Last night I stumbled across the article “On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus” thanks to one of my colleagues sharing it on Facebook. It resonated with me, but I couldn’t properly process my feelings towards it until I took a night to reflect on it.
“There is this kind of expectation on students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level: academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, in our friendships,” said Emily Hoeven, a recent graduate who helped start the project in her junior year. “And also sleep eight hours a night, look great, work out and post about it all on social media. We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”
The quote from the above article sums up our expectations for students in a concise package. Universities and colleges paint a beautiful picture that showcases their students succeeding in each aspect of college life. Through marketing and social media these schools push success because that is the “product” they want to sell you. As much as higher education is a non-profit selling point the entire industry is still a business. These schools still want to succeed and to do so they need to sell the successful college student.
It plays right into our culture where we only talk about our achievements and not our failures. Whether this has always been culturally driven, or the fact that it is emphasized by putting our best foot forward on social media, it is real. We bury our failures and mistakes behind Instagram photos of the most recent award we won, by sharing Buzzfeed articles like “21 Sure Signs You’re a College Student” to make sure we aren’t alone, using Snapchat to showcase a health social life, etc. We sweep them under the rug and forget that we are all human. We look at others and see the success they are showcasing, not unlike the message our schools push, and immediately think they must not be going through the same struggles.
Except we forget that this portrayal isn’t healthy. A simple glance at a 2015 study from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) will show us just that:
30% of college students reported that stress had negatively affected their academic performance.
85% of college students reported they had felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point within the past year.
41.6% stated anxiety as the top presenting concern among college students
24.5% of college students reported they were taking psychotropic medication.
Most universities approach the issue, as well as multiple issues, from a reactive standpoint. They offer mental health resources and counseling offices once you are already at a point where you feel like you need them. Most of these services are still, sadly, stigmatized in our society today because it once again reminds us of failure. The thought of having anxiety or depression doesn’t fit into the pretty picture we are trying to sell each other of a happy and normal life.
During my time in higher education I truly believe I have worked in two areas that see a lot of students facing the challenge of fitting into the “healthy and successful” picture. Whether students were applying to colleges or attempting to get a job they were constantly comparing themselves to their peers. The cycle of achievement, or not achieving, follows them before, during, and after college. Whether you’re a high-achieving student, an average student, or someone that is trying to find your way back there is anxiety about success and how we perceive our chances.
What I truly loved about the article at the beginning is that it emphasizes the actual action-steps of fighting these isolated feelings of failure. As an educator, as an advisor, as a mentor, etc. remind your students of when you have failed. Humanize it. Please, humanize it. If students, or anyone, realize that others have failed but eventually succeeded they have hope that their setback won’t ruin them. As a society, especially those in higher education, it is part of our responsibility to teach life lessons and skills. Resilience, especially in the face of failure, is a big one.
Thus, in the spirit of the “Failing Well” initiative, here are two of my own failures that I think showcase how many aspects can tie into our view of one simple failure:
- The first time I got a B in College
- Yes, I realize to some that this seems completely ridiculous to be seen as a failure. However, I was always a high-achieving student. I prided myself in that fact. It was part of my identity. The first time I got a B I felt like I had failed myself.
- This idea of failure played into a lot more than a simple grade. I was in college off of pure scholarship. I got scared that if my GPA slipped I could lose it. I wouldn’t be able to afford college, I wouldn’t complete my degree, and I would end up letting my family down. It would lead to a spiral of shame in my own eyes because of the level I was holding myself to internally.
- The first time I got Rejected for a Promotion
- I was early in my career and had applied for a promotion with my employer. I thought I had a good shot and was dedicated to the job. However, I was not selected. It hurt. I felt like I had failed my employer and that I had failed myself. What if I wasn’t cut out for this industry? What if I’m on the wrong path? One I’m destined to fail? Are my friends and family going to think I’m not good enough?
The point I really want to get across with my two examples is that there are a lot of factors that play into each failure. Normally, we aren’t simply upset because we failed at one thing because that one failure doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The feeling of failure is influenced by a multitude of things and impacted by our own anxieties in our life. My feelings of failure were made stronger by my financial, social, professional, and educational fears. In the end though I graduated college Summa Cum Laude despite my first B. A year down the line I ended up getting the promotion I originally applied for and still work in higher education today.
I realized my failures didn’t break me, but helped me realize what is truly important to me. It took help from others to get past those failures though. Thus, we need to create a culture that helps each others heal when we make mistakes, not chastise them. We need to remind each other, and our students, that is is human to fail. It is human to make a mistake. It is human to be human.