Jackie Headapohl Managing Editor
Best-selling author coming to Detroit Oct. 3 to talk to kids and parents.
Federation CEO Scott Kaufman gets a lot of calls from members of the community about reference letters for college applications.
“I’m happy to do it when I know the student,” he said, “but sometimes the tone of these conversations — I can hear it in the parents’ voices — shows a significant level of anxiety, as if it would be a catastrophe if their kids didn’t get in to the school they want.”
A few years ago, New York Times best-selling author and columnist Frank Bruni was hearing that same anxiety in the voices of his friends and family who had children applying for college. “I couldn’t believe how frenzied the process had gotten,” he said in a phone interview.
“A whole industry emerged that rested on the assumption that if you got in a college that had an acceptance rate of 10 percent or less, you would have a leg up in life.”
As a journalist for more than a quarter century, Bruni had an electric career and had interviewed hundreds of successful people. “I asked myself what they all had in common,” he said. “Turns out, it wasn’t where their degrees came from.
“What struck me is that we had this mythology — and no evidence that it was true — that was driving parents and kids to distraction. Someone needed to explore and confront this ridiculous assumption.”
Bruni took on the task, publishing Where You Go Is Not Who’ll You Be in 2015. He’s bringing his book’s message to Metro Detroit at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. The event, subsidized by the Norm and Susie Pappas Challenge Fund, is free and open to the community.
“My main message is what college your kid gets into is not a measure of their potential or a harbinger of their future success,” he said. “I want students to know if they are expecting the name of the college on their sweatshirt to get them through life, they’re mistaken. Success is about the work you’ve done.”
Kaufman arranged the program because he thought it was time to lower the temperature on the college application process. “We have a high-achieving community, but we’re not doing a service to the kids with all this pressure.”
Bruni said the message needs to get through to both the students and their parents. “Students are an extension of their parents,” he said. “A relentless push to achieve will exacerbate kids’ anxiety and depression. Parents risk so much when they put too much pressure on their child.
“What kind of values are you inculcating when you send a message that they need to be in some exclusive club?” he added. “That elitism and brand-consciousness on the surface matters more than the substance within?”
The pressure of getting into the “right” college is representative of the bigger picture — adding levels of stress to teens who may already struggle with mental health issues, Kaufman said.
“Great work is being done here at Federation, Jewish Family Service, Kadima and Friendship Circle to reduce the stigma of teens’ mental health challenges and bring those conversations out of the shadows and into the light,” Kaufman said. “Four rabbis spoke about it in their sermons during the High Holidays.”
The Jewish News has also embarked on a year-long project to bring teen mental health issues to the forefront of the community.
At the Oct. 3 event, Bruni will discuss what his research has revealed: that students’ worth and future success is not determined by the university they attend and that gaining admittance into a particular school can never guarantee a higher salary or a happier life. He will also discuss how parents, students and educators can avoid the undue stress, anxiety and depression that often accompanies the college application process.