Two years into retirement I was bored and felt completely out of touch with the fast pace of the world around me. After years spent working as an Air Force journalist and raising three children, I wanted more. I wanted to be smarter. I wanted to go to college! If I did go to college, I'd be able to learn everything I always wondered about: what Shakespeare really means with his flowery prose, how a group of ragtag farmers created a country that became one of the great superpowers in the world, and whether I am in fact a good writer, as my family and friends have often told me.
So in 2011, at age 55, I enrolled full-time as a freshman at Kent State University's Stark Campus. But would I be able to keep up?
I knew that technology would be a challenge for me, and that trying to catch up with a generation so skilled at everything technical would be stressful. When I graduated from high school, computers were mainly seen in science-fiction shows on television. The Internet did not exist, and the idea of a telephone that I could carry around in my pocket remained far in the future. The high-school yearbook was our Facebook. MySpace was half of a bedroom I shared with my sister. Online was where I stood for sale prices at J.C. Penney, and texting was a telegram from Western Union, which never brought good news. Social networking meant knowing someone who knew someone—having a community of people to go to for advice or a helping hand.
By the end of my first semester at college, it was apparent that my classmates, most of whom were under 21, were even more stressed out than I was. And the small neighborhood community I had relied on most of my life had grown to global proportions. I noticed that fellow students were adept at social networking and spent a large amount of time texting, tweeting, and posting to Web sites. But I also saw them trying to juggle jobs, classes, homework, and their complicated social connections all at once.
My grandson once told me that when I have a problem that seems unsolvable, I should just think of the principle of Occam's Razor: The simplest answer is usually the best answer. If college is the biggest source of stress in a student's life, and students spend most of their time on social networking, wouldn't it make sense to combine the two?
Although many professors in traditional as well as online courses are already using social media to connect students for study and research, colleges could be doing much more. They could leverage social networking to give students a system of checks and balances that would help them learn to manage their time, keep up their grades, better manage their stress, and generally adjust to their first year in college.
My college, like others, offers first-year students a program that helps students identify and reduce stress by learning relaxation and coping skills and by exercising. But while such programs may offer students short-term help, the collegewide programs I looked into rarely seemed to give students practical tools that would help them network with others. I had to learn that on my own, along with several of my fellow students.
First-year students especially need help with time management. My history course required students to write numerous essays throughout the semester. Even with the syllabus, it was easy to become confused over what was due and when. With six of my fellow freshmen, I set up an "early warning system" for due dates. Each one of us was responsible for one assignment alert, and would text the others seven days, and again four days, before the paper was due. Because each person only had to keep track of one due date, we were always on time, and the pressure to remember all the dates was gone. The social network that resulted from our system has nine members now, and we talk to each other before class, sharing our personal lives, time-saving tips, and essay topics. The familiar medium of texting allowed my fellow classmates and me to accomplish the requirements of this course more efficiently.
Social media can also provide students with effective stress release, and an efficient way to belong to a group. Forming a social network is as simple as remarking to a classmate, "Did you get that?" Three classmates in my "Media, Power, and Culture" class were struggling with their grades for different reasons. One was stressed because she had trouble making it to class in the morning. Another could not understand the complex concepts we were learning. The third was overwhelmed by the volume of material covered at a rapid pace. Together, we formed a group we now call the "s"Study bBuddies."" When the review sheet for a test comes out, one person types it up along with his or her answers and e-mails it to the other students. Individually, we check it for accuracy, make corrections, and fill in missing answers. We e-mail it back to everyone in the group. In the space of a few hours, the four of us have a complete and accurate study guide.
Currently I am helping one student catch up on her missing classes through e-mail, and now she attends class more regularly. Two others in the group are now Facebook friends. Using instant messaging on Facebook, she breaks down complex concepts for him, while he shows her shortcuts to studying. All of our grades have improved, and we all feel significantly less stressed out at exam time.
We have also used the sstudy-b-buddy network to share textbooks. When I discovered that two students in my sociology course could not afford to buy the textbook, we set up a book-sharing system in which three students had the book for one week each. All three finished their work with good grades.
In another course, I noticed that one student was sending Twitter questions constantly, an indication that she was struggling with the work. She needed the extra help a tutor could provide, but she worked two jobs and attended both high school and college. We arranged for her to receive tutoring, and because time was an issue for her, they met via FaceTime (an iPhone application) on her lunch breaks.
These types of student efforts should be featured as a prominent part of colleges' programs for new students. Ideally, a college's Web site would have links to programs like our sstudy-b-buddy model and early-warning system, along with instructions on how to form such networks and an electronic bulletin board for students who want to announce new groups. Orientation sessions could include a segment on how these social networks operate and how to start one. If each professor could discuss virtual study groups on the first day of class, or include instructions on the syllabus on how to find others enrolled in the course, that would provide a starting point in a familiar medium.
Taking the idea one step further, professors could offer class-participation points to those who take an active part in a study-buddy group.
Social networking goes far beyond the use of social media. Although it may be easy to lump them together, they are two very different things. Social networking is an interactive and mutually beneficial relationship between people. Social-media tools provide a delivery system that can be used to develop a social network, which in turn reduces stress.
Stress has certainly been a part of my first year of college, but thanks to social networking, it has been a strange and wonderful journey.