
Substance Abuse and Partying
Sexual Assault
Transfers, Dropouts, Time to Degree

Chapter 5: School Can’t Last Forever
Wherever you go, have a plan for the years after college
The plan should be specific, realistic and should have a timeline
Your major does matter; so choose it with care and focus on skills
Don’t assume you’ll figure things out after graduation, and don’t wait until your last semester
Get Information interviews while you are still a student
Graduate School
Coding Schools and Software development Bootcamps
When Trade School is the new Grad School / Apprenticeships are better than Internships

Chapter 6:  Parent Stories – advice and experiences of parents whose worst fears didn’t come to pass. Less-than-stellar students who succeeded by following their authentic interests.



Author | Teacher | Scientist