I've written a lot over the years about the stressors and outside obligations my students face, some of them quite terrible and occasionally tragic. This past semester another couple of situations arose for two of my students--events so stressful and distracting that I can't imagine remaining enrolled or being able to complete the required work, though both these students did.
Every time I'm made privy to this stuff, especially when it's drama that involves a student's family of origin, I wonder why I see so much more of this at RU than I did as either a student or a teacher at my alma mater. I've long had two theories: the first is that I genuinely have a more diverse student population now: some of my students are putting themselves through college, working either full or part-time; some of my students have kids; some of my students are married. Nearly every semester I have a student or two who are veterans, and it's not uncommon to have a student with at least partial responsibility for a sick parent or a developmentally disabled sibling. A sizable minority of my students, then, are simply juggling more outside demands than your basic Ivy League undergraduate.
My second theory is that I just didn't know what was going on with my classmates and with my students when I was at INRU: my classmates would have been unlikely to share their personal difficulties with me, and as a grad student I never taught more than 18 undergraduates a semester (usually as a once-a-week TA), so there wasn't as much opportunity or necessity for them to confide in me. These days, by contrast, I teach at least 60 students a semester and have up to 40 advisees, so there's necessarily more reason and more opportunity for me to hear what they're going through.
Both these theories seem correct, and together they provide much of the explanation for the difference (Ivy League students probably do have fewer real-world distractions, but they don't have none--and some of their problems are every bit as serious as those faced by the students I teach now). However, I'm coming to realize that there's a third explanation that has to do with familial assumptions about what college and the college experience are meant to be.
Most of my students, even those who come straight from high school, who live in the dorms, and whose parents are footing the bill, are not understood by their families as being off in protected space of intellectual development where schoolwork and self-discovery take precedence. Many of their parents expect them to come home for every family friend's funeral, every cousin's first communion, or to help out with various family matters like helping them move households or doing emergency babysitting. This is more true when the family lives nearby, but I see versions of it even when the family lives several hours away.
I really didn't understand this at first: so your aunt's second husband's mother died. . . and your parents are coming by to pick you up tonight, and you'll have to miss a week of school for the wake and the funeral? What? Often the student didn't seem to want to go, or to be deeply affected by the death (or eager to do whatever else the family obligation may have been)--and I just couldn't figure out why their parents would think it was appropriate to demand their presence or participation at the expense of their schoolwork.
But I've come to see that there's a fundamental difference in the way that some of my students and especially my students' families understand the college experience, relative to how INRU students and their parents understand it. I suppose you could call this difference one of "class," but that's not really a useful descriptor, since it doesn't fully correlate with income or with whether one's parents went to college or not; the working-class kid from Charlestown who gets into Harvard may well have supportive parents who understand the nature of that opportunity, and who want to protect him from outside distractions. And on the flip side, many of the kids I see with especially demanding families are economically stable, second-gen college students.
Moreover, I don't think this is just about how expensive and prestigious INRU is compared with RU; many not-especially-selective colleges also cultivate a real sense of their community's specialness and separateness. What it boils down to is this: at some institutions and among some families, there's a kind of collective agreement their students live in the magical Groves of Academe, a charmed space, a space outside of time. And though that's almost always more the fantasy than the reality, the fantasy is still productive. At a regional state school like RU, however, attitudes are mixed. There are indeed students and parents who take the above view of the college experience--but there are many who don't, who see the degree as a means to an end and their coursework as something more like a part-time job, to be fitted in around everything else.
I wish all of my students were able to devote themselves full-time, for four years, to a process of education and self-discovery, but I'm not sitting here criticizing those who don't or can't. For one thing, I have students with messy, complicated lives who are still doing great things intellectually. And for another, the idea of college as a charmed space outside of time isn't always positive: it can actually produce or protect the irresponsibility and hooliganism seen at party schools, but not only at party schools. The insularity and self-containment of many colleges does not actually make them better or more productive learning environments.
I wouldn't want to lose the many wonderful students I have whose lives just happen to be really complicated; they bring a lot to the classroom and the classroom, I hope, brings a lot to them. But I do wish that all my students had families who really valued and respected the work they were doing--even if they still occasionally needed to drag them out of class or take up time that would otherwise be devoted to their schoolwork.