As a psychology professor, I do lots of different things in my job. I help students register for classes, I teach classes on this and that, I talk with students about how to achieve their career goals, I conduct research on interesting topics related to human nature, I attend meetings (some of which are long and boring!), and so forth. But the main thing I’m doing in this work is cultivating the minds of young people. You might think of college students as young adults. Or you may think of them as being in the final stage of childhood. Either way, these are people who are at a critical life junction and who are, almost necessarily, uncertain about what the future holds.
One thing I like to instill in my students is this – the truth that they can, within reasonable parameters, achieve anything – that the sky is the limit. I’m pretty tolerant with my students in general, but I have little tolerance for students second guessing themselves – do I belong here? Can I achieve this or that? Can I make it into “grad school?” Can I get a career that will be worthwhile and that will pay the bills?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. The average student’s GPA in psychology at SUNY New Paltz is over 3.22. My final GPA in college when I graduated in 1992 was, you guessed it, 3.22. Thus, if you’re an average student in our program, you should at least be able to do as well as I have – and while my career has hardly been perfect, it’s certainly not bad. If you have it in you to graduate from our program, then you have it in you to get into some kind of graduate program and certainly to make some kind of positive mark on this world. I’ve seen it over and over – I have no doubt.
As part of this positive approach I take to student development, I, perhaps not surprisingly, look to the work and life of Charles Darwin for inspiration. As David Buss (2003) reminds us in his classic book, The Evolution of Desire, we are all Darwinian success stories. Each and every one of us is the result of millions of generations of ancestors – across various forms of life – who were successful in the evolutionarily crucial domains of survival and reproduction. Relative to the proportion of those who did not become ancestors – who died Darwinian deaths, you’re on a short list!
And on top of this, as Darwin (1859) wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Think evolutionary perspective is somehow not spiritual? Think again – this perspective connects you and I with not only all other humans, but with all other mammals, birds, butterflies, and flowering plants. And more. If there’s a more beautiful thought out there or an idea that’s more spiritual in nature, it’s beyond my grasp.
In my career, I think I’ve been pretty good at getting students – young adults – to see themselves as capable of all kinds of great things – and armed with the Darwinian perspective (see Geher, 2014), I think there’s good reason for the kind of optimism that I work to bring to my students – and beyond. If you just finished reading this, then you are a Darwinian success story. Now get back to reaching for those stars!
Buss, D.M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.
Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray