During college, I was home during break, and while relaxing, I could hear the mail arrive. I dashed downstairs to pick it up. Rifling through the junk mail and the bills, I found what I was looking for. My report card. (Please note that this was a very long time ago, and we actually had grades sent home, so thank your lucky stars that this is no longer the case, friends)
I went to my room, shut the door, and opened it. I scanned for the letters that would dictate my future. Calculus: F. Economics: F. The other courses, I don’t remember the grades, but I’m pretty sure I passed those classes. But these two I couldn’t get past. I folded it up quietly, shoved it into a book, and tried to avoid conversations about how I was doing in school from my parents.
I find myself now in a position where I am talking with students about grades, and I can see that look in their face. I had that look on my face too that quarter: I have to do better.
Failure doesn’t suck, or more so, it doesn’t have to suck. Failure brings to the surface a reality check, as it did for me. I had to ask myself: 1) What are my priorities? 2) Am I living up to my expectations, or the expectations of those who worked so hard for me to get where I am today? 3) Am I doing everything in my power to be at my best?
As an 18 year old, those questions didn’t necessarily hit home for me. I thought about it, said, “Yes, I have to do better.” Then I moved on to do something completely similar. The next quarter, I got a D- in Calculus. And then a D in Economics. Repeat the race to the mailbox. The staring at the ceiling wondering what I was going to do next. The dread of telling my parents. What made it hit home even more was the line: “Subject to Dismissal.” There it was, in black and white, that this was my last go.
You’d think that after my first failure I’d get it. But it wasn’t until round 2 of the Fail Circus that I got it to stick in my head. If it didn’t work, then something needed to change. Something needed to click for me, and that line did it for me. It was time to change.
I met with a student yesterday who was studying Economics. I said to her, reviewing her courses and transcript, and after having a heart to heart talk about what was going on in her life, “You’re an economist. You know what opportunity cost is, right?” She looked me and smiled, “Of course.”
“So all those social events, the obligations you have, what does it cost?”
“It costs…my grades.”
“More than that…”
“The time spent with my friends could be time spent studying.”
And then the light goes on.
Part of the work I do with students is that your failures are not the defining moment – your defining moment is how you get out of that failure, and sometimes you are destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again until you figure it out. For me it didn’t take one quarter. It took two. And a really stark letter that said, “Get your stuff together or you’re on your way.”
The reality of failures is that they don’t have to suck – they can if you want them to. Being on probation or subject to dismissal isn’t a death sentence. What is a death sentence, however, is making the decision to not change what got you there in the first place. Academics is not something you can do by yourself. You should reach out to people who are there to support you and help you through these places and spaces. You should make your failures known to people who can help you – mentors, friends, parents, classmates, etc. Finally, be open to getting help. I know this sounds silly, but being in a position of asking for help means that you are allowing yourself to change.
I wish I could tell you that after I got my life in gear and made the changes I did, more to follow on that, that I became an A student. The truth is, I didn’t, but I did get my college degree. My master’s degree. And my doctorate. Those failures don’t define me. What does, however, is my ability to dust myself off, and get to work, even in insurmountable odds. And you can do just that as well.
Here’s what I did:
- Find out how you manage “time”. Time for us means different things. Take a step back and try to account for every day this week. Do you know where it went? Yes and no, right? Compare that to what you are supposed to be doing…does it match up? Evaluate where you use time. This is the NUMBER ONE reason why people go on probation. Not knowing where to put your energy will be a surefire way to get on probation.
- Peace out on my friends. I know this sounds drastic, and it is certainly hard to do, but for me it was easy because I told them I needed to do this for me. Real friends will get it and support you. I was very happy to have friends say to me, “Okay it’s time for you to study, get outta here.” If anything once I was done, I could go back to hanging out with them as much as I wanted to. Guilt free fun? OKAY!
- Cut down on extra-curricular activities. I loved playing volleyball in college. I worked out with the men’s volleyball team, got pretty good at my position, but at 6-9 hours a week of play, it did add up to time I could be doing other things like studying. My main goal in college was to study and get a degree. Volleyball would have to take a back seat.
- Talk to an advisor. I needed to get my life in gear, so I talked with someone from my Dean’s office to figure out what I needed to do to get back in academia’s good graces. I needed to learn how to focus better, learn what tutoring was available, and how to read all my texts. It was hard to hear this after being a strong student in high school, but it made a difference.
- Finding someone to check in with. This was my advisor, but it was also a good friend who I could be honest with. It was also someone at CAPS on my campus who I was able to vent to when things got crazy. A sounding board is a good and healthy thing to have.
- Check your priorities. Every day all day, you need to make sure you know what your priorities are. Your guiding principles should be lined up with your priorities. Your priorities is going to school? Then is hanging out with your friends with unfinished projects looming over your head contributing to that? Probably not. You see, I’m all about you having fun in college. I’m not, however, for you studying 24-7 – you need to find balance in all things. So imagine you have friends that are going to some awesome something, and you have a paper to write. Going to the awesome something is tempting, but would it be fun with something bothering you? No, it wouldn’t. Get the business done first, then awesome something next. Trust me on this one.