The Catholic University of America

"Plans, Goals and Hopes for the Future"
2005 Freshman Convocation Comments of Psychology Professor David A. Jobes
The Catholic University of America
Sept. 14, 2005

Let me be among the many that welcome you freshman to Washington, D.C., and The Catholic University of America. We are so delighted that you are here. Washington is a wonderful new home for you and we are delighted to welcome you to the academic community of CUA.

As you heard in my introduction, I am a clinical psychologist by training and I am an expert in suicide prevention. A morbid topic to some, but for suicidologists we aim to make a life-saving difference in the souls of those who struggle in profoundly painful ways. A curious by product of studying why people consider taking their lives is that it makes one an expert of sorts on the meaning of life and what makes life worth living. In that regard, what I have learned from my patients and from our research provides many valuable lessons for all of us, especially for you freshman as you begin your college careers.

In our research with college students who seek mental health care we see struggles around three basic issues. These three areas of struggle among our student-patients can be flip-flopped to provide valuable insights to those domains that are meaningful to all of us who strive to live full and consequential lives. The data suggest that it all boils down to three essential aspects of life: relationships, work and a sense of self in the world. Let us consider each of these aspects as they may relate to your journey through the next four yeas of college.

In terms of relationships, your lives are now in dynamic flux. You have left home, you may be missing your old friends, and your relations with your family will never be quite the same. You are also suddenly meeting new friends, faculty, and staff. I can tell you without a doubt that there are people gathered here today that will become your life long friends. Like me, you may even meet your future spouse. For me it was my junior year when my best friend and roommate introduced me to his new girlfriend! Some years later after they broke up, Colleen moved from Colorado to Washington, obtained her law degree at CUA, we were married and we now have two wonderful sons. This marriage is the center of my happiness in life-a fateful college encounter indeed. So, relationships are very important to happiness. It is important to note that relationships can be broadly defined and understood-from your relationship to God to the relationship you have with your roommate; they are all potentially central to what makes life meaningful.

In relation to work, your parents are spending a great deal of money for you to obtain an excellent education from an outstanding institution. Your "job" is to pick a major, do well academically, and create for yourself a career. But work is more than something that just pays the bills. At its best, work is meaningful and fulfilling. In college you can create a trajectory for yourself that will carry you into the rest of your life, hopefully giving your life purpose, meaning, and worth. As an aside, it is interesting to note that over 100 years ago, the famous psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud was asked about the meaning of life. He replied quite simply that a fulfilling life is made up of meaningful work and meaningful love-exactly what our struggling patients and our empirical research tell us to be the case.

And self? We know from developmental psychology that adolescence and young adulthood are crucial periods for the development of identity and a sense of self. In many respects over these next four years you will be clarifying and solidifying the self you will be for the balance of your adult life. These are capstone years of finding out the person that you will be in the world. In these next four years you will come to know your self in a whole new way-who you are and what your purpose is to be.

So, our struggling patients have much to teach us. Bottom line, if we have meaningful relationships, a sense of meaningful work, and if we know who we are, we are destined to realize fulfillment and happiness in this life. I can assure you that these are aspects of life are things that you will be discovering and crafting over these important next four years.

What else do we know from people who struggle, that sheds light on our own journeys? I want to briefly share some other research that speaks directly to the title of my talk.

In our studies of suicidal college students from three Washington area universities we know that among these young people who struggle, there is a dialectical debate at the center of their struggle. On the one hand, they suffer in such a way that they think that they cannot go on. On the other hand, even in the midst of their suffering they still have reasons for wanting to live-to battle back and fight on. In our research we call this side of the struggle, "reasons for living." What are some of the reasons our clinical samples have for still wanting to live? These patients tell us that they have a sense of obligation to others-family and friends. They fear that taking their life would devastate those who love them, which I can tell you it does. There is then a sense of interpersonal connectedness that is clearly protective; it keeps people from doing drastic self-destructive behaviors.

In research we often study a group that we are interested in understanding in relation to a comparison group which is called a control group. It follows that in the investigation that I am describing, we recruited a matched sample of non-suicidal and non-mental health seeking college students that we could compare to our clinical sample to deepen our understanding about the struggling students. Thus, last year we studied 200 CUA introductory psychology students as a control group. These were young people-mostly freshman-just like you and we asked them about their reasons for living. Guess what they told us? They had a sense of interpersonal obligation just like the clinical sample, but they also had a set of responses that were altogether different as to what was central to their wanting to live. For this group had twice as many reasons for living that were related to plans, goals, and hope for the future-a completely aspirational set of responses.

What does this data mean to you and me? It means that plans are crucial for success and happiness. Goals are the important endpoints, the benchmarks of our successful planning. I would suggest that it is crucial that you begin now to think intentionally about your plans and the goals that will mark your success. And keep on planning because it is so crucial for charting your course in life. And hope for the future? Hope is a most crucial ingredient for success. Because if we have hope, we can get through just about anything since we know that things can and will change and we believe that they can change for the better. Having worked in our University's counseling center for many years, I know that students can have some rough times in college. But most get through such rough times just fine and in fact they are the stronger for it. If we have hope, any of us can get through the rough patches of life. Therefore, from a psychological standpoint, hope is wonderfully protective; it provides a crucial orientation that is relevant to how we think and feel and experience our sense of self, others, and the future.

There was one additional significant finding from our research that is worth reporting, but was not squeezed into the title of my talk. We found that in comparison to the clinical sample of struggling students, the non-clinical sample had significantly more beliefs. Well what do you think? Does The Catholic University of America know anything about beliefs? Look at where we are; look at this beautiful Shrine. Obviously belief and faith are central to the culture and community of CUA. But beliefs are not just spiritual, beliefs are relevant to a range of domains-one's sense of justice in the world or a sense of right and wrong. You are about to take an honor code which is pledge that is steeped in a belief system of academic integrity and honesty. Beliefs are a kind of glue that holds our sense of self and our world of relationships together; beliefs are crucial to our success in our work and our efforts to plan and achieve our goals.

At the end of the day, what I know to be true is that with plans, goals, and hope for the future anything is possible. We can find our meaningful relationships, create fulfilling and meaningful work trajectories, and find ourselves along the way. We can make our dreams come true.

On behalf of the faculty, staff, and administrators of The Catholic University of America I pledge to you that we will do our level best to create for you an academic and living environment that helps you find your way over these next four years of college.

While I know I might be a bit biased, I nevertheless would contend that there is no better place for you to discover your plans, goals, and hope for the future than in the United States of America, in Washington DC, at The Catholic University of America.

Welcome again to CUA and thank you for your kind attention.