Last week, talk radio was buzzing around the topic of student debt.  On this one particular show, the host was criticizing some students’ belief that the top 1% of Americans should fund college education.  Of course, when you are 19 or 20 years old it is easy to expect someone else, who you believe to have more income or assets, to pick up the tab.  I wanted to know more about the rationale behind the students’ protests and I eventually ran across an interview with one of the protesters.  This particular young lady felt that it was not fair for any college student to start off with a huge debt. She even went so far as to say that she was comfortable with a 90% tax on her income if she could get a a job making $250,000 a year.  Though I am not a mathematician, I believe that this young lady would only bring home an income of $25,000 a year….hmmmm.

A Shift in Thinking

Although I understand the student’s protest over student debt, their rationale is a huge shift from the ideals of the late 80s. As a teen and college student during that time, we felt that having wealth was obtainable through hard work.  What changed? In a 2013 study, researchers discovered that today’s young adults, called Millenials, feel wealth is important; however, they are less likely to work for this wealth.  US News and World Report interviewed Robin Marantz Henig and her daughter about why Millenials experience huge rates of student debt and higher rates of unemployment.  One interesting finding from their research was that today’s teens and young adults are experiencing a new development stage called emerging adulthood.  This new phase has developed from the belief that life has slowed down due to our constant connection with others through technology. Another aspect of this current generation of Millenials is the feeling of entitlement.  Dr. David Sack found that the reason why so many teens have a sense of entitlement is due to a lack of gratitude and empathy. 

Student Sues Parents

Teen Sues Parent
Source: CNN

Take the case of the high school student who decided to sue her parents for current living expenses and her future college education.  The teen claimed her parents kicked her out of the house at age 18 which threatened her ability to attend college.  Since there was no proof that the parents “kicked her out” (actually the teen left home over an argument with her parents), the judge ruled against her 
receiving current living expenses.  However, the court decided to hold a hearing regarding her future college expenses.  Because of the case, a lot of criticism was aimed at the student for being a spoiled brat, but psychologists also point to the parents and adults in the teen’s life as part of the problem for her sense of entitlement. 

Students Often Lack Empathy

If you look at the attitudes of current college students, studies have found that young adults have scored significantly lower in empathetic concern and perspective taking of others. Why the decrease?  Many researchers believe increased exposure to social media, video games, reality television and hyper competitiveness have created a self absorbed and individualistic culture.  When empathy decreases in a society, the culture may experience a rise in bullying, narcissistic behavior, rigidity in thinking, and lack of civility toward others (Marilyn Price Mitchell). In Psychology Today, Dr. Denise Cummins explains how the empathy response works in response to suffering. When a person sees suffering in others, the same neural circuits are activated as when that person experiences his or her own suffering. Because these experiences are negative, many people experience a negative emotional response and look for ways to protect themselves from these feelings (including avoidance).  Without teaching students how to react to suffering or unpleasant circumstance in healthy ways, they often experience emotional burnout.

So how do we teach students to effectively deal with suffering in others? 

Many educators believe that teaching Social Emotional Learning can make a difference in helping students manage their emotions, establish positive relationships, and feel and show empathy for others.  Dr. Sack found that adults can model gratitude in teens by following these guidelines:

1.  Model thankfulness and good manners.
2.  Share the gift of giving.
3.  Perform service for others.

One method of teaching empathy to students can be accomplished through service learning.

As a school counselor, I often encourage students to participate in community service activities.  However, the majority of my students do not act on their community service initiatives until their senior year as they begin to complete college applications. Although the college admission process encourages service to others, it is often only an act for college admissions rather than altruism. Understandably these colleges and universities are looking for students who will make a positive contribution to their community; however, Daniel Woodbridge sees accessing ones character based on a few acts of community service as counterproductive. As educators, we often misinterpret service learning as community service; however, there is a distinct difference between service learning and community service. Edutopia defines service learning as more than serving in a soup kitchen or showing up to clean up trash in a park.  Service learning requires choosing a relevant project, learning about the issue, and finally linking the problem to the academic subject matter through reflection.

What are some of the true benefits of youth service?

Reduces engagement in risky behavior;
Contributes to higher academic success and civic volunteering;
Reduced drop out rates;
Increases changes of finding employment;
Helps promote problem solving

King and Gratz believe that school counselors should be key in helping students make connections between student learning and their career goals.  In the American School Counselor Association magazine, Wilczenski and Schum found that school counselors can sponsor service learning projects to help humanize learning in meaningful contexts.

 How can school counselors assist in service learning initiatives?

1.  Find businesses or organizations that have similar objectives as what your school is trying to accomplish.  Some organizations include Educational Tours and High School Study Abroad Program sponsor community service tours and We Day promotes global service learning initiatives.

2.  Look for community initiatives that students can get involved.  One great idea is to participate in a recognized service day like International Volunteer Day (November), MLK Day of Service (January), or Global Service Day (April).

MLK Prep Day Presentation
Creative Ideas for Service Learning

3.  Identify career skills to be developed through service learning. Youth Service America recognizes that the 4 C’s (Critical  Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication) were developed through service learning and are essential in the business world.

4.  Integrate desired skills into the school’s curriculum.

5.  Provide reflection activities for students to learn from their experiences.

As a school counselor, check out some of these resources below when you consider starting or promoting your own social learning initiative in your school.

How to Start an Idea for Service Learning?

Sparking an Idea
Finding Others to Help
Making It Happen
Getting the Word Out
International Volunteer Day

Service Learning Ideas:

Generator School Network– Resource for sharing service learning ideas and networking with other educators.
Do Something
Classrooms With a Cause
Map Your World  – Students can create data maps on key issues to collaborate with organizations and students around the world.
Youth Volunteers – View stories of youth volunteers and how they have made a difference in their communities.


Volunteerism Posters
My World Toolkit
Data Repository for My World
Baltimore City Schools Service Learning Guidelines
Chicago Public Schools Service Learning Tools
Chicago Public Schools Service Learning Reflection
Chicago Public Schools Service Learning Forms
Generation On Livebinder–  includes forms, curricula, and resources.
Factsheet on Youth who Participate in Service Learning
Enhancing Student Leadership Using SMART Goals

Organizations Sponsoring Service Learning:

Corporation for National And Community Service
YSA Grant Opportunities


Youth Grants
All State Grants

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