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Once in a Lifetime


By Sarah Arthur, Assistant Dean of Graduate, Online & Adult Learning on Thursday, January 28, 2021

House in the winter

On Saturday, it struck me that I hadn’t pulled out of my own driveway in a full week. Yikes! Between working remotely, worshipping online, attending a tele-health appointment instead of an in-office booking, having social plans only on Zoom, and my generous husband doing the grocery shopping for the week, I had no need to go anywhere outside my own abode. At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt very odd to be healthy but staying home—or to be staying at home to “go to” work. Now, after nearly a year of governor’s executive orders and digital everything, it took me a full week to even realize that I had been housebound since the previous Saturday. While I had a productive week personally and professionally, I had to ask myself all over again, “Am I making the most of the time I have been given?”

While we hope that this pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we also don’t want to grow complacent about the days and weeks and months that are a very real and irreplaceable slice of our lives—and the lives of our students. As I observe the influence of COVID on our culture, I am seeing how the time spent waiting for virus victory can easily become wasted time instead. It’s not just our family gatherings and vacations that are being laid aside. In many cases, we are putting off the things that contribute to our personal progress. Experts are saying that preparations for retirement are being delayed while everyday investors wait for a more stable economy. Medical professionals are saying that multitudes are skipping their routine tests and exams out of fear of exposure to the virus. I wonder how many important decisions and diagnoses have been missed. Could the cost of waiting be wasting opportunity? How does that affect our students?

Here is the good news—our UNW students are not taking a break from their educational goals. At the start of the pandemic, we heard a lot of indecisiveness about whether young adults should keep moving forward with college plans. The question was whether college-bound or returning college students should take a gap year and wait for the pandemic to blow over. I’m pleased to say that UNW students did just the opposite. They dove in, ready to make the most of their educational opportunities—in spite of COVID. In fact, our retention of UNW students from fall to spring semester this academic year is substantially stronger in every venue at Northwestern than it was pre-pandemic! Our Dual Enrollment (PSEO/Early College), Traditional, and Adult &Graduate Studies students are all demonstrating a “get ‘er done” determination. Our outstanding retention is evidence that while the world is on pause, our industrious students see the cultural slow-down as a time to buckle-down to reach a major milestone.

I believe our students instinctively know that our once-in-a-lifetime pandemic overlaps with their once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

I’m glad to see that our students are making the most of this critical time in their lives. In The Defining Decade, Why Your Twenties Matter—and How to Make the Most of Them Now, psychologist Meg Jay describes the 10 years our students are entering as their “developmental sweet spot”. The decade between 20 and 30 (or perhaps 18 and 28 for our DE students with a head start) is not only a critical time for growth and change—it is also critical not to waste precious time that literally only comes around once.

The experiences and decisions made in this decade of life have a monumental impact on our students’ futures. Here are handful of the things Dr. Jay cites in her book as she describes our students’ rapid transition to adulthood:

  • Personality changes the most in one’s twenties.
  • The first 10 years of a person’s career have the greatest impact on future earnings.
  • Half of Americans are involved with their future partner by age 30.
  • By age 35, most of life’s pivotal decisions have already been chosen.

Rather than having all the time in the world, our students really don’t have any time to waste. Despite our American culture’s decided shift to thinking of our students’ twenties as a period of extended adolescence, it is really the most jam-packed, growth-oriented, aim-for-their-goals time of their lives. Dr. Jay encourages students in this critical developmental stage to seek what she calls “identity capital”, which is the deliberate pursuit of knowledge, experiences, and resources that help shape who our students become.

Parents and guardians, can you think back to your 10-year growth spurt into adulthood? Our own “adulting” experiences are testimony to the critical nature of this once-in-a-lifetime decade.

  • What decisions did you make before you turned 30 that changed the course of your future? For example, on my own journey, choosing to push hard on my education resulted in a graduate degree in hand in my early 20’s that established my career trajectory.
  • What experiences contributed to who you became? Traveling overseas gave me the courage to move from Lafayette, Indiana to Seattle, Washington and then to Boston, Massachusetts in a span of just three years. The graduate degree opened up new job opportunities in higher education, including adjunct teaching roles before I turned 30.
  • What critical challenges inspired and solidified your values? For me, health issues solidified my high value of quality medical care. Separation from family led to deliberate routines for maintaining relationships. A struggle with Boston’s high cost of living led to learning to be a careful steward of resources—and a permanent move to Minnesota!

No doubt about it, our students are in the most critical years of their adult development. We can encourage them to explore and define their academic and career goals so that their decisions have purpose. That might include seeking counsel from their academic advisor, taking assessments through Career Development, or tapping into UNW’s Career Connections for discussions with alumni in their field of interest. We may need to help them imagine alternatives to their travel goals or ways to use digital formats to achieve things they had hoped to do in person. As long as our students are making choices with intention, instead of choosing activity for the sake of passing time, they are making this time count. Pursuing their goals in the midst of what life dishes out is actually part of what establishes their determination and solidifies their character.

Our students are demonstrating that they don’t want to wait on the sidelines until the COVID show is over. Ten years seems to fly by for us but it is an irreplaceable eternity to them. As parents and guardians, could it be that our own intentional stewardship of the time we have been given should include encouraging our students to do the same? After all, as parents and guardians, this decade in their lives becomes our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, too.

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