Growing Adults

Author: Tim Caldwell

As a young professional in student affairs, I was introduced to a new phrase that shaped the way I viewed my job as a student affairs practitioner. A supervisor and mentor explained early on that our job in student life is simple; it is about “growing adults”. This phrase “growing adults” struck me as something I had never heard before. I was well versed in student development theory regarding Chickering’s Vectors and Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, but this simple little phrase seemed to put all of the professional knowledge and theory I had gained into a small bite-size version of why student development is so important. Growing adults is at its basic form student development. Those of us lucky enough to be working in the field have the opportunity to walk alongside students as they explore a transition into adulthood.

In today’s culture of high stressed students and snow plow parents, it’s easy to lose track of how one actually grows into being an adult. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000) the current generation of student’s (generation Z) is seen as special, sheltered, confident, conventional, team oriented, achieving, and pressured. With terms like confident, sheltered, achieving and pressured, student affairs professionals are seeing less developed skills in areas of resilience and grit, less emotional intelligence, and poorer mental health along with increased suicidal ideation. Counseling center staffs are adding personnel left and right as higher education institutions attempt to meet the changing needs of the student population. Student success coaches have been enlisted in order to help model to students what resiliency actually looks like, and how to work through what previous generations may have seen as normal failures. All of these pressures are threatening the development of students and making it harder for them to get through their higher education years.

This is why the work of student development is so important, and why I find myself using the term growing adults more as I talk with students, parents and even faculty. As I talk with parents in particular at orientation or throughout visit days I have found that they, more often than not, want their students to grow into fully functioning adults. Parents want their children to be equipped with the tools to take life head on, unfortunately, they are often times the first to sabotage this process as they work to “protect” their student from the hardships of life. This brings me to what I have observed as three keys to growing adults. The first key to growing adults is to understand that failure is part of the journey and not something to be avoided.

Failure takes on many different forms during a student’s time at a university. They may see it as they traverse difficult situations with professors, financial aid advisors, roommates, and yes, even with parental relationships. By wading into these murky waters there is a real risk, and with the possibility of risk eventually comes failure. It is in these situations that students begin to learn how to perceive failure and to learn that through failure comes growth. If you take away failure you take away the learning that goes with it.

The second key to growing into an adult is helping students realize that their actions have consequences. In today’s world of social media, students have the option of removing the personal connection and seeing people as something less than human, and more as an inanimate object for them to do with as they please. By teaching students that their actions have consequences and then holding them accountable you model what it means to live in a community and be part of something larger than yourself. No longer is life just about getting what you want, it’s about realizing the role you play in a community and that the community needs you to play your role (whatever it may be) in order for it to reach its fullest potential. This means treating people with respect and care while working to understand why they act and believe what they do. With our negative politics and news media this lesson is often times overshadowed and replaced with name calling and disrespect that is misunderstood as strength. All of these actions have real consequences that can lead to decay in the moral fabric of your life. Part of understanding this is to grow into an adult.

The third leg of the stool is nothing more than hard work. I often get the opportunity to work with students through difficult situations. Students being placed on academic probation, experiencing conduct issues, etc. During these hard conversations it’s normal for me to help the student lay out a path to meeting their goals and changing behavior. This may mean identifying steps to take in order to get a higher grade or it may even be me helping a student figure out how to accomplish specific sanctions for violating policy. In each of those conversations I will often say that my job is to help them through this process, not complete the process for them. Through my years in this position I have learned the hard way that if I work harder than the student, I am not teaching the right lesson and growth is stunted. Growing into an adult takes hard work (on behalf of the students), and if someone else does the work for you, it will not be sustained.

I feel as though I have come a long way since I first started out in higher education over 10 years ago. But I still hear the words of my first supervisor ringing in my ear: our job is to grow adults! As I look around at the ever encroaching model of customer service as opposed to student development, I think it is more important now than ever before to help our external stake holders (parents, students, etc.) understand that part of good customer service is teaching the lessons that sometimes hurt, but in the long run lead from adolescence to adulthood.


Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation /by Neil Howe and Bill Strauss ; cartoons by R.J. Matson. New York: Vintage Books.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., & Guido-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About the author:

Tim Caldwell is the Director of Residence Life at Whitworth University. He Graduated from Ball State in 2004 with an M.A. in Student Affairs Administration and Higher Education.