Colleges and universities promote an exciting fulfilling "campus experience" in their recruitment materials. What if you're just not feeling it? It's okay. It's not you. It's them.

Right after I finished my dissertation and completed my PhD, because I’m a sucker for punishment, I started a new research project. The project involved scouring the recruitment literature and websites of Canadian universities.

Without going in to too much gory detail, I was trying to figure out if (alleged) good post-secondary teaching was being used as a marketing tool by universities and colleges to attract students. The National Survey of Student Engagement is this giant survey of already surveyed-to-the-eyeballs students to find out if they like their classes and their institution, and if they think they’re learning anything.

The problem is that like most big data, once it exists, it can be distorted or re-purposed in all kinds of creative ways. The NSSE (or “Nessie”) was intended to help unis and colleges diagnose themselves and their programs: where could they do a better job. George Kuh, a key figure in the development of these surveys, explicitly stated that the data should help institutions to improve learning, not to market their own awesomeness to alumni, other funders and prospective students.[1]

Which meant that these institutions immediately set upon marketing their own NSSE awesomeness to alumni, funders, and prospective students. And because marketing is by its very nature bullshit, the NSSE became bullshit. Or at least this was my thesis.

So to my point: I read a lot of recruitment literature. And for more reasons than I can write about in one post, it was a frustrating experience. “Choose [insert institution here] for an unbelievable life-changing epic journey!” Cue the pep rally pictures; the pictures of inspiring professors writing on white boards;  the beautiful/natural/vibrant/exciting campus setting; the happy dorm students.

One of the reasons this pisses me off is because it sets people up with hopelessly unrealistic expectations of the post-secondary experience. I know some students have awesome, epic undergraduate experiences. But many don’t, and then experience feelings of disappointment, alienation or shame when they don’t fit the mold of chipper guys and gals posing with the sports mascot.[2]

I expect the potential for these feelings is greater for first-generation students. If, as was the case for me, no one in your family has been to university and your friends don’t roll that way either, you really don’t have much to go on but the advertising hype. So, when February comes around in your first year, after the initial rush of novelty has settled and you’ve gotten some terrible marks and maybe not made any friends, you’re pretty bummed out. And do you blame your institution? No. You probably blame yourself.

Alienation: When It Doesn't Feel Right

Alienation is the opposite of belonging and connectedness. It’s a word that Jennifer Case argues has fallen out of favour, and ought to be brought back to help us make sense of student drop-outs and what is sometimes deemed a mental health “crisis” in higher education. Karl Marx, back in the good old 1800s, used the concept of alienation to describe the emptiness that people feel when they feel disconnected and purposeless.[3]

Schabracq and Cooper (2003) distinguish between primary and secondary alienation[4], which can give us pause for thought, and perhaps a way forward. Primary alienation, is essentially the “WTF” part. Simply, you notice that something doesn’t feel normal. You wrestle with this. You wonder: “Why don’t I fit here? Why isn’t this working?” Secondary alienation is actually scarier, because this is the part where you stop noticing that things don’t feel normal.  You don’t ask WTF anymore. “Oh well,” you might conclude, “It must be me.” That doesn’t make the stress of the “something’s amiss” away; it just buries the stress. Bring on the depression and anxiety.

But hey, maybe it’s just me. I figured out very early in my education that wasn’t going to fit in, and mostly let it go. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt sometimes. That didn’t mean I wasn’t lonely, or unsure of whether I was taking the right steps, or the right classes. Maybe you haven’t had these experiences. But if you have — if you don’t feel you’ve lived up to the cookie-cutter image of the “ideal college student,” — if you’re too old, or too shy, or too dumb, or too gay, or too plain, or like me too cynical — you don’t have to take on that identity of being the defect on the assembly line.

Primary alienation in the form of those WTF moments is a learning experience, and its a better learning experience than most of what you’ll get in a classroom. This means primary alienation needn’t be a bad thing, even if it feels bad. Instead, it’s a good indication that you’re thinking for yourself, and asking some constructive questions about the justice and fairness of the society you have to figure out how to spend the rest of your damn life in. Get worried when you hit secondary alienation and stop asking WTF at all. In the meantime, congratulations. You’re not a model student with your smiling face on a college promotional webpage. You’re a human being.


[1] NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] (2007) Experiences that matter: Enhancing student learning and success. Bloomington, IN: Center for Postsecondary Research, Indiana University.Retrieved from

[2] See Case, J. M. (2007). Alienation and engagement: development of an alternative theoretical framework for understanding student learning. Higher Education, 55(3), 321–332. Mann, S. J. (2001). Alternative perspectives on the student experience : Alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), 7–19.

[3] More specifically, Marx discussed the alienation of labour. This gets deep but the gist is that for Marx, a good part of what it means to be human is to work — to labour. When we can’t take pride in our work, or have any sense of (or material) ownership over the products of our labour, we become alienated. We’re estranged from our authentic selves, Marx, K. (1964) Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers.

[4] Schabracq, M., & Cooper, C. (2003). To be me or not to be me: About alienation. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 16(2), 53–79.