January 14, 2013

A Cautionary Tale

Dear Rutgers First Year Student,
This is a tender time of year. A new semester looms, but you may be feeling the weight of unfinished business from your first semester at Rutgers. If you are still recuperating from the fall, perhaps not as eager to return to campus as your friends, let me tell you a story about a student just like you.

     It feels like yesterday. I sat at the computer and pulled up my login; it loaded much too quickly and I paused, feeling the weight of one parent standing behind each shoulder. I could feel my mother's anxiety and my father's seething anger just as they could taste my fear. Just minutes earlier my father had called the Dean's Office to complain that my grades weren't in. I didn't have to hear the conversation; my father's eyes and the pit in my stomach said it all.
     This was just my most recent lie. It began with easy lies: failing midterms and calling them "fine," declaring tutoring sessions that I never attended "useless." This was worse, so much worse, because the lies had built up to embarrassment and shame. Along with two major courses, I had failed every attempt to fix it myself, to cover it up, to ignore the situation entirely.
     I didn’t look at the screen; I didn’t have to since I had seen the grades a week earlier. My mother stared in disbelief; dad looked for just long enough to understand the depth of the hole I dug.
     The darkness of this moment erased every bright memory of winter break. The excitement of Christmas morning and the hugs as the Times Square ball dropped were buried under the weight of all of the lies about my pretended success. My mother asked when I first knew. I talked about the first Biology exam, and every possible wakeup call thereafter that I ignored with false confidence: my hope that my intellect would be enough to catch me up in PreCalculus, and the utter despair and emotional shutting down when I realized that time and lies had run out.

I had a lot of work to do. I had to ask and truly answer difficult questions, like, beyond getting a job, why was I in college? What did I want to achieve? I had to rebuild my GPA to learn to ask for help, and to actually use the resources available at Rutgers. I learned that it’s one thing to sign up, but it’s quite another to show up.

And it was doubly hard to rebuild my relationship with my parents. College is a time when parents begin to accept that their child is an adult, and I dishonored our agreement by not behaving like one. I couldn’t fix any of it with words or intentions; even the most carefully crafted assurances were heard with skepticism. My bad decisions broke trust and it would take good decisions – lots of them - to reestablish the bond with my parents and rebuild me into a stronger scholar, daughter and woman. 

Failure is not a destination; it is a universal human experience that helps to guide us toward a better path if we’re willing to trust the lesson. No one mistake, success, or moment in time (even a semester) is a summary of all that we are. The choices that we make, both because of and in spite of our failures, lead us to growth. 

If you, like me, started your college career on a rocky foundation, know that these things are true:
  • There is life after failure. Now may feel bleak, but you can begin making decisions that clear the way for success. It won’t happen overnight, but you can one day look back and say, "I learned a lot from that and I’ve grown tremendously"!  
  • Family is Family. Your family and support system are not just there to celebrate your success; they are also there to support you and hold you accountable to be your best self when you stray. Consider the power of honesty in your own personal growth. Make a new commitment to be honest with your support system and yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions about why you are in college and your long-term goals. Consider using campus resources to help you build healthy communication and develop the tools to grow through periods of difficulty. Counselors at CAPS can help you create a personal plan for growth and wellness.
  • You have options and opportunities. Don't ignore conversations about Academic Coaching, counseling, withdrawing from courses, or taking a leave of absence for a semester because they sound scary or different. Let's face it: if you want different output, you need different input! Listen with an open mind to why the person you're speaking with is recommending a specific resource or course of action.
  • You're fired! Well, not exactly. But let's call it what it is: you need help charting your path and running your own race. Academic advisers are here to be your GPS in that endeavor. Call to make an academic advising appointment NOW.
  • Baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you may not be able to fix all that is broken immediately. It will take patience, focus, and honesty, but you’re capable of more than you can even imagine.
I know. I was there once myself. And it made all the difference.

Yours in success and failure, 
Dean Stanzione