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Negotiating college life.

Psychologists maintain that college is a critical period during which students attempt the passage from adolescence to adulthood. If all goes well, sexual and aggressive energies become fused, the capacities for both loving and working become integrated. Identity, purpose, and joy await, or so the story goes.

This sounds nice, but vague. The smart student might guess that any "critical period" harbors a significant downside potential. The added factor of race can turn "critical" into extremely hazardous. Therefore, as a hedge against unforeseen calamities and emotional turbulence, some students might want a little guidance. Others like to ask for directions, if only to ignore them. Still others prefer to just pay the money for a good road map.

The closest thing to a road map that exists comes from the experiences of about 3,000 African-American students. Their passages through predominantly African-American and white colleges permitted the discovery of four major pressures (i.e. areas of change) of college life. For every hurdle, a skill is required to negotiate it successfully.

1. Leadership

In college, students learn to participate in and run the world around them, just as they will be expected to run the world around them after leaving college. Students who go with the natural flow and become responsibly involved stand to have a happier adjustment.

Leadership is the single most important negotiating skill that a student can bring to college or develop while in it. Leaders are in a position to maximize the critical relationship associated with academic and intellectual growth. Leaders meet more people and make more good friends. Leaders attract the attention of faculty and administrators who might act as mentors to them. Leaders develop working relationships with other students, and learn how to work with sometimes difficult people in order to get things done and still stay in school. Leaders are in the best position to translate the latent learning from the classroom into practical action outside of class.

2. Competence

According to theory, competence is the major driving force among all human beings. It pushes individuals, consciously or unconsciously, to seek to interact effectively with the world around them. Students most often judge their competence in terms of grades. Unfortunately, African-American students, especially those in predominantly white schools, appear under pressure to lose interest in getting good grades.

Whether or not the loss of interest occurs for legitimate reasons, such as unfair teachers or irrelevant subject matter, competence itself is too important a skill to risk losing. If leadership is the antidote to psychological oppression, then competence is the antidote to emotional turbulence, such as anxiety and depression. Competence in at least one subject area is also the minimum expected attainment for spending four years in one spot.

The more extraordinary the competency developed, the greater the psychological rewards. According to theory and those on the frontier of accomplishment, extraordinary competence is better than sex, and allows the individual access to altered states of consciousness where time and space collapse and one knows the true joy of being!

3. Mentorship

The most effective way of encouraging competence has always been through the support of good teachers. Indeed, among African-American students there emerges a pressure toward forming attachments to faculty and staff members. The desire for a mentor seems fairly universal, even if finding one is not. This pressure may be resolved well by the ability to find mentors, or poorly by failing to find adequate support and guidance. There is considerable opinion that the significant and silent effect of racial discrimination in college is the failure to nurture African-American talent. Yet, a number of researchers have found that having a mentor figure is the most important factor in the development of great talent. Having a relationship with a mentor, or better, a succession of mentors, acts as a virtual guidance system for the development of unusual abilities.

The answer for students is obvious: find a mentor. In order to survive college well, there is no substitute for having a good mentor. Upon arrival in college, the wise student would make finding a mentor (or two) an item of the highest priority.

4. Ability to Handle Threatening Situations

The fourth developmental pressure is the pressure to experience threatening situations, often exacerbated by the reality of being African-American in a predominantly white society. Threatening situations include physical attack, verbal assault, and resulting legal skirmishes. The nature of this pressure is that students have a 50/50 chance of experiencing threatening situations on an accelerating basis throughout college.

The question for African-American students is not how to avoid racial threat, since it seems far too likely to avoid, even in Black colleges. A better question is what will the response be to this likely pressure? Preparedness is the key. Organize to deflect hatred with a cool head and a repertoire of intelligent responses. Acts of hatred are committed by emotional cripples, giving the intelligent African-American student a decided advantage.

The ability to cope with a sometimes threatening, sometimes irrational world is a crowning achievement for students who refuse to feel victimized.


College, like life, is a challenge because it requires successful mastery on many fronts. Learning how to make progress, however small, toward one or more skills is the real test. Fundamentally, the task requires only the maturity and readiness to accept a clear challenge and to rise to it.

Jacqueline Fleming, PhD, is the author of Blacks in College. She heads the Motivation Research Corporation in New York City.
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Title Annotation:Motivation
Author:Fleming, Jacqueline
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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