Going off to college


Going off to college

By Mark Johns

Even after leaving home, young people take "home" with them, maintaining moment-by-moment relationships with family and friends over long distances, thanks to technology. Home congregations, too, can remain a vital part of young adults' lives.

Baby boomers went off to college in the '60s and '70s. Generation X went off to college in the '80s and '90s. But going "off" to college is now a thing of the past.

Rostered leaders of the ELCA in those groups probably have fond memories of that experience -- the excitement of leaving home and being on your own, checking your dorm mailbox for a letter from Mom (perhaps a hometown newspaper, and if luck was with you, even a care package of cookies!).

The study companion was the Top 40 radio station. A study break might have meant catching a program on the TV in the dorm lounge.

Possibly those memories include the pay telephone in the dormitory hallway, and getting a Sunday afternoon phone call from Mom and Dad. The call was short, because "long distance" was expensive.

Things have changed

Young people today don't "go off to college." They are on campus, but they remain securely tethered to home. The cell phone, text messages, email, social networking sites such as Facebook, and even video conferencing programs like Skype make it possible for students to be in constant contact with parents, siblings, high school friends and others from back home.

The presence of these technologies has significantly changed the dynamics of college life, of growing up, and of dealing with life's joys and challenges.

The electronic umbilical

The ongoing connection to parents is certainly one significant difference between today's college experience and that of 20 years ago. While students in previous generations spoke with parents perhaps on a weekly basis, or even less, the cell phone has changed expectations. Many college students have conversations with one or both parents several times each day.

"It used to be that if a student had a disappointment, by the time they talked to Mom and Dad on the weekend, they'd had a chance to process it," says Tim Peter, professor of music at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. "Now, if they don't make a music ensemble or they don't get a certain solo, Mom is in the moment, right there by cell phone. The whole family can get emotional."

Parents remain a constant presence, always as close as the cell phone. Meeting with a group of first-year students at Luther revealed that they are in constant contact not only by phone but also through text messages.

"I taught my Mom how to text this summer and she thinks she is pretty technologically savvy now, so she made my Dad get her unlimited texting," says Sarah Thell "I get five or six texts from her every day."

All of these contacts with home make college life a very different experience for this generation. Parents remain a constant presence, always as close as the cell phone. Students who are expected to check in with a phone call home after every class session are not unusual.

The social network

Addiction to social networking sites on the Web -- especially Facebook -- is another new wrinkle in the lives of young adults.

Social network sites challenge the common understanding of friendship, as many young adults boast hundreds of friends in their online connections. By linking to actual acquaintances in the real world, and then to friends of friends online, an individual user may have "friends" they've never met!

Today's students are more reachable on Facebook than by email or any other means. Many college students use these networks as their primary means of communication with others on campus.

Posting an updated status message can instantly alert the entire network of friends about tonight's party spot, a campus event or a user's change from "single" to "in a relationship."

"I know of students who are only reachable by Facebook," says Tim Barr, director of the Center for Servant Leadership at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin. "When advertising for events, extracurricular activities, or opportunities, today's students are more reachable on Facebook than by email or any other means."

Facebook is also used to maintain relationships with high school classmates and others who may be on another campus, in the military or places far from the college or university they are attending.

The ability to get regular updates on the daily lives of people one no longer sees on a regular basis means that many college students today never give up their high school friends and others from back home.

In the past, going off to college meant, for many students, starting over with a new set of friends, but the current generation does not move on to new relationships in the same way. They don't go off to college but, instead, they take their high school peer group with them.

A connected generation

While some young adults may feel less urgency to develop new friendships on campus, choosing instead to keep in touch with old friends by computer, evidence suggests this is not normally the case.

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project "Social Isolation and New Technology" by Keith Hampton, Lauren Sessions, Eun Ja Her, Lee Rainie, released in November 2009, found that heavy Internet and cell phone users have larger and more diverse social circles than those who use the technologies less and that heavy technology users are also more engaged in face-to-face contacts with family and friends.

The Pew study did confirm that today's young adults have fewer close friends, but they keep those friends over time and great distance. They also maintain much closer day-to-day contact with those who may have only been passing acquaintances in the past.

Lutherans have often let go of young adults when they go off to college, turning over ministry to these members of the congregation to campus pastors or military chaplains, and hoping they'll come back home to the parish once it's time to marry.

A cell phone, text package, or a Facebook account might keep students in touch with the roots of their faith, as well. But technology continues to connect this generation to parents and friends. There's no reason the same technologies can't continue connections to pastors, youth directors or trusted mentors back in the home congregation.

As long as the electronic umbilical is keeping students in touch with mere acquaintances, a cell phone, text package, or a Facebook account might keep them in touch with the roots of their faith, as well.

Going off to college isn't what it used to be. Technology provides the opportunity for a home congregation to continue ministry even when young adults have moved far from home.

Mark Johns is an ELCA pastor and an associate professor of communication studies at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

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