My College:
Student Life

Assertiveness Is the Secret Sauce

David Tuttle


There’s so much to do as you send your kids off to college: planning, buying, packing, and managing emotions. As a father who dropped off four kids at college, I know what you’re going through. I’m not ashamed to say that I bawled like a baby when I said goodbye to each child. I was super sad, and worse, based on my experience as a former Dean of Students, I think I simply knew too much for my own good.

Certainly, you’ve rehearsed and maybe even delivered your farewell spiel: Get good grades, stay in touch, be safe, and don’t run through all of your (our?) money in the first month. When I was Dean, I sent parents a list of uncomfortable and scary things to discuss with their students. This wasn’t to make the angst worse but, rather, to nudge parents to talk about substantive topics that could have significant impacts on their student’s success. These topics included alcohol, drugs, sexual safety, hazing, mental health, college rules, personal safety, and more. On campus, we followed up by covering these topics in new student orientation.

If you haven’t discussed these things, it’s not too late. If you have, it’s good to check in once in a while with reminders and to ask your student about challenges and difficulties they’ve encountered. You can talk through these challenges and discuss lessons learned, ways to manage issues in the future, or how to avoid these situations altogether.

Struggling to figure out what to prioritize? Here’s the hierarchy I go by: Health and safety come first, academics second, and social life third. This isn’t random. I’ve worked with students and parents for more than 30 years and have seen it all: students in life-threatening situations, grappling with roommate difficulties, social complications, academic challenges, and unanticipated hardships from organization, club, and team involvement.

In all of these cases, the number one skill students need to survive and thrive is assertiveness.

Assertiveness Impacts Everything

Let’s start with roommate issues. I can’t tell you how many times students let their roommates walk all over them — whether it was a messy room or a boyfriend/girlfriend who stayed over so much that they seemed like a third roommate. Often, students didn’t want to be the “uncool” ones who put down their foot and said enough is enough. Eventually, there is a pivotal moment during a high-stress time when things blow up, housing staff is pulled in, parents get involved. Talk about uncool.

More seriously, students can feel pressure to use alcohol or drugs to fit in and to live the college lifestyle they think they should experience. While this is normal to an extent, partaking in order to be perceived a certain way can lead to overconsumption, risks of alcohol poisoning, or worse.

Further, sexual interactions can be clouded by alcohol. And assertive communication is critical when students start to hook up. Direct, assertive, and firm statements may deter someone who is coercive and doesn’t understand the concept of consent.

The list of scenarios is endless: Students often don’t speak up when a classmate is cheating on a class project or when they are getting hazed. Many will even avoid asking a professor to review an erroneously assigned grade. In all of these situations, assertiveness is key.

How Do You Coach This?

This can be an issue of self-esteem. In many ways, our students are programmed to stand up for social issues and against authority. Often, though, this is because there are other students rallying behind a cause. In very personal situations, students are on their own. Their feelings of self-worth need to be strong. Logic needs to trump emotion. They pay the same room rate, they control their sexual sovereignty, and they don’t want to lose control because of substance use. Encourage them to trust that inner voice that says not to get into a car with a tipsy driver or let that stranger take them home.

Second, and you and I know this, looking cool and not making waves is a mirage. In the end, other students respect those who are independent-minded, look out for themselves, and take care of others. I used to encourage students unhappy with their dining hall meals to tell a manager. They would rather die. It is so much safer (if way less effective) to take to social media to complain.

Those who don’t apologize for appropriately advocating for themselves carry a certain panache and aura over time that serves them and others well. Talk with your student about situations in the past where they were or were not assertive and use hindsight to discuss alternatives. Ask them about others who they have seen be assertive, or shrinking, and discuss how those situations played out and may have ended differently. This is really hard. In the Instagram age, the way one is perceived is so important. Not being awkward is a real thing. So, it takes pre-planning for someone to draw their line in the sand.

Finally, urge your students to use the best coaches they have when they are feeling uneasy: their parents and mentors.

You want them to have agency and make their own decisions, but having grown-ups reinforce how the world works can be extremely meaningful.

Be specific and use the term assertiveness. Part of college is learning to be independent and to develop self-efficacy. They will need such skills for the rest of their lives. This is a great time to start.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected]

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