Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Advice to Alumni When You Return to Campus

Act your age
from our Friends at the Apathy Myth - a Blog for America's Student Leaders

This one is for the alumni out there.

I want to tell you about a little journey I've been taking. When you're a professional speaker, you go through a sort of progression. In my 20's, I was all about "being one of them" to the students. I wanted to dress like them, look their age, and speak on their level. I could talk about sex and dating, for example, and the students were right there with me.

It got harder as I neared 30, but fortunately, I was usually able to pull it off most of the time. A well-placed reference to that summer's big teenage movie (I specifically remember forcing myself to watch "Road Trip") worked wonders. Even as my life started to move toward more mature, adult things like financial planning, buying a house, and having a kid – I worked hard to make sure I didn't lose touch with the student set. It was definitely an act, though. I couldn't keep up with their musical tastes, and I didn't want to. I didn't think getting drunk three nights a week was normal, anymore, and I wasn't laughing along with the stories of idiotic behavior. I was getting a little "judgey."

Another funny thing – I had to stop talking about sex and dating altogether. I couldn't even make casual references. College students are repulsed by the idea that anyone over 35 has sex, ever. Take my word for it – students groan and squirm in their seats at the slightest suggestion.

Now, I'm 40, and it's over. I'm their dad. As a professional speaker in my 40's raising a teenager of my own, I've had to morph into something much different than I was 15 years ago. In 15 years, I went from being one of them, to being their cool older brother, to being an ancient relic. When I tell fraternity audiences that I was initiated in 1987, before they were born, they look at me like I'm one of their founders.

I had to embrace the fact that students were seeing me differently, and I needed to stop trying to be their cool buddy. I had to rewrite my programs and change all my jokes. I had to speak to them as what I was – a smart adult with something to say. I had something to teach them. I stopped trying to speak at their level, because I was somewhere higher. I had to embrace that.

I write about this, today, because a colleague suggested I write about those alumni who simply haven't learned this lesson yet. They come to events and try to be cool by acting like they are still 22. I cringe when I see them – men in their 40's at campus or leadership events who are trying hard to be "one of the boys."

Dude, you're not 22 anymore. You're not fooling anyone. Enabling the "boys will be boys" crap is counter productive. Oh, and by the way, everyone over 30 in the room thinks you're being a tool.

I've seen a past national president of a fraternity act this way recently. He was ogling young sorority women and saying the most embarrassing things to the younger men as he bought them beer and encouraged their worst behavior. Funny thing was, he thought he was being cool with the young men. I could tell they were laughing at him, not with him. The staff members of his fraternity were in visible pain watching him, unable to stop him.

It was humiliating.

Here's what I wanted to say to him. "You have a lot to offer. Be a role model. Show these young men what they can grow up to be. Stop acting like you stopped maturing around age 24. Show them what manhood looks like."

I'm not saying you have to launch into lectures. I'm not saying you have to be their father.

Just be yourself, and embrace the fact that you can be relevant without being one of them. College students have their own buddies, their own age. They don't need you to fill that gap for them. You can't do it, anyway.

What many students crave are role models and mentors to whom they can relate. Try it. You might like it.