Thoughts on College & The Bumpy Road of Success

If I could go back in time and drill one thing into the head of my 20-year old self, it would be knowing that success is not a linear path. There is an overarching societal expectation that you’ll graduate high school at 18, college at 22, and then either further your education directly thereafter or dive right into a well-paying full-time job. With this expectation as your guideline, anything which happens to deviate or deter you off of this path can seem like your one-way ticket to a life sentence of menial labor and destitution. For some people, life doesn’t throw them many curveballs. They rarely, if ever, deviate from the linear path of success. At this point in my life, I have not been one of the lucky few who never experience such tribulation.

In grade school, I made honor roll every semester. In middle school, I got my first C. In high school, I got my first D and failed my first class (which was accompanied by summer school). For the most part, I was able to float on by in my academic career with little difficulty. My first year of college I spent at Mount Wachusett Community college, and I excelled in all of my classes. Because of this, I thought that surely the rest of college would be the same. Boy, was I wrong. During my third semester (Which was the one and only semester I spent at Framingham State University), I was failing my first class of my college career. Which class, you ask? It was none other than general chemistry 1, the bigger and scarier older brother of the chemistry class I passed by 1 point in high school. By the skin of my teeth, I was able to withdraw from the class, understanding that I would have to meet this seemingly daunting task at a later date. The next semester, I took the course at Greenfield Community College and got an 80 as my final grade. To say that I was happy was an understatement, but I knew that my journey was far from over. After my semester at GCC was completed, I transferred to UMass Amherst. By no means necessary was I prepared for what came next.

During my first semester at UMass, I had to face the bigger, scarier brother of the big brother of chemistry classes: general chemistry 2, or Chem 112 as it’s known here. Chem 112 was the first class I had ever taken in a large lecture hall, as there were at least 250 students in the dimly lit auditorium. Knowing that my history with the subject of chemistry had been unsavory, I knew I had to apply myself wholly in order to excel in, or for that matter, pass this class. During the first few weeks of class, the thought of passing seemed reasonable and attainable. However, as time passed on and the subject matter became more and more dense, I fell behind. In a moment of deja vu, I saw myself drowning under the rising tide of the academic expectations laid out for me, just as I had experienced in general chemistry 1. As the semester progressed, I made my best attempt to pay attention and complete the class to the best of my ability. As it would turn out, sometimes your best simply isn’t good enough and I ended up failing Chem 112. This was now twice that the same class had bested me. They say if at first you don’t succeed, try again. But what if you try again and fail again? The road ahead started to seem more arduous with every passing day, but I hadn’t quite given up completely.

ISB
The Integrated Sciences Building, home of Chem 112. This is where my dreams went to die.

When you are formally matriculated into UMass (and I’m assuming pretty much any other university), the GPA you receive is wiped away and you start with a clean slate. This may sound like a good thing, but not necessarily for me. My pre-UMass GPA hovered around a 3.3 or higher, but since I hadn’t taken many classes and had failed chem 112, my GPA sharply declined. I thought I was doing halfway decent until I received the email from the registrar’s office at the end of the semester. It notified me that I was placed on academic probation since my GPA was below 2.0. If left unrectified, this could be reason for removal from the university. To say that this was a wake-up call is an understatement on the grandest of scales. This essentially meant that if I didn’t get my act together the next semester that I would be kicked out of the university. Because of this, I decided to meet with the dean of students and discuss my academic performance and what I should do to improve it.

Knowing that something had to be fixed, and based off of my discussions with the dean of students, I changed my environment. After a semester of commuting 40 minutes each way to and from school, I figured that living in an apartment near campus would be the panacea to my academic woes. I was wrong. When you live on your own, it turns out that you have to do dishes, take out the trash, do your own laundry, worry about rent and have a ton of adult responsibilities. People usually forewarn you about these responsibilities like some sort of grown-up doomsayers, but you never really listen until you learn the hard way. Needless to say, I traded the time I spent commuting with the time that I spent on my newfound adult responsibilities which came with my apartment.

That semester proved to be perhaps the most difficult of them all. Not only did A&P 1 best me yet again, but organic chemistry bested me as well. In trying to balance the responsibilities of adult life, I didn’t allot enough time to prioritize my studies. Something needed to be done, but I still didn’t know what exactly had to be. At the end of the semester, I got an email from the registrar. Dear Gregory, it wrote. You have been placed on academic suspension and will not be allowed to return for the upcoming fall semester. You can appeal this if you want to within the next 2 weeks by writing a letter to the registrar but readmittance to the university is at the sole discretion of the registrar.

Woah.

Failure has always been my biggest fear in life, and here, right in front of me, was my biggest fear realized. This was deja vu back to my high school summer school, but this time on a much grander scale. I was so shocked that I hardly knew what to do. The email stated that I could write to the registrar to appeal my suspension status, so that is exactly what I did. The entire summer was consumed with meeting administrators in offices, making phone calls, sending emails, and most importantly, writing appeal letters. Never in my life have I had to jump through so many hoops and expend so much energy just to reach the same level as my peers. Because failure is my greatest fear and I didn’t (and still kind of don’t) want people to view me as such, or see my shortcomings, I went to great lengths to hide the fact that I was going through this process.

I felt like SpongeBob running after the bus of success.

Eventually after all of the phone calls, meetings and appeal letters, I was allowed back into the university for the fall semester. At one point, I was readmitted but my financial aid was not, and thanks to the dean of students, this was able to be rectified. I poured my heart out and set my eyes on the goals I knew I was capable of.  I was now out of rock bottom, but graduation, and success for that matter, still seemed like far off goals. Because I knew at this point that neither commuting nor living an apartment served my academic goals, I knew that living in a dorm was a necessity. Up until this point, I had been avoiding the dorms because of monetary reasons and the stigma of UMass as a perpetual party school. Regardless of what my situation in life was, I knew that I had to excel academically this semester. I had gone through too many anxiety attacks and jumped through far too many hoops to fail now.

My first semester living on campus started off smoother than my previous three at UMass. It was now the spring of 2017 and I was connected to any resource that I could possibly need to foster my academic success. However,  since UMass is such a large campus, all of these things take time to walk to. For instance, if you want to get tutoring in the library, that’s a 15 minute walk from your dorm. If you get to the library and you realize that you left something in your dorm, you have to walk 15 minutes back, spend 5 minutes looking for it, and then another 15 walking back. This one simple mistake can cost you 35 minutes, and needless to say, these can certainly add up. Basically this means that you better like doing a lot of walking and you best be great at managing your time. As an aside, I’ve come to learn that having a bicycle on campus is an absolute necessity and would recommend any new student living on the UMass campus to bring a bicycle with them.

My classes semeed to be going fairly well at this point, although the same usual culprits were giving me issues, A&P and chemistry. The same old song and dance happened to me yet again and existing on an academic treadmill of failing classes is disenchanting to say the absolute least. Somehow I was able to squeak out a D in Chem 112, which took me three tries mind you. I was also able to squeak out a D+ in A&P 2. My GPA stayed above 2.0, but not by much. I was still in the game, if only by the skin of my teeth.

The following semester in the spring, I took A&P 2 as well as organic chemistry for a second time. If you’ve been following this story at all, you probably know how this is going to go. I had to have emergency last-second withdrawals from these courses in order to save my GPA and for that matter, my college career. Because this put me behind yet again, I had to compensate by taking a semester’s worth of classes over the summer. When I went back to Mount Wachusett Community College to take both A&P 1+2 concurrently, I excelled in both of them. The environment was such that it fostered my success, something which I had not been used to for a while. I thought for the longest time that I was mentally incapable of learning such topics, and excelling in these classes gave me validation that I was able to learn. In all honesty, I cried when I got my grades back from these classes.

I’m now in the fall semester of my senior year of college, and my journey is far from over, but I feel like I’ve grown so much over the past year. It hasn’t gone as planned, but life often doesn’t go as planned. I’ve come to learn that failing these classes has had everything yet nothing to do with me. Through the process of failing, I’ve learned that I learn best in small classroom settings with individualized attention (something UMass is not good at providing). I’ve also learned that i’m not naturally inclined towards certain STEM classes, and that doesn’t necessarily make me stupid; It means that I have to put in more effort than others to get good grades. Lastly, one of the most important life lessons i’ve learned that adaptation to change is an absolute necessity UMass is also such a large school that it becomes so easy to get lost and feel like you don’t belong. When you feel like a lone ranger, you don’t have a good time. When you’re feeling alone and kind of sad because you’re alone, your grades suffer. The environment which you put yourself in affects who you are to a large degree both in your personal and vocational/educational life, so choose your surroundings carefully.

I’ve come to realize that failing is the best way to learn, and that by learning how to fail, you can learn how to succeed. Not only has it taught me how to deal with adversity, but it has made me more empathetic towards others enduring trials of their own. F.D.R. once said “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”, and as cliche as this statement is, I believe it rings true and has yet to lose its poignancy. Since you are the captain of your ship, don’t compare your journey with the experiences of others. Your path to success might look different than someone elses, or perhaps take longer than originally expected, but that doesn’t mean that you are doomed for a lifetime of failure and woes. If it takes you 20 years to complete college, you’ve still completed college, which is an accomplishment in its own right. You shouldn’t view things that happen in life which impede your journey of success as brick walls which prevent you from reaching your goals, but as hurdles and challenges that must be overcome in order to reach the next level.

Before I wrap this up, I want to share a few more insights about college, and life, for that matter. Don’t hit your head against a brick wall if you find you’re having difficulty. Effort without direction is a ship with no rudder. you’re likely going to go in circles or end up crashing on the shore. Seeking help is often the best way to make your situation better. Being too prideful to accept help prevents so many people from growing in their personal, vocational and academic lives, so learning to get over that initial roadblock is huge. Finally, you should know that you are more than a collection of numbers. Your GPA does not indicate your ability or willingness to learn, and says nothing about who you are as a person. You can choose to let it define you and haunt you like a ghost or you can take it in stride that you’re experiencing life firsthand and doing the best that you can do. Just as your weight is just numbers on a screen, so too is your GPA.

If you’re reading this and you’re struggling academically, or and other area of your life for that matter find someone you can talk to about your struggles who you trust. Try to implement strategies for your success and take it one step at a time. Nobody’s journey is the same, and for what it’s worth, I believe in you.

 

Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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