Book by Robert J. Nash & Michele C. Murray
Review by Sarah Champlin-Scharff
Undergraduate Program Administrator/Department Administrator
Harvard University

All of us, advisors and advisees, struggle consciously or unconsciously, with the question of meaning.  What is the significance of our own existence?  What is the purpose of our life?  Nash and Murray suggest that students from the quarterlife generation have a particularly difficult time dealing with these sorts of questions.  It is explained that the quarterlife generation is descriptive of the period between developmental stages, starting as early as age seventeen and lingering into the mid-thirties (p. xviii).  It is maintained that such a stage is highly charged for these students, provoking anxiety and worry about “living up to others’ expectations, letting go of the comfortable securities of childhood, coming to terms with growing tension between freedom and responsibility, and constantly comparing themselves to peers and coming up short.” (p. xvii).  As such, the authors suggest that faculty and administrators should embrace and promote themselves as “mentors of meaning-making” (p. xxiv), grounding educational moments in the process of thinking deeply, and encouraging students to identify those things that are most significant to them. 

How do we as advisors and university administrators create and support such meaning-making? To begin this discussion Nash and Murray define the term meaning as “those interpretations, narrative frameworks, philosophical rationales and perspectives, and faith or belief systems that each of us brings to the various worlds in which we live, love, earn, work, and worship.” (p. xx). The term purpose, while similar to meaning takes on a different nuance having to do with goals, resolutions, results, and objectives (p. xx).  Purpose is dependent on how something has significance for us, and is only “worthwhile or justifiable” (p. xx) when it matters to us.  Learning when something matters, Nash and Murray suggest, should be part of undergraduate education.   It is through an approach they call “deep-meaning learning” (p. 87) that students are able to come to terms with questions of meaning and purpose. 

The book provides philosophical explanation for the importance of including meaning-making in undergraduate education, as well as useful pedagogical examples of how to facilitate coursework and, in my opinion, advising conversations to support such “deep-meaning learning.”  Nash and Murray outline how narrative therapy, through the use of storytelling and story construction, can help students grasp what really matters to them.  While this may not always be practical for everyday conversation with our advisees, it seems important to recognize the tenor of their argument.  Only when students recognize what matters to them, will they be able to find purpose.  

This book opens a discussion for advisors and advisees about the purpose of education, the identification of meaning in our lives, and how we might facilitate conversations in order to more fully recognize the significance of such existential questions.  Nash and Murray’s work seems an important contribution to the field of advising and even more broadly higher education.

Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making. (2010). Book by Robert J. Nash & Michele C. Murray. Review by Sarah Champlin-Scharff. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 352 pp. $38.00. ISBN 978-0-470-40814-8
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