Conner Wright is carrying a demanding course load in his final year as an English major at UC Berkeley: antebellum American literature, introduction to music therapy and a research seminar on William Shakespeare.
The 20-year-old senior is immersed in the works of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and Harriet Jacobs.
But Wright, who is anticipating his graduation in May, has the self-awareness to know he needed a little something extra to prepare for his launch into a post-college world, that a superior ability to interpret classic literary works may not be enough.
So he signed up for a class on “adulting,” where he is learning to create and stick to a personal budget, build a resume and apply for jobs and navigate romantic relationships in a time when online interactions are eclipsing face-to-face encounters.
“I need to learn how to get this adult thing down and manage life,” Wright said.
The class, which has 30 students enrolled in each section, is led by two Berkeley undergrads who plan discussion topics and schedule guest speakers to fill 90 minutes each week. The “adults in training” are among thousands of people across the country who have signed up for courses that focus on things such as cooking or budgeting or time management.
Adulting classes for college students and postgrads have swelled in popularity in recent years, in part because many high schools have largely abandoned “life skills” courses such as home economics, which were created to help students navigate the path to adulthood.
That trend, combined with armies of hovering parents who emphasize academic achievement to the exclusion of almost everything else, has resulted in university classrooms filled with students who scored a 5 on their AP Physics test, but struggle to plan for a week’s worth of groceries and meals.
In Portland, Maine, the Adulting School offers in-person classes on “soft” skills, such as interviewing, conflict resolution and making friends, along with topics such as personal finance and basic home maintenance.
Principal Rachel Flehinger said her students, who are typically in their 20s and 30s, have experienced their share of disdain over their so-called entitlement and laziness.
“We’ve had clients who are millennials having major anxiety that they didn’t have these skills and didn’t feel successful as an adult,” she said. “There’s a lot of self-loathing that happens.”
Similar classes or in-person workshops have popped up at libraries and universities across the country, in private groups on social media and even on blogs tailored to college students. Some high schools have scheduled seminars on life skills as a way to prepare their students for life after graduation.
Sometimes students come up with their own solutions.
Neither Belle Lau of Washington nor Jenny Zhou of Arizona felt fully prepared for life away from home when they arrived at Berkeley two years ago. When Lau moved out of the dorms and into her own apartment during her sophomore year, her lack of self-reliance at the time became apparent. She was working, attending classes and, for the first time, had to plan her own meals, put money aside and cover her expenses. She quickly realized that she was spending too much money eating out all the time.
Lau and Zhou noticed that many of their peers were having similar struggles.
“We’re thrown out into this world and have little idea about what the heck we’re supposed to do,” said Lau, 21. “I think in general we all feel a little bit lost and don’t know where to start.”
To remedy that, Lau and Zhou, 20, decided to create their own class.
When it was first offered last spring, every one of the 30 spots was filled. Seventy students had to be turned away.
Lau and Zhou added a second session this semester. More than 200 students filled out applications explaining why they wanted to take the 12-week course. The women accepted fewer than half who applied.
Adulting is one of dozens of student-run courses in the university’s DeCal (Democratic Education at Cal) program, in which students create and facilitate their own classes on topics that include those practical and fun and often aren’t addressed in traditional curriculum. The project is rooted in the ideals of Berkeley’s free speech movement, launched in the 1960s when students pressed for and won greater academic rights.
There’s a class on criminal psychology, which “aims to analyze the minds of criminals, particularly of those who commit heinous crimes,” in an effort to understand factors that influenced their behaviors and led them to commit violent offenses. Students enrolled in “Intro to Baking” learn to make bread, cakes, pastries and other confections “without setting you or your roommates on fire,” according to the course catalog.
Another course takes participants on a journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry through discussions of Harry Potter novels.
The courses in DeCal count for one or two credits and are offered as pass/no pass; as a result, students say they are unlikely to add to their stress levels.
“College is a time of so many transitions — the losing of certain reference points — and it’s relatively sudden,” said Nancy Liu, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the faculty sponsor for the adulting class this semester. “You’re on your own for the first time, you’re navigating a large system with limited support, you’re taken out of past comforts and starting anew, you have new tasks that you’ve never had to deal with before.
“Add to that the stress of a high-pressure academic environment, it makes sense that many would feel overwhelmed,” she said.
“College also sets the tone for much of what comes afterward: fostering those daily habits and routines; balancing work, school and life; remembering to file your taxes and keeping a budget; learning how to navigate interpersonal challenges with less scaffolding or support from experienced others. It seems crucial to address it head-on in a way that was valuable to students,” Liu said.
When Lau and Zhou decided to create a class, they initially envisioned a course in cooking, a passion they share. That idea morphed into life hacks and, later, adulting.
When the two began brainstorming a syllabus, daily tasks such as laundry, sewing and car maintenance didn’t make the cut. Instead, they focused on topics that are more abstract: time management, budgeting, fitness and nutrition, and relationships.
Each 90-minute session features a presentation from Zhou and Lau, juniors majoring in molecular and cell biology and integrative biology, respectively, and an outside expert who visits the class in person or via video chat. Last year, a recruiter from Lyft prepped students about job searches and a former accountant discussed filing taxes.
Those accepted into the classes, mostly seniors, have lamented that many of the things they were learning weren’t taught by their parents.
Lau’s mother, Allie Wu, says that parents “don’t trust their kids enough to do things on their own,” adding that “when they’re at home their parents pretty much take care of everything for them.”
Wu says she has always been very independent, a trait that was a necessity when she arrived in the United States from Taiwan as a 22-year-old to pursue her MBA. Wu hoped her daughter would leave home with the same sense of self-sufficiency. But when Lau confessed to her mother that she struggled a bit her first year at Berkeley, Wu said she began to worry.
Those concerns dissipated when Lau told her about the adulting class she wanted to start with a friend.
Wu, who visited the class last year to talk about taxes, said the course is “wonderful” and “unique.”
“I know she’s in a good place now. I’m very proud of her,” Wu said. “She knows what she wants and what she needs to accomplish her goals.”
During the first week of “adulting” at Berkeley this semester, students were asked to come up with goals that were “SMART”— specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.
To kick it off, Zhou asked whether anyone had ever set a goal they didn’t accomplish.
A few hands shot up. Several people shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. A handful looked around the room.
In less than a minute, everyone’s hand was in the air.
After a brief lecture, Lau and Zhou split the class into groups of six, each assigned to discuss their goals for the semester. Precision was rewarded; vagueness had to be remedied.
Students shuffled their desks into haphazard circles in the classroom and made quick introductions. They bantered about the dread of 8 a.m. classes and late-night studying marathons that would compound that trepidation as the semester dragged on.
Then things got uncomfortable.
Some of the students spoke in hushed tones as they shared the goals they had written on sheets of paper in front of them and, along with those, their insecurities that they might not be doing this whole grown-up thing quite right.
Wright spoke up first. His goal was to build more healthful habits with diet and exercise before graduation. The group nodded in agreement.
Several students said better time management would make a huge difference in their lives. One woman, a junior, said planning and establishing a routine might keep her from staying up all night cramming for exams.
Another piped up, saying she’d like to get more done during the day by limiting how much time she spends on her phone — a common distraction.
Kate Curtis, a 21-year-old senior who showed up 10 minutes late to the class with a look of embarrassment and a quick apology, said she’s long struggled with punctuality. She’s been late so many times to her job at a fast-food restaurant that her manager recently pulled her into a meeting to discuss it. She was humiliated and ashamed.
“I want to learn to be dependable. I want other people to be able to count on me,” she said.
Curtis, who transferred to Berkeley from a community college in Orange County, said she lived at home for the first two years of college and feels she was coddled longer than her peers.
“I’m eight hours away from home now, so I’m actually on my own. I have to find my own doctor if I’m sick. I’ve just signed up for my first loan, and I’m not really understanding what I’m getting into,” she said.
Lau acknowledged that she and Zhou don’t have all the answers, but she’s quick to note that parents shouldn’t be faulted for their children’s lack of real-world knowledge.
“Maybe it is our parents who aren’t teaching us these things we thought we should already know, but we don’t want to blame our parents for us being naive or ignorant,” she said. “It’s our responsibility as college students to know that if we’re struggling in some aspect, there are resources out there for us.”