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'Quarterlifers' launch long search for meaning in their lives

At age 18, people start to think about some of the "big meaning questions" that will never go away and can sometimes seem overwhelming, said Robert J. Nash, an author and a professor who specializes in the philosophy of education, ethics, higher education, religion and spirituality at the University of Vermont, in a dinner discussion on choices and challenges facing young adults, Sept. 9 in Willard Straight Hall.

They may ask themselves: Does my life have a special purpose? How will I know what type of career is best for me? Will I ever meet someone special I want to spend the rest of my life with? Where do my greatest passions lie? Individuals start thinking about whether school is right for them and whether they could be doing something more constructive in the real world; questions of religion and spirituality also arise, Nash said.

"All the issues that you're working on right now and in your graduate years are issues that will never die," said Nash, who focuses his work on people roughly between the ages of 18 to 35, an age group also known as "quarterlifers."

In fact, he said, the same issues may continue though midlife and later life, Nash said.

"Thousands of students who have come through my college courses during the last four decades suffer in some ways from what I call a crisis of meaning," Nash said. "Some students experience the crisis as a clash of conflicting meanings. Others confront it as an overload of seductive, albeit risky meanings."

A growing number of college students look to external sources to their sense of meaning, Nash said. "They believe if they can just improve their economic situations and lose a little weight, perhaps secure good grades that will lead to excellent jobs and promotions, it will be OK," Nash said.

"Deep down I sense that all is not well with my students, and most of them know it," Nash said. Many ask Nash about finding the meaning of their lives. "I have to tell you that I'm not even sure about the meaning of my life, except that I was born, I live, I try to love and be loved," Nash said. "I know someday I will die. ... This is all the more reason to seize the life you live."

Nash, who holds graduate degrees in English, theology, applied ethics and philosophy, is the author of several books, including "Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making" and "How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation."

The event, which concluded with interactive roundtable discussions led by co-presenters Jennifer Jang, residential director at Loyola University, and Patricia Nguyen, associate dean of students at Cornell, was co-sponsored by the Asian/Asian American Forum and Cornell Minds Matter.

Dorothy Chan '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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