By Alex Cohen

Recently, I received a video of students who have benefited from a university scholarship program that we support. The scholarship is not merit-based, but instead, based on a student’s change in life circumstances. It could be the death of a parent, sudden unemployment, or general financial need—any hardship that would hinder them from continuing their education there.

In the video, the students describe how they fell in love with the school and the programs they offer there. Some were already in school when their situations changed or just starting out and not getting enough financial aid to attend. They talked about their upbringing, their hardships, and their passion to not only stay at the school, but to be successful in their chosen field. They told the story of the day they found out that they were recipients of our Scholars program and how that moment “changed their lives forever.” They spoke directly to us, saying they are forever grateful for the opportunity that someone, who does not even know them, gave them. 

I have never been good receiving compliments or thanks; it makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure why, but it has always been the case. I do what I do and have done what I have done because it was needed. It is I who am grateful to be able to do things like this. On the other hand, I thank people all the time for their helpfulness, attention and treatment; I find it more important than getting the thanks—odd, I know, but true in my case.

There have been a lot of articles written about the feeling of gratitude being replaced with feeling of entitlement and greed. No matter what people get, they always want more; it’s never enough. This is not the case for all but the last few generations have been damaged by us—their parents and society.  We have coddled them and protected them and given them all the things we ourselves felt we lacked.  What parent doesn’t want their child to be safe, feel confident, and be happy? Our protection led them to be fearful and sensitive to everything. Our desire for them to be confident led them to need constant attention and approval. Happiness? Well, as we have learned the hard way, we cannot “make” other people happy. Only they can do that for themselves. 

So, where does this leave us today? How do we undo what we have done? Is it too late? Does one have to be desperate, struggling, or in need to be grateful when someone lends them a helping hand? I have often wondered if the underprivileged are grateful for the government aid they receive, or do they just expect it and think it’s their right?

I know when I was a young single mother receiving the government WIC program to help feed my son, I was so grateful to have assistance until I was able to make enough to take care for the two of us. But does everyone feel that way? In my case, the aid helped me get on my feet long enough to change my situation. It was not a crutch, but a stepping-stone to get me in a better place. Maybe becoming a young mother made me grow up faster than most, but it also taught me the value of hard work. For this experience, and for my son, I am eternally grateful because it made me the person I am today. 

I was being interviewed by someone the other day for the Foundation and she asked me if I am surprised how my life had turned out. I told her that I pinch myself every day because it’s still hard to believe how far I have come. Every step of the way, I had help, from my parents who cared for my son while I worked to the people I worked with who took me under their wings. My coworkers saw how much of a sponge I was and taught me how to use a computer in the 80’s, do accounting, write proposals, and how to behave in a business environment. One of my bosses took me on his travels so I could see him in action and taught me how to use all the utensils on the table in a fancy restaurant. Who knew there were so many different forks, knives and spoons? We grew up with one of each utensil and none ever matched. My point here is that this kind of help was for my benefit so that I, like those students at the university, could gain experience and confidence from people who took a chance on us, hoping that it would pave the way for our success and not our dependence or failure. 

Sometimes, we mention the word “work” and kids look at us as if we are speaking a foreign language. Their interpretation of work is very different than ours. And while some can get away with doing very little and call it work, most people cannot. I see this in young adults in transition from college to actual life on their own. Their expectations of how the world should be and how it turns out to be is very different. This can lead to unhappiness, anger, and insecurity which can turn into anxiety and depression. We protect our young from adversity and the harshness of the real world so much that when they are faced with it, they are inexperienced and fearful. Then, they retreat or become angry and fight it every step of the way.

I read somewhere that scientists suggest the brain does not reach full maturity until the age of 25, which is way beyond graduation from college. Basically, they may think and behave as if they were still in college. They feel lost without a schedule telling them where to be and when and without someone grading their work so they can get the feedback and praise they have grown accustomed to. No weekly laundry service, no free WIFI, no meal plans. And what about all the free time they inherit? What do they do with that? Our generation had no such problems. Most of us worked through college and all our summers and had already lined up a job right after graduation—with no downtime. There was no such thing. No work, no pay, no play!

Looking back at how I raised my children, I would never let them suffer the things I suffered when I was young: insecurity of needs, feeling unsafe, living under harsh conditions, not having the comforts and benefits of others. What kind of mother would I be??? Well, now I realize that all the adversities are what gave me the strength and courage to succeed and get myself to a better place. We don’t have to deny our children good things, but maybe in retrospect, a little less coddling and a little more expectation put on them without constant rewards or back-patting would be helpful. Give them the freedom and courage to explore the world around them, let them get their feelings hurt, let them fight their own battles, and allow them to get themselves out of harm’s way on their own.

Even after all this, I think I did a pretty good job raising five amazing kids who are maturing at their own pace and finding their way in this world. It’s never too late to learn and to experience; I plan on doing both for as long as I have left to live. I am very grateful to have grown up when I did and how I did. I wouldn’t change a thing. I thank my supporters, mentors, teachers, and those who took a chance on me. Without them, I don’t know where I would be.