Do as I say, not as I did
I grew up in an academic family. There was no question if I was going to college; the only question was where. I was 17 when I graduated high school. I was nowhere near ready for college – the disciplined, motivated, structured part that included studying, attending classes, knowing what my goals were and how to achieve them. I was ready for the fun parts and that’s what I focused on.
I spent a little over a year at my first college – a small liberal arts school in idyllic Central Pennsylvania. When I left I had an embarrassingly low GPA and little to show for my time there. Months before I officially failed out, in an attempt to get help, I went to see my advisor. He was a sociology professor; a quintessential throw back who students would have described as ‘cool’ . He seemed like a decent person. Unfortunately, rather than helping me figure out what I needed to do to turn my academic situation around, he spent our meeting telling me that I was most certainly going to fail out of school and would probably never finish college.
I can still see his office in my mind. Him at his desk with his smug face, unkempt hair and condescending attitude feeling very proud of himself and confident in his guidance. Me sitting only a few feet from him but feeling the vastness of our disconnection. The lifeline I was reaching for was ripped away by every sharp word and judgmental glare. Those few minutes he took out of his very important day to humiliate me have stuck with me over the past thirty years.
Use with caution
There is a school of thought amongst people with whom I have shared this story that he was using “reverse psychology” to get me to dig deep and start succeeding in college. I get that. And I have used the same approach hundreds of times. But the key to using this technique – in order to get someone to do the opposite of what you’re suggesting – is knowing that the person has the skill set, stamina, support and space within herself to actually do it.
I didn’t have any of those things. I think there could be a hundred reasons that the professor said what he said, but the only one I think of now is that he was lazy.
Sure, I was a terrible student. Sure, I didn’t make it to class enough. Sure, I was floating aimlessly in the sea of undeclared majors. But, I truly wanted to do better and I wanted to figure out how. I was a kid. I was struggling. And even though my parents where “academics”, they hadn’t prepared me to succeed in college. I had none of the skills that I needed to do well, in any area of my life.
Looking back – knowing what I know now – the professor might have known sociology, but he was as ill-equipped as I was to figure out the first-year college experience. Had he taken the time to talk with me about my challenges, understand my learning style, and explore my interests he might have been able to reset my college experience. Instead, he failed in his charge and threw on more weight as I was drowning. I sunk deeper into the frustration and isolation I was feeling and when I finally left school I felt like a failure. At 18 years old.
The difference of a generation
I look at my daughter now – at the time of this writing, she’s 19 and just finished her first year of college. Her experience was completely different than mine. Why? Because I prepared her.
I invested years intentionally setting her up to succeed. And it wasn’t through private schools or expensive tutoring. She didn’t attend academic camps in the summer or study more than the average kid. Granted, the two school districts she attended offered AP classes and college tracking; they were good schools. She was very fortunate. She also had the benefit of my hindsight.
The key to her successful first year were things we worked on before she even stepped on campus: her planning, confidence and adaptability. We talked about self-awareness, time management, and making choices that will benefit her next steps. I encouraged her to ask for support instead of waiting for it, to be her own best advocate, and to stand up for herself.
When she arrived on campus she explored her college community, got to know people for who they are instead of what they could for her, and mindfully surrounded herself with positive people and beneficial experiences. She got involved and tried new things. She met regularly with her professors and got to know them – and they her. Her on campus job gave her the opportunity to network and make connections.
I am fairly sure she attended (most of) her classes and she tried to stay current with her coursework. And she had fun, which is as important as anything else. But the most important thing was, she didn’t measure herself against everyone else. Her first year was successful – as she defined success.
College is a perfect place to learn life
None of this was easy; it took commitment to her goals every day to make sure her choices would move her forward. It took making mistakes to figure out how to fix them. It took not always getting what she wanted to know what she really wanted. It took connecting with the wrong people to find the right ones.
College is a lot of trial and error – it should be. But having a solid foundation heading in to the first year – or any year – flattens the learning curve. Discovering how to get the most out of college – all of college, not just the academics – is a perfect way to learn how to get the most out of life.
No one does college perfectly. There are ways, however, to ensure that you are going to do it to the best of your abilities. That you are as prepared as you can be and have a set of skills that will support you; not just through the first-year academics but all that comes with the adjustment to college.
For the past seven years I have been a visiting professor at a non-traditional college. My students are as different as the paths they took to my classroom. Most of them are returning to college or entering later in their lives. They are often unsure of how to succeed.
One the first assignments I give in my Introduction to Psychology class is to write a short paper outlining what they want out of the class, how they are going to get it and what challenges they may encounter. In other words, I want them to set a grade goal, outline the steps to achieve it and predict as closely as possible the obstacles they might need to overcome. And then I want them to tell me why they chose the goal.
Why they want an A. Why a C might be where they see themselves at the end of the course. The grade itself doesn’t matter. It’s just a letter. It’s the goal I want them to focus on. And I want them to own it.
Sometimes a C is the best a student believes they can do – they might work full time and have a family. The class might be their first academic experience in decades. College is hard enough as the only thing in your life. Add in other obligations and it’s beyond difficult to manage.
I go back to this paper throughout the course to remind each of my students of their commitment. To guide them through some of their challenges and to celebrate their achievements. I want them to learn to work their goal. I believe that it’s my role – my responsibility – to support my students as they learn to learn to be students. I believe that it is my job as a professor to ensure they are prepared to earn their degrees. It’s not because I think that a college degree is the key to their futures. I believe that the key to their future is living up to the commitments they make to themselves. That’s what is means to live a fulfilling life; identifying what we want, knowing why we want it and making it happen.
Success is a culmination of failures
I guess an argument could be made that we are a product of all of our experiences – good and bad. I guess it’s possible that the sociology professor did impact me in a positive way. I say that now, after years of personal growth.
I struggled for the first few years after I failed out of that college. Then, with a lot of work and positive support systems, I earned my bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies from Penn State. After that I went on to get my master’s in Forensic Psychology at John Jay College, City University of New York. I got involved on campus, discovered my passion for learning and developed skills that moved me towards my goals.
As it turned out, I was a great student and loved school – I just needed to find the right one with professors who cared about students as people, not tuition. I learned a ton about myself because of those experiences. I carried what I learned into how I parented and prepared my daughter for college. And now I also work with clients who want that same support (minus the parenting part!).
Start where you are, use what you know, do what you can. ~ Arthur Ashe
CollegeGoals is a result of these experiences. I love watching my daughter flourish and discover who she is becoming. I realize that I am uniquely positioned to support other students – and their parents – as they navigate the challenges of the college experience. The transition from high school to higher education is daunting for the most prepared person. My experiences as a coach, a former (struggling and successful) college student and a parent of a college student gives me the advantage of insight. The irony doesn’t escape me. I started this journey reaching out for help and being left to drown. I am indebted to that experience for leading me here. I don’t just offer my hand, I help people learn to swim on their own.
If I can support you, please reach out. Use this link to contact me or set up a quick call to chat.