Lucy Van Pelt: registered conversationologist
My little experiment began bright and early at 8 a.m. I walked gingerly toward the union, preparing to be emotionally drained by midday. I didn’t know what exactly I would be getting myself into by setting up a table with a poster that read “Let’s talk about anything” and a box of Kleenex, but I felt it would somehow be profound; I would somehow be effecting change. While the jury is still out on whether or not my ever-so-idealistic efforts were at all successful, I am happy to report that NAU students were receptive to them.
In my four hours of tabling on the pedway outside the union, I spoke with 27 students. I talked to girls. I talked to boys. I talked to people of various races, religions and cultures. Some laughed, some cried. My findings? Our student body has a lot more on its mind than we might lead each other to believe.
As I sat at the table, waiting for the occasional passerby to have a seat and chat with me, I was amazed at how many students were willing to share details of their personal lives. Even more amazing was the fact that their stories, though beginning with scholastic topics, grew deeper and deeper as they spoke. In fact, these passersby were actually thoroughly complex, multilayered people. As one senior (who stuck around for half an hour, listening to others speak) noted, “You never know what people on campus are thinking about and going through.”
In the public sphere, we function as ordinary human beings with ordinary thoughts. We interact with one another, chatting about the weather and our most recent sociology assignment. Not to say that these topics aren’t riveting, but if you peer past the facade of political correctness and so-called “normalcy,” you see that there is much more going on.
The common theme among the students I talked to was pressure. For example, one of my first conversations of the day was with a freshman boy, Jake. Jake’s father is a recovering alcoholic; Jake repeatedly told me that his father “threw all he had away. He really did. He threw it all away so he could drink instead.” Jake feels pressure to be the best he can be and to do better for himself than his father ever did. Surprisingly enough, I’d later meet a male freshman who also discussed the lack of a male role model in his life. He said something along the lines of, “My dad has been a pretty demeaning, belittling presence in my life. Sometimes I feel like the lack of a real role model has really affected me. I have pretty low self-esteem.” He talked about wanting to be the best he could be, and often feeling like it still isn’t good enough.
These conversations showed me that we all have more in common than just going to the same school. And yet, it would seem we are still judging each other. A couple other freshmen boys approached me that day, saying they have had trouble making friends. One of the boys, Ryan, is bisexual; when he tries to confide in some of his friends about this, he says they reprimand him for his “lifestyle choice.” He feels they pontificate instead of listen, which is not what they should do as friends. Then there’s Maxwell, who is having trouble making friends and adapting to college life. “If you’re not at a party every night, or drinking and doing drugs, or sleeping with girls, you’re an outcast.” I asked him about what his idea of college was before actually coming here. He said, “I thought I’d get here and become a cooler version of myself, but I’m not. I’m still just me. You know, people always tell you ‘it’s the best four years of your life’ so there’s a lot pressure to feel that way too.”
Both Ryan and Maxwell brought up sexuality and sex, something that several of the students who dropped by talked about. For example, one concerned boy asked me, “How often should a single dude be allowed to have sex?” I didn’t have an answer for him, so I hesitated and finally said, “As long as he uses protection every time, there should be no limit…?” He laughed and replied, “Of course!” Another student walked over to the table, sporting a Gay Pride t-shirt, and told me that people constantly call him gay and a “faggot” because he is not interested in stereotypically masculine hobbies, like sports, and is in touch with his emotions.
Even though we all have different ways of expressing ourselves, we do still share in having fears and anxieties. Other things that are troubling students on campus include, as one student put it, “this feeling that I just don’t fit in anywhere.” Some students worry about their place in their own families as well. One female student discussed with me the feeling that she needs to hide who she really is in order to please her parents.
Clearly, our student body is dealing with quite a lot of pressure. The last student I spoke to, a senior, was worried about “the state of humanity.” He fears that people are self-absorbed and have little consideration or empathy for others. His thoughts make an excellent closing point: be kind to your peers. Take time to make conversation; keep an open mind; keep an open heart. You may not realize what sort of battles a person is fighting.
For students interested in personal counseling, Campus Health Services offers this service for $15 per session. A session lasts 40 minutes and students can have up to eight per semester. To get more information or make an appointment, call (928) 523-2261.