I have had no shortage of challenging conversations with college students over the course of my 7 years working in higher education. Whether they’re asking if they should prioritize a Greek life event over an academic obligation, or for their 87 percent to be rounded up to an A, most of these conversations aren’t altogether surprising for the generation of college students we’re now calling “emerging adults.”
In fact, I happen to love teaching these students every day and witnessing first-hand the passion and altruism they bring to campus. However, one issue that seems to come up time and again in my conversations with students is this idea of “failure” in college and the lack of what Angela Duckworth had dubbed, the “grit” to persevere in the face of a setback.
I think back to the first time I experienced what I would categorize as “failure.” At the end of my fifth grade year, every student had to take a math assessment to place you in general, advanced, or college-prep classes for junior high. Always an excellent student, I was startled when I received the results that I had placed in the “advanced” category and not the “college-prep.” I recall this being a frustrating, yet somewhat transformative experience, especially because I found the courses I had placed into challenging, indicating I was likely exactly where I needed to be. Now with a few more letters after my name, I think back to that and other early failures that helped me establish a blueprint for how I would manage setbacks moving forward.
I will often ask my students who are reeling from one of these disappointments, “Is this the first time you haven’t gotten something that you’ve wanted?” I am still surprised about how many say yes. It is important to note here that I am not arguing that these students placed 1st in everything they did up to this point but rather, thinking about how we framed their earlier experiences and how this has affected what they now perceive as “failure.”
It is no secret that middle and high school grades are being inflated at an alarming rate and trophies for winners and losers often accompany sporting events. With these temporary pacifiers often comes a missed opportunity to begin to really confront their setback or disappointment in a meaningful and constructive way. The system we currently have for our general education is also culpable. To see this in action, one needs only to look at high-achieving students who are often given the label of “gifted.” The word itself implies that this identifier is somehow inherent in these students’ being and doesn’t in any way describe the necessary effort and determination it will require to sustain such a lofty categorization into college.
In my conversations with these students, I can offer strategies or refer students to the amazing counseling center at UK, but the real work of helping students address, confront and navigate through unexpected setbacks begins long before they arrive on UK’s campus. The development of a growth-mindset takes time and practice. I feel grateful for my mom who could have called the school and complained about where I was placed. She could have told me that the test was unfair, or belittled the college-prep courses to make me feel better. She didn’t do any of these things. Instead, she let me digest this disappointment.
I’m sure it was hard for her to watch, just as it would be for her to witness all the disappointments that were in store for me (and there were many). However with time, I was able to embrace my Plan B, which it turns out, is often a much better plan after all.
Chelsea Brislin works in the Gaines Center for Humanities at the University of Kentucky and is an affiliate faculty in the Appalachian Studies Center. She earned her MA from New York University in 2013 and her PhD from the English department at UK in 2017.