“All I Want is to Accomplish My Dreams… Yet I’m Constantly Facing Huge Roadblocks.”

Posted by on Jan 24, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities, Interpersonal Communication | 15 comments

Will you let goats stand between you and your dream? I say no! Pet each goat as you maneuver through them, exercise patience, or study how to collectively move goats… there are ways to get to the other side. (Yes, search royalty-free sites for “roadblocks,” and this is what you get. But thanks to benvdmeer for the image).

(“They drive into the parking lot with a dream. We are all a part of that dream.”

These words were spoken at 2000 Darton College Opening Week by my former college president Dr. Peter Sireno. I was a wide-eyed new prof, believing, just like my students, that college is a ticket to dreams coming true. I still perceive college as a gateway to more confidence and competence. But I know now that on the way to a student’s dream, someone or something within a college or class can suddenly tear everything down. Maybe even the student, themselves. A few students have written to me about threatened dreams. I’m going to spend a few posts on the subject. Letting a dream die within the college’s walls–without retooling it or replacing it–is simply not acceptable to me.)

*****

Ellen,

I am 51 years old. Graduating from college is the only hope I have left for my life.

I received 2 D’s out of five courses this semester. I tried new ways of learning the material, went to office hours, I frequently emailed and spoke to the instructor when I was having a tough time. We had a chance to “redo” any assignments that weren’t 100%, which I took advantage of.

My advisor said I’m not the caliber of student who would ever get accepted into the program I’m trying for. That broke my heart and smashed my dreams. So, I chose a related major instead.

I’m still struggling with the math associated with my program. I never received a D, let alone an F, before I took college algebra. I failed the course twice, before I finally passed. I didn’t get any more D’s or F’s until the semester I enrolled in calculus (a course I have to pass in order to get my degree). Spending so much time in office hours, taking the class twice each day (with another instructor as well as my own), with tutors, and in guided study hall, I did poorly on most of my other classes. I got put on academic probation. I took calculus again, and failed again. Some situations did not enhance my learning, but other people did well, so what’s wrong with me?

I’m feeling dumb, worthless… an epic failure at life. Getting this degree means everything. It’s my chance to do something good in this world, and feel like I’m worthwhile. I keep getting back up on my feet when I get knocked down, but to be honest, some days I want to drive my car off a cliff. A person can only take so much. I’ve seen a psychiatrist, but I feel like I need a mentor, someone on campus who started school late in life like me and made it through. I am intelligent and I can be an inspiration to others. Many people have told me that I am an inspiration to them for attempting this so late in my life. Do you know how it feels to hear that, and then fail?

Everyone’s advice is it to quit or to knock my life dreams down another notch because maybe I’m just not smart enough. All I want is to accomplish my dreams. They aren’t unreasonable dreams, yet I feel like I’m constantly facing huge road blocks and my own doubts that I’m not smart enough to do this. If that is correct, then all hope, for me, is gone.

Student

*****

To my treasured audience… Students of all ages may very well feel the same as this student. What wisdom can you add? (Pardon the long length of this post between the question and response!).

Dear Student,

I want to try to give you the best advice that I can because I’m very sensitive to the way you are feeling right now.

First of all, I refuse to believe that your dreams are completely dashed based on one adviser’s assessment. I realize that advisers are meant to give reality checks if a student can’t cut it in a certain program–and maybe the adviser was doing that. The adviser said you couldn’t get into the program of your choosing, but your fallback major still requires those same math courses (Note: Major is purposely confidential, as usual). So if the same courses are required for both programs, what is the adviser’s rationale that you aren’t cut out for the field you really want? I believe a second or third opinion is in order.

First, talk to a different adviser in the same program at another school. Say, “I am seeking to get into X program. Here is my current GPA and background. I am a non-traditional student returning to school for my second career. I have been struggling in my math classes, but am working hard to pass them. What GPA is required to get into this program? What is the current acceptance rate into your program? What would make me a competitive candidate?” 

You can be very frank and say, “With the struggles I’ve been having in math, my current adviser recently told me that I will not have success getting into a program. I’ve contemplated a related major. I’m sure you realize that this is a difficult decision, particularly for a returning student. I want to be realistic, but I want to have accurate information. How would you advise a prospective applicant, like myself?”

The adviser may recommend that you a) retake the other courses that appear to be the casualty of the math situation. This depends on how your overall GPA is looking; or b) find some other type of experience to augment your academics, which I’ll discuss in a second. (Getting the math under control is without question, but you know that).

In tandem, I’d like you to talk to people in the actual field: A couple of veterans who will relate to you, age-wise, and a couple of recent grads new in that field. Tell them what the adviser said and what’s happening academically. Ask about potential job shadowing, interning, or assisting possibilities later on, which could give you an admission edge.

If things work out and you can continue with the “dream” major, let’s talk about making your academic situation more palatable:

Are you attending a community college or a university? If the latter, consider retaking the math classes at a CC. The dynamic can be very different. I empathize with those math challenges. I only needed one course in college algebra at the undergrad level and a course in statistics at the grad level. The only way I made it through algebra was to hire a high school student for tutoring twice a week (I was a non-traditional student, too). I had terrible anxiety about math getting in the way of my future and I only needed one course!

Can you alter your schedule and the way you are taking your classes? Can you take fewer or a different menu of courses in the terms that you are taking math? Slowing down your studies may be worth it so you can focus all your energy on the most vexing subject.

Let’s talk about if you have to abandon the original dream. It sounds like you already selected the fallback major related to the original one. Again, what concerned me was that the course requirements didn’t seem so different. I would ask the adviser and also your industry professionals, “If I cannot ever get accepted into a program for this field and I am forced to choose another major, what would be the closest job type or related area that you recommend I look into?” Make sure the fallback major is really the right one, and that there is yet another career angle you haven’t considered.

Now let’s look at the emotional element: Bravo for utilizing every academic resource available to you. You mentioned psychiatric help. More team members to consider: Counseling within the college and with documentation from your psychiatrist, Access/Disability Services for anxiety/depression (totally expected with what you are going through!), who could have even more assistance for your studies. You deserve every support mechanism!

Regarding finding a mentor, you’ve made nice in-roads with profs because you’ve been so proactive. You can start there or work with the departments I mentioned above. Many profs and campus personnel have had challenges during their own education. I was a first-gen student and I had a very rough road at times. If you were on my campus, I’d love to provide support/encouragement. There are more of me out there and we’re not hard to find.

Your age is hardly an issue for college, particularly in our economy. There are folks in their 50s who start terminal degrees, too. Are you going to school during the day? If so, maybe you aren’t seeing all the diversity of ages at your college, but they are there.

Finally, another perspective: Despite appearances, only faculty know how students are doing behind the scenes. There are students who, to look at them in class, seem like total A-students. Look at a prof’s gradebook and you may be very surprised. Comparison in college (in life!) can make you feel so low, so keep focus on you as much as you can.

This dream of yours does not have to die, but I think your support team needs to be widened to continue it or rework it.

You are inspiring! Do you know how many students would not have finished the classes to get the ‘D’s’ or tried as hard as you did? I’m not being facetious–I’m being honest. Once you figure out your path, you may not have to ace these math classes, but just do better than you did–and you will.

It sounds like your major goal is to graduate from college (and be employable, of course), and with the right guidance and “interviewing” that I’m recommending, you are going to get there. Remember, outside of the classroom, this is also part of your learning. Sometimes, students get so caught up in the “weeds” of their assignments and grades… they forget to find out what they need to know for the bigger picture. You will be ahead of the game to strategize your moves.

I will be thinking positive thoughts that your next term is far, far smoother.
Ellen

15 Comments

  1. Ellen, I believe your advice is good. A few things I would also like to tell this student:
    1) I’m troubled by the second sentence – “Graduating from college is the only hope I have left for my life.” College is a tool, and a good one at that. But college alone will not make you succeed in life – or fail for that matter. True, for some careers a college degree is a requirement for licensing, but thinking of college as the only path to a good life is not productive. It is also not true.

    2) Teaching styles vary greatly and what works with one student doesn’t always work with another. This is especially true in algebra and calculus. I am impressed that you tried sitting in the class with a different instructor as well and that would be one of my first suggestions. But since that did not work, I would like to suggest finding a local high school teacher that might give you some extra tutoring. A high school teacher might have some strategies to make the subject clearer and will be more used to explaining things in simpler terms. On a college campus you will encounter some great professors, but you will also encounter people who are highly skilled in their subject but have never really learned how to teach and haven’t been required to learn. Because the subject comes so naturally to them, they have no idea how to break it down and explain it in a simpler way. Finding someone else to tutor you or explain the subject might make a big difference.

    3) What is the agenda of the advisor who gave you that information? Are they trying to “weed out” students in a certain area? That agenda would make a big difference in how much weight I would give to the adviser’s opinion.

    4) I went back for a second degree in a different field myself. I can tell you that there were days when I was so discouraged and just plain tired that I didn’t think I could continue. When I talked to others in my classes, I discovered that was how most of us felt from time to time. Going back to school later in life is not easy. No matter what you ultimately do, I think you will be able to use this experience to your advantage and it will help you in the future.

    • Melanie,
      Thank you! You definitely added to my advice in a meaningful way. I know for students who are finding employment hard to secure, going back to school does seem like a lifeline. Then, when that lifeline feels like it, too, won’t work out, everything feels gone. I know what you are saying, though–college is not a person’s whole existence, even when it feels that way at the time.

      I loved the idea about trying to find a high school teacher. I hadn’t thought about that.

      And, yes, I definitely questioned the adviser. That was why I wanted a second opinion, as well.

      I really appreciated you adding to this post. It will mean a lot to this student and the hundreds of other students out there who I am sure feel the same way.

      Ellen

      • Thanks Ellen. Just a day before you posted this I read a comment from a discouraged college student who is a friend of mine on Facebook. I hope the student who wrote to you will realize that sharing this situation is bound to help a lot of other people. I know you are right when you say that there are hundreds of other students that feel the same way.

  2. Dear Ellen:

    Thank you for posting this; I just shared with my Facebook friends. Let’s all raise a glass to this ambitious woman and all the other late-bloomers we know!

    • Hi, Douglas,

      Yes! I think that it takes so much bravery and dedication to return to school and re-career, not to mention to continue to tackle those math classes when the information is not coming naturally.

      I raise a glass to you for sharing!
      Ellen

  3. Hi Ellen

    I like the advice you gave about support.
    I think it’s one of the most underrated ‘things’ (I can’t think of a better word at the moment as my brain is melting from the searing heat – hehe) in our society.
    My only comment is you didn’t talk enough about support :)
    Good post
    Ciao

    • Hi, Daniel,

      Definitely… the support piece is underrated. I applaud this student for knowing that it was time to get help. You are so right in that I could have and should have focused more on that part, but my post was getting so long. I worried about losing everyone by that point, so I tried to focus on just who to go to. But thank you for continuing the theme!
      Ellen

  4. I think you did a great job addressing this student’s concerns. You even addressed what was to me a glaring issue she had somehow missed, that of why change majors when she still is taking the same basic course work.

    It is tough to be a non-traditional student, but there are many avenues of support available. You did a great job of pointing many of those out.

    And, I am sure that this student felt “heard” and sometimes that is the biggest support needed.

    • Gina,

      Thank you! That was what really struck me: If the course work is the same, then why was the student so “wrong” for the original major? That did not make sense to me.

      I hope that something positive came out of this situation. I really did not feel that the doors were all closed.

      I appreciate you writing!

      Ellen

  5. With the high cost of education and books and associated fees, why spend the money only to have someone spit in your face, or tell you it you can’t do it or have it or not hire you after all. You needs that? If people would stop going to college and boycott it, then maybe things would change.

    • Hi, Dotty,

      I totally get what you’re saying–why waste the money if there is no chance for this student to succeed? However, before we know if that chance is gone, why not talk to people who would know, like other program advisers and those in the industry.

      Regarding boycotting college, sure, there are many who feel that way, but the truth remains that a college degree is still a pretty strong weeding out factor for jobs at the moment. People who have a degree still command higher salaries. Until there is a cultural and societal shift, and a big one at that, going to college is still going to remain important to a number of people. It shows completion, hard work, dedication, and a commitment to a breadth of knowledge. Of course, I’m going to say that, though :-) .

      Thank you for your comment!
      Ellen

  6. Ellen,

    I would applaud anyone deciding to further their life by going to college at “any” age. Society has given the perception that college is a means to an end but in reality it is only one way we can find success. We can find success in any field of our choosing if we look for other avenues and not just the traditional ones. I would give examples of various people, e.g., Dan Aykroyd, Jim Newton and Mark Zuckerberg. All of these people dropped out of college and still found success in life.

    Age is but a number (nothing more and nothing less). I had my first and only child when I was 39. Many of my friends are to the point in their life that their children are grown or close to. I am just beginning the journey of parenthood and NO ONE will ever tell me I can not do it, I should not do it or I am to old to be a parent (I am 43 now and the proud parent of a 4 year-old little boy). Never allow others to have power over you by telling you that you can not do something. Once we accept their beliefs all is lost and we have no hope. We have to be able to stand up to the system and for ourselves and say, “I am totally capable of succeeding in anything I choose to do.”

    If math is the major issue I would suggest continuing with the tutoring. There are even many great “online” tutoring programs that are willing to help anyone that needs it. Another suggestion is to seek help at the college libraries or local libraries. Many libraries have a list of available tutors and some college libraries even a list of available study groups (I know they do I used it).

    If they do decide to seek assistance from disability services they can offer FREE tutoring. They can also help change the ways tests are taken (based on recommendations from professionals) I have tremors and it slows me down taking written tests. I used disability services and “any” test I took was taken on the computer. I was never required to take a written test. It also gave me the opportunity to have a very “quiet” setting for taking tests (it was helpful to me).

    You gave excellent advice and I hope they take the advice to heart and continue on their journey.

    Aaron Brinker

    • Aaron,

      I really appreciated your thoughtful reply. There is an aspect of what you are saying that I totally resonate with, particularly since I had a well-paying career before I went to college. It was when I wanted out of that career when lack of a college degree became an issue for me. I also had children after already having an education, so I can totally relate to what you are saying about having kids a little later :-) . (I’m 43 and our second child is 4–fun times!).

      I had not considered giving the advice about online tutoring programs as a supplement. I love that idea!

      Thank you so much for adding your thoughts. I hope you will continue to add them. My next blog post is going to be another non-traditional student, believe it or not… different situation.
      Ellen

  7. Thank you for helping me! It was really important!

    • You are welcome :-) .
      Ellen

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