BERKELEY, Calif. – Conner Wright is carrying a demanding course load in his final year as an English major at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s studying Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Jacobs — and how to do laundry without turning his underwear pink.
The 20-year-old senior realized that as he prepares for his launch into a post-college world, he likely is going to need more than an ability to interpret classic literary works. So he signed up for a class on “adulting,” where he is taught the basic coping skills of daily life.
“I need to learn how to get this adult thing down and manage life,” Wright said.
He’s one of thousands of “adults in training” across the country. Adulting classes for college students and postgrads have swelled in popularity in recent years, in part because many high schools have abandoned “life skills” courses such as home economics, which were created to help students navigate the path to adulthood.
Why didn’t their parents teach them these skills? Because, according to many of the students, their parents emphasized academic achievement to the exclusion of almost everything else.
As a result, universities are filled with students who aced their AP physics test but have no idea how to cook pasta without turning it into mush.
And it’s not just college students who are discovering that they need help. In Portland, Maine, the for-profit Adulting School offers classes on everything from how to repair a hole in a plasterboard wall to ways for drawing up a personal budget.
Principal Rachel Flehinger said the students are typically in their 20s and 30s.
“We’ve had clients who are millennials having major anxiety that they didn’t have these skills and didn’t feel successful as an adult,” she said. “There’s a lot of self-loathing that happens.”
Similar classes or workshops have popped up at libraries, in private groups on social media and even on blogs tailored to college students. Some high schools have scheduled seminars on life skills as a way to prepare their students for life after graduation.
Sometimes students come up with their own solutions, which is what happened at UC Berkeley.
Neither Belle Lau of Washington nor Jenny Zhou of Arizona felt fully prepared for life away from home when they arrived at the school. But they managed to skate by until their sophomore year, when they decided to move out of the dorms and into apartments. Their lack of self-reliance became apparent.
“We’re thrown out into this world and have little idea about what the heck we’re supposed to do,” said Lau, 21. “I think in general we all feel a little bit lost and don’t know where to start.”
They noticed that many of their peers were having similar struggles. To remedy that, Lau and Zhou, 20, decided to create a class. (In the university’s DeCal — Democratic Education at Cal — program, students create and facilitate their own courses.)
When it was first offered in 2019’s spring semester, the 30 spots filled quickly and 70 students had to be turned away. Now there are multiple sessions, but Lau and Zhou still had to turn down 100 applicants who wanted to sign up for this semester’s 12-week class.
“College is a time of so many transitions — the losing of certain reference points — and it’s relatively sudden,” said Nancy Liu, an assistant clinical professor of psychology and the faculty sponsor for the adulting class. “You’re on your own for the first time, you’re navigating a large system with limited support, you’re taken out of past comforts and starting anew, you have new tasks that you’ve never had to deal with before.
“Add to that the stress of a high-pressure academic environment, it makes sense that many would feel overwhelmed,” she said.
“College also sets the tone for much of what comes afterward: fostering those daily habits and routines; balancing work, school and life; remembering to file your taxes and keeping a budget; learning how to navigate interpersonal challenges with less scaffolding or support from experienced others. It seems crucial to address it head-on in a way that was valuable to students,” Liu said.
Each 90-minute session features a presentation from Zhou and Lau, juniors majoring in molecular biology and integrative biology, respectively, and an outside expert who visits the class in person or via video chat. Last year, for instance, a recruiter from Lyft prepped students about job searches, and an accountant — Lau’s mother, actually — discussed filing taxes.
No more coddling
Kate Curtis, a 21-year-old senior, showed up 10 minutes late for her first class with a look of embarrassment and a quick apology. She said that she’s long struggled with punctuality. She’s been late so many times to her job at a fast-food restaurant that her manager recently pulled her into a meeting to discuss it. She was humiliated and ashamed.
“I want to learn to be dependable. I want other people to be able to count on me,” she said.
Curtis transferred to the university from a community college that she attended for two years, during which time she lived at home. She said that as a result, she feels that she was coddled longer than her peers.
“I’m eight hours away from home now, so I’m on my own,” she said. “I have to find my own doctor if I’m sick. I’ve just signed up for my first loan, and I’m not really understanding what I’m getting into.”
Lau acknowledged that she and Zhou don’t have all the answers — a realization that is part of becoming an adult. As kids, they could wait for their parents to step in and take care of things for them. That’s not a viable option anymore.
“It’s our responsibility as college students to know that if we’re struggling in some aspect, there are resources out there for us,” she said.