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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998
Senior Metaphors for the
College Experience

Elizabeth M. Nelson, Christian Brothers University (TN)

To get a student perspective on the transition from college senior to graduate, 33 psychology seniors wrote original essays describing a metaphor for their college experiences. The 35 metaphors were assigned to a concept category (control/struggle, engagement, satisfaction, status, change/development) and an affective quality (positive or negative). Most students indicated that college had been a struggle and that engagement or change had been a major theme of their college experience. Few students perceived satisfaction or status as central to their college experience. Teachers and administrators should put more effort into evaluating and shaping student perceptions of the college experience by emphasizing change as development rather than a struggle and by easing student transition from freshman to graduate.

The college years bring with them transitions. Freshmen make the transition from high school to college (Jorgensen-Earp & Staton, 1991). At the end of their sophomore year, students make the transition from lower- to upperclass students. And finally, seniors are faced with the transition from college student to graduate. Palladino and Tryon (1978) state that the freshmen years are the most stressful for college students. However, other researchers have found that seniors indicate more stress than freshmen (Graves, 1994; Woodmansee, 1995).

One goal of any university should be to address student stress. Students who are stressed and having trouble dealing with the stress need special attention to prevent them from dropping out of school. Jorgensen-Earp and Staton (1991) discussed the importance of examining the freshman perspective in an effort to improve student retention. It seems equally important to discover the senior perspective. Making the transition from senior to graduate is often stressful. It is during this transition that decisions have to be made regarding the future. Will the student go on to graduate school? Will the student take off a year and then go to graduate school? Will the student try to get a job with a bachelor's degree? And then there is the stress of leaving a family of friends and colleagues.

How can metaphoric language represent the college experience? "Language is a tool for representing experience, and tools contribute to creative endeavors only when used" (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986, p. 25). Muran and DiGiuseppe (1990) described two purposes of metaphor within a cognitive framework: to describe an experience and to generate new awareness about that experience. Metaphors describe and evoke feelings (Feinstein, 1985). Metaphor helps to convey affect by comparing one idea, event, or object to something else that has an emotional quality (e.g., "College was a roller-coaster ride"). Metaphor conveys feelings when words by themselves are insufficient (Fine, Pollio, & Simpkinson, 1973). Roberts and Kreuz (1994) determined the unique communicative goal for different figures of speech. They concluded that metaphors are used to be eloquent, to compare similarities, to add interest, and to clarify. It is the purpose of this study to have senior psychology majors describe their perspectives of their college experiences using self-generated metaphors.


The participants in this study were 33 college seniors (10 men and 23 women) from Christian Brothers University, a small private university in Memphis, Tenn. All participants were majoring in psychology.

In fulfillment of the requirements for a comprehensive assessment prior to graduation, all psychology majors were responsible for developing a personal portfolio that included specific documents providing evidence of academic and personal progress toward their degree. Each portfolio included an original essay by the student that identified and described an appropriate metaphor for the student's college experience. Seniors presented their portfolios to the faculty of the behavioral science department during the month of April, 1994 and 1995.

Thirty-five metaphors were generated by the participants (one student generated three metaphors). Using the method of Jorgensen-Earp and Staton (1991), the researcher assigned each metaphor to an emergent concept category. A colleague independently assigned the same metaphors to a concept category. Four of the concept categories came from Jorgensen-Earp and Staton: (a) control/struggle (a struggle for control or success), (b) engagement (a search for his/her niche), (c) satisfaction (with college experience), and (d) status (compared with others in the college environment). An additional concept category emerged for the present study: change/development (as a person). See Table 1 for the metaphors in each concept category.

The researcher and a colleague independently rated each metaphor as reflecting either a positive or negative perspective on the college experience. There was 100% agreement on the assignment of affect. The two raters initially disagreed on 50% of the concept category assignments. One hundred percent agreement was reached after discussion. Table 2 shows the percentage of metaphors for each concept category broken down into positive and negative affect. Table 3 displays the percentage of positive and negative metaphors for each concept category. Tables 4 and 5 present the percentage of positive and negative metaphors and the percentage of metaphors in each concept broken down into male and female students.

It was the purpose of this study to evaluate psychology seniors' perspectives of their college experiences through self-generated metaphors. Overall, about half of the students perceived their experience in a negative way. This suggests that for these students college had been stressful. Most of the students saw college as a struggle, with most of those descriptions being negative. The next largest group of students described college as engagement or a process of change or development. Those students viewing college as engagement for the most part saw it in a negative way. However, the students describing college as change or development indicated it had been a positive experience. Few students indicated that satisfaction or status were central to their experiences. Those two students that did write about satisfaction and status described their experiences in a positive way.

The results suggest that many of the seniors saw their college experience as a struggle for engagement. As freshmen they struggled to find their niche in college, but as upperclass students, they struggled to find their place in society. The theme of the journey (trip, walk to Grandma's, up a mountain) is repeated. The students are going somewhere. The struggle for them is not only in getting there, but also in knowing where they are going.

It would seem that the students emphasized the struggle of reaching their goals. All journeys require change, but change does not have to be perceived as a struggle. Teachers, college administrators, counselors, and staff play a role in student perceptions of college. They should work on student perceptions. They need to emphasize that change is development rather than struggle. They need to ease students' transitions from freshman to senior to graduate as these students focus on their engagement in society.

Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. United States: Basic Books.

Feinstein, H. (1985). The metaphoric interpretation of art for therapeutic purposes. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 12, 157-163.

Fine, H. J., Pollio, H. R., & Simpkinson, C. H. (1973). Figurative language, metaphor and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 10, 87-91.

Graves, K. (1994). Gender and self-esteem. Unpublished manuscript, Christian Brothers University, Memphis, TN.

Jorgensen-Earp, C. R., & Staton, A. Q. (1991). Student metaphors for the college freshman experience. Communication Education, 42, 123-141.

Muran, J. C., & DiGiuseppe, R. A. (1990). Towards a cognitive formulation of metaphor use in psychotherapy. Clinical Psychology Review, 10, 69-85.

Palladino, J. J., & Tryon, G. S. (1978). Have the problems of entering freshmen changed? Journal of College Student Personnel, 9, 313-316.

Roberts, R. M., & Kreuz, R. J. (1994). Why do people use figurative language? Psychological Science, 5(3), 159-163.

Woodmansee, E. (1995). Freshman and senior self-esteem. Unpublished manuscript, Christian Brothers University, Memphis, TN.

Elizabeth Nelson, PhD, is professor of psychology and chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. Nelson received her PhD in psychology from Kansas State University, where she also earned an MA in French. Her research interests are in gerontology and psycholinguistics. She is also an enthusiastic Star Trek fan and X-phile.

Elizabeth Nelson, PhD, is professor of psychology and chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. Nelson received her PhD in psychology from Kansas State University, where she also earned an MA in French. Her research interests are in gerontology and psycholinguistics. She is also an enthusiastic Star Trek fan and X-phile.

Copyright 1998 (Volume 2, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



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