Summer 2008

Supporting Our Youth

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Oregon’s most famous scientist started off with a bang, but it looked like he was just headed for trouble. As a teenager, Linus Pauling liked to play with chemicals and got the idea to put an explosive mix of powders on the streetcar lines near his Portland home. According to Pauling biographer Tom Hager, Linus let out a whoop as trolleys set off the charges. The company wasn’t so amused and sent a representative to Pauling’s home to issue a warning. That didn’t stop him entirely. He would also scare his sisters by making unstable compounds that would pop when disturbed. Not satisfied to keep such a discovery to himself, Pauling took it to school, Hager notes in his book, Force of Nature.

His difficulties were only beginning. At 16 years old, he had raced through the math and science courses at Washington High School and was determined to finish early and head to college. So he asked for permission to complete the two required semesters of American history in one term. When the principal said “no,” Linus countered by leaving school without a diploma. In short, he was a high school dropout, albeit one whose thirst for learning pushed him to study Greek in his spare time and to aim for a career in chemical engineering.

Linus’ determination to follow an impulse was hardly unusual. It is echoed in the energy, creativity and compassion of students at OSU and in the young adults everywhere who keep businesses humming, serve their nation in the military and strive to make a difference in their communities. The vast majority may struggle, but with support from families, churches and youth organizations, they succeed.

Many, however, are more vulnerable. OSU sociologist Michelle Inderbitzin has documented the consequences for those who end up in juvenile detention centers, which some call a “pipeline to prison.” Public health specialist Brian Flay has devoted his career to positive youth development and applies rigorous evaluation techniques to demonstrate the effectiveness of a character-building program, Positive Action. And social scientist Rick Settersten finds that institutions need to rethink their support for youth. At stake are the lives of potentially productive citizens and maybe even a Nobel Prize winner.

— Nick Houtman, Editor