Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters

Yesterday, on Facebook, I learned of yet another student suicide at one of our local public high schools, Gunn High School in nearby Palo Alto, California. I am very familiar with Gunn and its outstanding academic reputation thanks to faculty contacts. There have been several suicides by Gunn students over the past few years. The school and the school district have been very proactive with new student-help programs, as a result. As evidenced by one Palo Alto student’s open letter to parents, published yesterday in the Huffington Post, high expectations and parental pressures are often part of the problem. More on that letter, in a bit.

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How does one make sense of a (usually) promising young man or woman who is so distraught as to take such a drastic, final step?

I have no degree in psychology, but I am a retired electrical engineer who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for many years. I do know something about the culture and attitudes, here. Although each suicide and every distraught student has a unique personal profile behind his or her problems, there are some common denominators which become apparent to those of us who have lived here, worked here, and raised children in this valley.

I have alluded to the culture of this place numerous times in past blog posts. For the uninitiated, Palo Alto is the focal point of the phenomenon known as “Silicon Valley,” and it is also home to Stanford University. There is little argument over the contention that this valley is the technology capital of the world…yes, I do mean the WORLD! I emphasize this because few such statements can survive the test of scrutiny and counter-claims – this one does. Why is that important? Because this region is different; Silicon Valley and its denizens are immersed in a lifestyle which can rightly be called driven and success-oriented. At stake for many of the adult parents who live here are huge financial rewards and ego-gratifications which are available nowhere else to this degree in the world of technology.

People here are high achievers in their fields. You do not hold a “significant” (the term subject to definition and scrutiny) job, here, for long if you are not motivated and capable, and this can be a source of considerable angst for children of such parents. Not surprisingly, youngsters feel academic/parental pressure to “succeed,” here. At the same time, quality time with very busy (often two-income) parents is in short supply. “Quality time” between parents and student is often limited to frequent chauffeuring between various sports and activity venues.

In discussing the growing desperation of today’s students, there are no absolutes – no “always the case” scenarios, but there are trends, and identifying these is key to understanding the problem of distraught students.

Here is my list of “givens” as I see them:

-Student suicide is related to many factors – for example: Inherent mental illness, lack of love and attention at home, disturbing relationships with fellow students, bullying, and possibly school policies which stress students with excessive homework, etc. Each student’s situation is unique.

-Attending school with classmates who are uniformly gifted and driven is bound to be a source of added pressure. It is not about getting decent grades, here in this valley; it is about getting top marks – good enough to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or UC Berkeley.

-Parents who desperately want their child to reach the highest pinnacles of success (starting with admission to a prestige college or university, as an example) can have diverse motivations – from those who are genuinely motivated to help their student reach what seems their inherent potential, to those who relish living vicariously through their student and their student’s achievements.

-Even parents genuinely concerned for all the right reasons about their student’s future prospects have different motivations based on the parents’ personal concept of “success” in life. If that concept minimizes the importance of a student’s emotional well-being and happiness during the formative years in favor of  emphasizing efforts to gain all the advantages and trappings of  “success,” there will be problems.

-Students who strive for top grades primarily to please (or appease) their parents are the most vulnerable to severe discontent or worse. Wanting to please one’s parents is an admirable trait and a healthy motivator as long as parental love and affection do not hinge on the student achieving “success”… as defined by the parents.

-The fortunate students are those whose parents demonstrate unconditional love for them at all times, despite the inevitably necessary “motivational discussions” regarding attention to studies and homework.

-The most fortunate of youngsters are those whose curiosity and hunger to learn about and “know” our amazing universe drive them to work hard in pursuit of their passions. Parents of such students have typically instilled these “learning attitudes” in their youngsters at a very early age. These are parents who truly value education (not merely grades) and respect the power of knowledge – prime attributes of a happy, mature, and well-adjusted person…and the youngsters follow their lead.

It is true that no matter how dedicated and genuine the efforts of parents may be during this process of raising and educating children, things can still go wrong in young lives. I do think that parents in a success-oriented region like Silicon Valley are well advised to sincerely evaluate their own priorities and value judgments concerning education and “success” in life. These parental priorities will have a direct influence on their student’s attitudes and well-being.

As for “success,” money is no guarantee of happiness, and money is but a marginal indicator of  meaningful success. As a parent with genuine motives, one can only ask of students that they truly try their best at school – with knowledge and wisdom as goals rather than letter grades.

The aforementioned open letter to parents from a Palo Alto student which was published in the Huffington Post on January 27, 2015 stressed the generalized concerns of students:

-“It is our relentless schedules, a large range of social issues, personal horrors I can’t think to relate, and our terribly unforgiving parents. Good God, the things you put us through. It’s AP classes, it’s SAT prep from day 1, it’s punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly. So many students, if not the majority, are the embodiment of pure stress.”

-“We are always in this loop of what-if’s, worrying we will disappoint our unsupportive parents who, quite frankly, deserve no part in our future, “successful” or otherwise.”

-“Suicide continues while our parents value wealth and success over our lives. We cannot wait for change. We need it now.”

These are powerful messages.

It is so important for parents to pay close attention to the emotional needs of their students as well as to their “success” track in school.

I can speak from experience to the fact that there is too much emphasis, especially in Silicon Valley, on the near-perfect grades necessary to gain admittance to prestige colleges and universities. A strong “B average” at Gunn High will not get you into Stanford or even into UC Berkeley, and I say, “So what?” It will gain entrance to many other fine state universities and private colleges, where a good education is awaiting those willing to grasp it. I would much rather see a student commit themselves to serious study in high school because they are genuinely curious about the world in which we live as opposed to striving for a GPA which will gain them entrance into top-tier schools. It is truly what you learn and what you know that will count down the road, and that is not necessarily reflected in a student’s “A” course grade or a degree from a prestige school. There are many fine schools to choose from which offer excellent educations and which rarely demand “perfect” academic records.

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The comforting truth for both parents and students is that future employers (beyond the first) will be far more interested in your past employment record and your job interview than what school you attended. That should be cause for all parents to relax a bit about the occasional “A” grade that got away in high school; it is not the end of the world.

Postscript: I have written several germane blog posts on education, colleges and universities, and student learning. These can be found in my blog archives (go to the “Home” page of my blog and click on “Categories”/ “Science/Math Education” in the right-hand column). Also see my newly published book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning which deals with many aspects of the above discussion – especially parenting skills.

Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student

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This morning at breakfast, my wife called my attention to a recent article in the Huffington Post about colleges and universities. I read it with particular interest for several reasons, not the least of which is that it its message touches two members of my “family circle.” The article champions the importance of small liberal arts colleges within the larger realm of higher education. The article’s theme resonates with our family experience many years ago when we helped our younger daughter, Ginny, choose a college/university to attend. The author of the Huffington Post article, whose younger daughter currently attends Pomona College, in Southern California, extols the close faculty/student ties that exist in small, liberal arts colleges by elaborating on one of his daughter’s professors and that educator’s dedication to learning. He relates meeting the professor by chance during a family stroll around the campus and being impressed by the fact that the professor actually recognized his daughter by name and clearly was “invested fully in her learning.”

That un-named professor happens to be my wife’s youngest brother, a history professor at Pomona College – Ginny’s uncle!

The first stage of our college-searching years was easy. Our older daughter, Amy, had her eyes set on my wife’s alma-mater, what is now part of the California State University system and known as “Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.” Given her fine high school record, she was accepted for admission and had a great four-year experience there. She has been an elementary schoolteacher for many years, now. Cal Poly was the perfect school for her as it was for my wife, years earlier.

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Vising Stanford University with Ginny and Amy in 1991

Ginny, a top-tier student with an affinity for and a superb ability with English and matters literary, posed a more interesting dilemma. She easily won acceptance at most of the schools to which she applied, and therein was the “problem.”

Her two finalists of choice were as distinctively different as schools could be. We were thrilled when she received her notice of acceptance to Stanford University where I earned my undergraduate degree. I have had a long relationship with Stanford over many years, and I love and deeply respect the school – so I was personally very excited about my daughter’s accomplishment. A letter of acceptance to Stanford is highly-coveted these days. Her other choice after the winnowing process was complete, was the very same Pomona College mentioned in the Huffington Post article.

Pomona College is located in Claremont, California – a beautiful haven of a “small” college town in Southern California and away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Spending time in Claremont makes one oblivious to the noise and confusion of the nearby metropolis – a very good thing! The campus is spacious and beautiful, artfully combining newer facilities with many picturesque, ivy-covered buildings. All student facilities are first-rate thanks to Pomona’s very large endowment.

Pomona College is a small, private, liberal arts school with a sterling national reputation within academic circles; that said, it is not so well known by the public-at-large as is Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, etc. Pomona annually ranks in the top-tier of national liberal arts schools and, together with a nearby group of four other diverse, small colleges, they constitute a group known collectively as the “Claremont Colleges.” While the admission percentages at Stanford are every bit as daunting as those at the vaunted “Ivy League” schools, Pomona’s admission standards are just as demanding, and the total cost of a year away at school was, and is, in the same rarified atmosphere as Stanford’s and the Ivies’ – so the looming cost to mom and dad was not a consideration in our daughter’s final decision. We had always told Ginny, “We will find a way to pay for whatever school you are able to attend.” Our daughter did her part, and we were ready to do ours.

There was that ONE other factor which influenced our decision, and that was Ginny’s uncle on the Pomona faculty. To make the story even more interesting, he received his entire university education, through a doctorate, at …Stanford University! Upon receiving his doctorate, he landed at Pomona College. It was through him and the family of a neighbor-girl who was enrolled there that we first came to know and appreciate the sterling academic reputation of Pomona College. Indeed, our neighbor took us on a family tour of the campus a year or two prior to Ginny’s senior year of high school and heavily praised the school and its academics. It is important to note that merely being a small, liberal arts college does not guarantee a fine educational experience. There are many private schools in that category that are expensive and mediocre – buyer beware! One other comment: Needless to say, Ginny’s uncle had no influence on her actual acceptance to the school! It doesn’t work that way; besides, Ginny needed no help.

We all agonized over the pending decision. It was always our daughter’s decision to make, but she was confused and wanted our advice. How could one possibly turn down Stanford? On the one hand, I was moved by my loyalty to and respect for Stanford University and the experience it provided me, the first in my entire extended family ever to attend college. On the other hand, Ginny was going to major in English with a heavy emphasis on literature and creative writing, whereas I studied electrical engineering. There is a huge difference – more significant than one might imagine. Engineering can be learned in the lecture halls and from textbooks – it is a science. Creative writing and literary appreciation, like all the arts, demands up-close-and-personal nurturing from mature minds, well-versed in the field – professors, in other words. Frequent, casual, in-depth conversations over coffee or tea with faculty members are an essential part of a strong liberal arts education, and, generally, not a reality in large universities. I could readily see that – we all could after a while.

In the final analysis, our daughter’s decision and our recommendation came down to that very issue, namely, that a small liberal arts college like Pomona offers students in the arts a first-name relationship with the faculty in addition to hands-on instruction and guidance – so important in the arts. She chose Pomona College with our full blessing and has never regretted her decision.

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Ginny and Me During Freshman Orientation, 1991

Our daughter, as usual, made the most of her opportunities during her four years at Pomona College. She became close friends with numerous senior faculty members who taught her classes, who really knew Ginny as a person, and who personally graded her papers and essays; that rarely happens in the larger universities where professors deliver the large class lectures, but graduate teaching assistants handle the smaller section-discussions (the great learning opportunity) and the arduous task of grading student essays and papers. During her four years at Pomona, Ginny had the pleasure of taking two classes from her uncle in the history department, and she took advantage of the college’s study-abroad program in her junior year to spend an academic quarter living with a French family in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne. My wife and I will never forget our invitation to dinner at her host family’s fashionable Paris apartment – a wonderful evening.

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I must relate one anecdote involving Stanford and Pomona. I have always enjoyed big-time college football…when played by true student-athletes. Stanford’s approach has always been to do it “right” in that regard – which I truly respect. Some of our favorite memories as a couple and a family involve Saturday afternoon tail-gate picnics and football games at Stanford Stadium. We have seen some very big games and many great athletes in Stanford’s 80,000 seat stadium of the past – very memorable stuff! Ginny could care less about football, so Pomona’s modest athletic stature was not a problem for her at all (they are the Pomona “Sagehens”; at Stanford, the modern mascot is now the “tree” – what can one say!). I recall the one Pomona football game we attended at the cozy, bleacher-surrounded athletic field: The extra-point kicks through the goal posts in one direction inevitably landed in the adjacent college swimming pool! I loved that particular comical contrast with the football played in the 80,000 seat Stanford Stadium.

In closing, we always told our daughters that we would find a way to pay for their undergraduate educations no matter what the cost, but we made clear that they were on their own as far as graduate work was concerned. I was pleased when Ginny was admitted to Stanford’s very demanding STEP program which earns its carefully selected students a master’s degree in education after one grueling year of study and student teaching. At that point in her academic life, Stanford’s program was the perfect opportunity for her. Ginny and her husband, Scott, recently paid off her graduate student loan! Ginny has been happily teaching English for many years at a high school near Stanford which enjoys a very fine academic reputation. She has authored two books and co-authored a third.

When she is not grading high school essays or writing books, Ginny writes an outstanding and entertaining public blog which can be found at http://randomactsofmomness.com and which amply reflects her real job – partner to her husband in raising two young boys. Her blog also reflects, through her writing, the very fine education she received at Pomona College – and Stanford, too. Take a look at her blog, and you will see what I mean!