Lessons for Higher Education from a Professor’s Son, A United States Marine

Towards the end of his junior year in high school my son made the decision to join the Armed Forces of the United States. Because of his love of everything water, including being an accomplished sailor, fisherman, and water skier his mother, also a university professor and I thought he would choose the United States Navy or Coast Guard. To our surprise he chose the United States Marine Corp. He told us that of all of the branches of the armed forces, the U.S. Marine Corp is by far the most challenging and demanding.

Having our son volunteer to join the United States Marine Corp is not the typical path for children of university professors. After all, we have dedicated most of our adult lives to higher education and it seems only logical that our son would follow our paths. Since our son made his decision we have found ourselves continually having to defend his choice to colleagues, family, and friends.

Adding to the above is my personal connection to the United States Military. In 1971 I was drafted to go to Vietnam. My lottery number was 87. Like many brave Americans who understood that no American should be fighting the unwinnable war in Vietnam, I refused to serve. This was a tumultuous time in the United States. One of my brother’s good friends Scott Paterson who was denied conscientious objector status actually hijacked a Western Airlines jetliner and ended up in Canada, and eventually prison (http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2209&dat=19710301&id=eXljAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C3oNAAAAIBAJ&pg=7255,72298). After I received my draft notice I became an official “draft dodger” until President Nixon cancelled the draft in January of 1973. To this day I bear the anxiety from this time so long ago.

Other than his success on the soccer field and his four years studying Design, Drafting and Technology, high school offered our son very little. Like many young men our son is an active, hands-on learner. He soars when given a challenge to design and build something, sail on Lake Huron, or fix a small engine he has salvaged from the local transfer station. Unfortunately his high school offered few options that met his interests or needs. To our delight he did officially graduate from high school. To this day I have never asked to see his final report card from his senior year.

During the summer between his junior and senior years of high school our son took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test, and the Physical Fitness Test. On both tests he scored at the very top. His high scores allowed him to have his choice of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). He selected Marine Aerial Navigator.

On August 17, 2014 he departed from Michigan to the Marine Corp Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. All he could take were the clothes he was wearing and $20.00 in emergency money in case he was stranded in an airport while en route. For the next thirteen weeks our only contact with our son was through written letters. His mother and I, together with many family and friends, wrote and sent letters often. Each letter we received from our son during his thirteen week basic training was like a holiday gift to us. To read about the mental and physical challenges he was enduring, the camaraderie between he and his fellow recruits, and his genuine and authentic excitement brought tears to our eyes. This after all was our son who we were told during his middle school years had attention deficit disorders and that we may wish to consider prescription medication. We refused, saying that we know what is best for our son and when he is in an environment that challenges his mental and physical interests, he does exceptionally well. The United States Marines has affirmed our judgment.

In mid-November my wife and I, and several family members traveled to San Diego to witness his graduation from MCRD. It was an incredible event, one of a kind. The son we said goodbye to in August was transformed. He was now a United States Marine, “Semper Fidelis, always faithful, faithful to the mission at hand, to each other, to the Corps and to country, no matter what.”

Following his graduation he had ten days of liberty where we got to know each other again. During these ten days he shared many stories of his thirteen weeks of basic training. Awaking each day at 4:30 a.m. he and his fellow recruits were faced with extraordinary mental and physical challenges, from intense course work on military history, medical first-aid, and logistics, to grueling physical training on land and in the water. He shared that on one very long hike with nearly eighty pounds of gear on his back, he and another young man literally carried another young man in distress and his pack on their backs several miles to help him complete the hike. These future Marines’ faithfulness was challenged at all times; in classroom exams, during meals, in how they dressed, kept their barracks, while marching, firing rifles, even while using the toilets. Upon graduation his mother and I have never been more proud of our son. He is a United States Marine.

Because of his role as a navigator our son’s commitment to the Marines will be five years of active service and three years of inactive service. At this point he is not sure if he wants to make the Marine Corps his career. Whenever his tenure is over he will have many marketable skills for a career in aviation. He will also have the benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill for education and training. He is already taking advantage of this opportunity having enrolled in an on-line class while he is in navigation school.

Starting this new semester I cannot help but think about our son and the many lessons he endured and then shared. Like his, my life has been transformed as well. As I look into the faces of my students, especially many of the young men his age some seem lost, not totally comfortable with why they are at the university. I have noticed this in years past. This year it seems much more obvious. I also think about the extraordinary efforts my university and many others put forward to helicopter (oversee, hand-hold, advise) students.

The question I often ask myself and others is, is higher education doing our students a disservice by not allowing them to take greater responsibility for their lives and their courses of study? A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “An Epidemic of Anguish (August 31, 2015),” stated that, ‘Rates of anxiety and depression among American College Students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses.’ One comment following the article was especially illuminating. Joelcairo said, “If there is an epidemic of suicides on college campuses today — particularly on elite campuses — then we need look no further than the parenting styles under which many of these kids are raised. Middle-class and upper middle class parents are far too indulgent of their kids. They try to clear their paths of any obstacle the kids might encounter. By the time their kids are asked to start behaving as young adults in college, some of the kids can’t handle it on their own and freak out.”

In 2013 Psychotherapist Brooke Donatone wrote about the aforesaid for Slate Magazine in her article titled, “Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up.” http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2013/12/millennial_narcissism_helicopter_parents_are_college_students_bigger_problem.html

In the article she says, “The over involvement of helicopter parents prevents children from learning how to grapple with disappointments on their own. If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash land.”

Are universities also guilty of helicoptering? By focusing too much on the university taking responsibility for the students’ decisions and actions, are we depriving students of opportunities to advance their “frustration tolerance,” i.e., the ability to deal with a bad grade, the ability to adjust a schedule of classes on their own, the ability to end a relationship, the ability to cope with the loss of a job, etc. I wonder if we are doing our students a disservice by not allowing them to be more faithful to their mission at hand, to each other, to the future of our country, no matter what. As our son and all of his fellow Marines demonstrated to his university professor parents, if challenged young men and women his age are capable of extraordinary actions, both mental and physical.

John Kilbourne, Ph.D. is a professor of Movement Science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.