After years of working as a university counsellor, Sahri Woods-Baum knows all the strategies students use to cope with parental pressure. From pushing themselves to complete two undergraduate degrees to intentionally failing out of their program, Ms. Woods-Baum has seen students sacrifice their academic careers and well-being while trying to satisfy their parents.
"Parents play a huge role in terms of a student's educational and career choices," she says. "Ideally, you want parents who are encouraging, supportive and on board with the student's dream."
But in her 43 years at Ryerson University’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling in Toronto, Ms. Woods-Baum says that one of the most common situations she deals with is students whose program of study was chosen by their parents.
For instance, a survey of about 450 Canadian medical students and residents by SortSmart Candidate Selection Inc. last year found that 68 per cent of individuals cited family tradition or pressure as one of the top three factors motivating them to enter a career in medicine. Though this is a small sample size, it shows the influence that a family can have.
Yet research shows that parental involvement is an essential component to a student's academic achievement.
The attitudes, expectations and level of support parents put into their child's education tend to have positive effects on academic success, a variety of research indicates When students feel pressured to enter into an area of study or career that they do not themselves desire, however, the benefits of parental involvement seem to be lost.
"It's really hard to stay motivated for four years to do something that you're not particularly interested in or if you're not doing well in something," says Ms. Woods-Baum, adding that many students, especially those who are financially dependent on their family, tend to feel stuck.
According to the Canadian University Survey Consortium, 60 per cent of about 18,000 graduating students across 36 Canadian universities rely on family to fund their education. When they do not have financial control, the students may find their interests or academic strengths are not taken into consideration by their families. Rather, parents choose programs that they believe will provide stability and guarantee future employment.
Unfortunately, what parents believe to be best can present consequences for their child.
Maura O'Keefe, Ryerson Centre for Student Development and Counselling clinical coordinator, says that parental pressure can cause the student to develop mental-health issues.
When your field of study is at odds with who you feel you are, that creates stress and anxiety, says Ms. O'Keefe. "That can lead to more significant depression if it goes on for a long period of time."
Early signs of mental distress usually include avoidance or isolating behaviours, says Ms. O'Keefe. Students may miss classes or exams, withdraw from their friend groups or even fail their courses.
Ryerson's advisors and counsellors have been addressing this issue for years, and try to help students discover what they are looking for.
McMaster University alumnus Vlad Motorykin knows the career exploration process all too well. He moved from Kazakhstan to study in the Hamilton university's Life Sciences program and recalls struggling through a science degree that he didn't particularly want, but that his parents thought would set him up for medical school.
"If you don't like your program, try to figure out what you can do inside of your program to make it worth it," says Mr. Motorykin.
For him, this meant taking enough business electives to be able to minor in it.
Another option for students wanting to pursue other interests, or struggling to figure out what those are, is to take advantage of on-campus groups or extracurricular projects. Beyond adjusting his course load, Mr. Motorykin became the founder and host of McMaster’s first late-night show called MacTonight, which featured a range of guests and discussed important student issues.
“It’s literally just four years out of your 90-year life, so thinking that these four years will define the next 70 years of your life is a big misunderstanding,” says Mr. Motorykin, who now works in advertising and sales as the campus and commercial partnerships co-ordinator for the McMaster Student Union.