by Kristina Crawley

The college freshman's To Do List: 1. Register for classes; 2. Pick a major and then change major... and then change it again; 3. Find self; 4. Graduate on time; 5. Get job and pay off loans

Having so much to accomplish in four short years, the real reason so many commit so much time, money and hard work to a college education can easily be lost in the shuffle.

"You're going to grow as an individual," says Joe Manning, a senior at Gonzaga University. "You're going to learn more about yourself."

Christy Hibbler of Eastern Washington University says that for her, it's been about opening her mind.

And for Kimmy Benson of Whitworth College, it's about "finding passion and going with it."

At least those are the more philosophical responses. When dealing with the hassles of selecting a major and figuring out how to graduate on time, however, it may seem as though students are losing sight of the nobler ideals of the university experience. The first-year college student standing at the entrance of her dorm room for the first time is probably more concerned about how she's going to get along with her roommate than she is about participating in a scholarly exchange of ideas. But once she's overcome the shock of being ripped out of her small-town home, there's a whole world out there waiting to transform her.

Finding Himself

Manning is studying journalism at Gonzaga and hopes to go on to produce television news. Although he says at first he was a little skeptical about all the money he was shelling out on his private education, he says he's definitely undergone a transformation the past three years. Even with scholarships and financial aid, the bill comes to a pretty hefty sum. But Manning says the people he met and the classes he took changed his mind -- and eventually changed him.

One professor, Dan Garrity, who teaches broadcasting, has especially influenced him. Garrity has helped Manning develop stronger and more creative problem-solving skills, he says.

"Nothing is a problem to him," Manning says. "I always get in trouble because I use the word 'problem,' like 'I have a problem.' He's like, 'You don't have a problem. You have a challenge.' And I think that just speaks to the way a lot of people here approach things... you can overcome."

Fittingly, as Manning spoke those words, he donned a Gonzaga cross-country T-shirt with the slogan, "There's no way we can't do this," scrawled across the back. It may be a double negative, but it encapsulates the attitude he has found so inspiring.

Manning also says that, like many other college students, he's become more adept at speaking his mind and sharing his beliefs and ideas with others. That's been a big change since high school.

"In high school, you're kind of in the situation where you don't want to offend anyone," he says. "It's about fitting in and just doing what the group does. I'm not afraid to let my opinion be known anymore."

He's not afraid to speak up in classes like Critical Thinking or Ethics. In fact, he now enjoys taking part in those discussions.

"That's how we learn. We share those ideas," he says. It's that process of sharing ideas and debating the issues that has forced him to gain a stronger sense of himself.

"You have to come to a better understanding of yourself, or else you're just going to get frustrated," Manning says.

And he's right, according to Dr. Maureen Sheridan, director of the Gonzaga Counseling and Career Assessment Center. Sheridan says most students, when they arrive at college, are overwhelmed by all the ambiguity they face. Those who don't adapt and learn how to deal with it can get stuck and find it difficult to progress to the next stage of development.

"We know that when students are arriving at college, they are going to be much more black and white -- 'This is how you do it,' 'This is how it's always been done,'" Sheridan says. "The next stage... they start looking around and they start saying, 'Well, wait a second. There's more complexity out there.' People start becoming a little bit more free."

Opening Up

Last quarter, in her Eastern and Western Religions and Philosophies class, Hibbler, says her view of the world was put to the test. Hibbler, a senior at EWU studying early education, says that until taking that class, she never realized just how much religion and philosophy affect the world.

"That really challenged a lot of the perceptions that I had," she says. "It made you think about the way you live and the way you view things, and the way others view things."

And that class has just been the last in a line of many things that have opened Hibbler's mind since she started at Eastern.

"[Since] starting college, I've really been open to new ideas and been a little more daring in the things I've done," she says. "I'm a lot more open-minded than I ever was before."

It's a common development among the college population -- becoming more accepting and tolerant. Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, for the most part it is, but this newfound respect for diversity can also turn into a greater risk: unconditional, unquestioning acceptance.

"That can be a real dangerous time in college, because [students] move to a relativity," Sheridan says. "If black-and-white isn't the answer, then there's no answer."

Students take on the mindset that there is no such thing as right or wrong, adopting an if-it-feels-good-do-it attitude. Or there's the opposite danger -- that they'll go looking for structure wherever they can find it, within groups like gangs or cults. That's why Sheridan says it's important that students have a supportive and constructive environment where they can work through the confusion of not having all, or even any, of the answers.

Growing Up and Moving On

Benson, a senior, says that's exactly what she found at Whitworth. Majoring in psychology, she has sometimes found it difficult to reconcile the science she's studying with her Christian faith. However, she's grateful for an environment that has not only forced her to wrestle with those difficult issues, but also provided her with a place where she feels comfortable doing so.

"I feel very safe here. It's a very safe place to explore those faith questions," Benson says. "I don't think I would have [otherwise] ever asked the questions that I'm asking now," she adds.

More than anything, she's found support within the student housing community over the years. As a freshman, she developed a strong relationship with her resident advisor. The friendship had such a strong impact on Benson that she decided to become an R.A. herself; now she has plans for graduate school to study college student development.

Benson says the environment at Whitworth and the relationships she's formed with the people there have helped her to grow and to become more confident and outgoing.

"There hasn't been a moment since I've gotten here that I've been stagnant in my development... everything is constantly changing," she says.

Her hope is that all that change has prepared her to take the step to the next stage, into what college students refer to as the "Real World." And they're not talking about the mother of all reality TV shows. No, what they mean is that place outside the safe college bubble, which they hope to undertake with a stronger sense of self and a better understanding of others. Because no matter how many times you change your major, the thing that really matters is how you've changed yourself.

Kristina Crawley has been editorial intern for The Inlander this summer. Now she starts her senior year at Gonzaga University, where she will be editor of the Gonzaga Bulletin.

Publication date: 08/26/04

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