How Universities, like Mason, Can Support Emerging Adults

How can Mason students between ages 18 and 29 successfully navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood? Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, author of the bestselling book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, explored that question when he spoke on campus as part of the Fall for the Book festival.

By: Whitney Hopler

Writer-in-Residence, GMU Center for the Advancement of Well-Being

How can Mason students between ages 18 and 29 successfully navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood? Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, author of the bestselling book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, will explore that question when he speaks on campus Wednesday, September 28th as part of the Fall for the Book festival. After presenting a workshop for faculty and staff from 12 noon to 2 p.m. in 1201 Merten Hall, Arnett will deliver a public lecture at 4:30 p.m. in the Harris Theatre.

Arnett, a psychology research professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, writes in Emerging Adulthood that, “For young Americans of the 21st century, the road to adulthood is a long one.” That road, he adds, leads them to “experience both excitement and uneasiness, wide-open possibility and confusion, new freedoms and new fears.” In Emerging Adulthood, Arnett offers strategies for guiding 18-to-29-year-olds to make wise choices.

Fall for the Book executive director Bill Miller, who has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students for more than 30 years through Mason’s English department, says that the environment faculty and staff create for students can help them to be successful in their coming-of-age journeys. “Offering a climate in which they can stretch and grow intellectually empowers them,” he says, “… to accomplish things they otherwise would not, and from that process they learn what they are capable of, and where their strengths lie.”

Arnett’s work resonates well with the Mason community, said E. Shelley Reid, director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence (CTFE), which is co-sponsoring Arnett’s events along with the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB), Program for Higher EducationSchool of Integrative Studies, and University Life. “I think that several aspects of Dr. Arnett’s book are important for faculty and student-support staff at a university like Mason,” she says. “In addition to the kinds of transitions Arnett says are common in this age group – as people move from home to independent living, from high school to college, from college to a career – I think Mason students often face additional ways that they are ‘in between’ one identity and another. For instance, many of our students are returning to school after being in the workplace, the family, or the military; a majority of our graduating seniors have attended at least one other college or university; many of our students are navigating cross-cultural boundaries; and they are often having to balance their coursework, their job commitments, and time in their family and social groups. When we understand more about how to support students in making productive choices at this point in their lives, we can help educate the whole student, not just focus on one aspect.”

Mindfulness is an especially helpful well-being practice for working with students who are learning how to make the best choices in their lives, Miller says. “I think mindfulness is the key. That’s been my main technique in working with them and advising them through the years.”

Mason offers students many resources to help them navigate the complexities of their journey from adolescence to adulthood, says Chelsie Kuhn, project coordinator for CWB. “I think some of the best ways our center supports students lie in our weekly well-being practices and our coursework, particularly Mark Thurston’s ‘Consciousness, Meaning, and Life Purpose’ course. This course allows students to spend a semester asking questions and thinking deeper about meaning and purpose in their own lives. They get to explore and develop practices that support them around their strengths and values. Other ways that the university at large supports this navigating process and identity questions can be seen in student organizations such as F1rst Gen Mason (important for community well-being and support systems) and majors such as Conflict Analysis and Resolution and Integrative Studies, where exploring personal identity is just as important as learning other skills. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we have to work with when navigating such a complex journey.”

The information that Arnett plans to discuss can help Mason’s educators make wise decisions about how to help students from diverse backgrounds, Reid says. “Dr. Arnett’s research can help us identify some important trends that can guide our work here at Mason. Having reliable information is especially important when we’re looking at students from such diverse sociocultural backgrounds: while the media sometimes portrays young Americans as apathetic or immature, many of our students are already taking leadership roles in their families, careers, or communities. They may also be searching for a stable identity, though, so it’s essential that we define strategies that support them without discounting what they have already accomplished.”

Arnett’s research and strategies for understanding the unique challenges facing 18 to 29 year-olds, and guiding them to make wise choices, resonates with students, parents, educators and anyone working with emerging adults. Learn more about the faculty and staff workshop and Arnett’s public talk.