What Batman can teach us about college success

Kate Zoromski is one of Lawrence’s Associate Deans of Academic Success. She works with students in a variety of capacities – from transitioning to college, to facing challenges, to life after Lawrence – to ensure their college experience is a meaningful and productive one. She wrote this post for us in 2014, but it has such good, timeless stuff in it that we want to share it with you again.

(You can learn more about the Center for Academic Success and other services it provides here.)

As I write this, I am preparing to send my second (and last) child off to college. Like so many parents, I am grappling with how quickly we got to this point. I recently came across a picture of her taken on the first day of kindergarten.  She was wearing a bright pink backpack that was nearly as big as she was. Her sweet little face reflected a complex combination of excitement and nervousness.  I remember thinking at the time that I was feeling much the same way! Was she ready? Was I ready?

No doubt, we’ve both learned a lot since then.  But it occurs to me as we get closer to freshman year that we’ve managed to circle around to that same place.  We shopped yesterday for a new backpack (more size-appropriate and not pink).  When she tried it on in the store and looked in the mirror our eyes met, and I know we were both thinking the same thing.  Are we ready for this?

As the parents of college students, we worry about whether or not our kids have what they need. Have we thought of everything they could possibly need for their dorm room? Do they have all their books and school supplies? Do they know where to get their meals or wash their clothes? Do they have enough money? But we also worry about less tangible things:  Are they ready to handle the challenges that come with being a college student? What happens when they need something and we’re not there?

I can’t help but feel that – at least in this one area – I have a slight advantage. I work with college students every day of my professional life. I have watched this journey unfold for thousands of freshmen over the years (including one of my own). And I have learned to trust in their capacity for change and growth, even when they doubt it themselves. I believe my kid can do this. And I believe your kid can, too.

Of course, we all hope our child’s journey will go smoothly. But in college, as in life, they will inevitably face challenges and disappointments. Those of us who work closely with transitioning students know well that how students view the challenges they face significantly impacts their success – in and out of the classroom. And there are simple, easy ways parents can positively impact their children’s ability to handle difficult times.

The research backs me up on this. As parents, we tend to think of our role in our child’s college experience in practical terms; it’s hard not to think of it that way when you’re on your fourth trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond!  But there are also some less concrete things we can do to set our students up for success during their college years.

Help your student understand that struggle and challenge are normal parts of a college experience (and life).

As seasoned adults, we understand struggle and growth go hand in hand. It’s a natural part of life. But, in my line of work, it is not uncommon to meet students who feel strongly that struggle means they simply do not have the ability to succeed. They feel it is a sign of failure, which they perceive as something very negative. And, worse, they feel they must hide the fact they are struggling so no one else discovers what they believe is a weakness. Understanding that challenge and failure are things we all face in times of growth will help students develop the resiliency they need to be successful. If your student knows that their experience is normal, they are more likely to press on.

You may remember this Michael Jordan commercial from a few years back.  He explains in clear terms that he has encountered more than his fair share of failures, but he believes those challenges are what made him so successful.  It is so hard for students to understand sometimes, but failure and success inextricably intertwined.

Encourage “interdependence.”

We spend much of parenthood preparing our students to be independent.  We work hard to make sure they can take care of themselves once they head off on their own. But I often find that students internalize our messages about independence as “if I ask for help when I need it, it means I’m weak.” In fact, they will actively resist seeking out the very resources that could help them overcome the challenges they face. I tell students that what we mean when we stress independence is not that we feel they need to handle everything on their own. We simply mean “we don’t want you to be dependent.” These are two very different ideas!

We want our kids to learn how to solve their own problems so they will be able to take care of themselves. But utilizing resources is one of the ways we build the skills we need to succeed. We learn from others – professors, academic advisors, housing professionals, tutors, peer leaders, counselors, and student success coordinators, for example. Talking with these folks provides a solid pathway to success and in no way signals weakness.

Did you see Batman Begins?  Remember the scene where Bruce Wayne consults with Fox about getting his Batman suit? Fox provides the information and the resources Bruce needs to become the superhero we all know and love. The funny thing is that no one thinks Bruce Wayne is a failure for using the resources available to him. In fact, we all think he’s a brilliant superhero for thinking of Fox and all the technology available in his department. Why is it, then, that our students hold themselves to a higher standard?  Why do they think that asking for help is a sign of weakness?

When we emphasize independence, we run the risk of being misunderstood, which means students don’t get the support they need and deserve. If you can help your child to understand that everyone uses resources to be successful, they will begin to develop the skills they need to face and overcome the obstacles they encounter during their years at Lawrence. Encourage them to be interdependent.

I know better than to tell you not to worry about your student.  I remember asking my mom shortly after my first child was born, “When do you stop worrying about them so much?” She chuckled knowingly and simply said “You don’t.” Will I worry about my own freshman in a few weeks? Absolutely. But it helps to know that she is capable of the kind of change and growth necessary to make it a successful year. Our students are headed into one of the most impactful experiences of their lives. Together, we can help them overcome the obstacles they will face and ultimately find success.

– Kate Zoromski, Associate Dean of Academic Success

I think I just strained my neck…

…sudden 180-degree turns will sometimes have that effect.

For the past few years, we have been led to believe—whether it was in news stories or even in presidential State of the Union addresses—that higher education’s purpose was (or should be) vocational: colleges should train its students how to do something, preparing them to be Useful Citizens (in other words, “quickly deployed and employed”). Disciplines like business, science, engineering, technology—you know, practical things—were offered as the pavers on the path to prosperity.

The corollary was that the liberal arts and sciences, which don’t necessarily train you how to do a particular job, are a luxury, and, therefore, a risky investment. In some cases, government reinforced that message in alarming ways, as we saw in Florida’s recent proposal to create financial incentives to study those practical things (and, as a result, create disincentives to study the arts, humanities, and social sciences).

Which brings us to a completely different piece of news that ran in the June 18 New York Times (and the cause of that neck strain—which, for the record, may be one of the more pleasant neck strains we could have experienced). Perhaps that anti-liberal arts mindset may have been a bit short-sighted:

Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm

A new national corps of “master teachers” trained in the humanities and social sciences and increased support for research in “endangered” liberal arts subjects are among the recommendations of a major report to be delivered on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The report comes amid concern about low humanities enrollments and worries that the Obama administration’s emphasis on science education risks diminishing a huge source of the nation’s intellectual strength. Requested by a bipartisan group of legislators and scheduled to be distributed to every member of Congress, it is intended as a rallying cry against the entrenched idea that the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford.

People talk about the humanities and social sciences “as if they are a waste of time,” said Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University and a co-chairman of the commission that produced the report. “But this facile negativism forgets that many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education.”  Read more…

Bias alert: the report was published by the Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities, which may have a bit of a vested interest in the outcome of the report. You can see the list of committee members here. It’s a wild mashup of several dozen people from the arts, higher education, private enterprise, and government. (The CEO of Boeing and Yo-Yo Ma at a table together? Yes please.)

On the other hand, the study was requested in 2011 by a bipartisan group of legislators that included Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia), and Representatives Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) and David Price (D-North Carolina), who were advocating for increases in research and teaching in the humanities and sciences—and looking for reasons to support that research with government and other agencies’ investments.

Regardless of the source or the origins of the report, this news is welcome to those of us in higher education who have been arguing that it is not an either/or world, but a both/and world: we need the liberal arts just as much as we need business and science and engineering and technology. In fact, they work together quite nicely. Creativity, innovation, collaboration, drawing meaning and understanding across apparently disparate disciplines—this is the playground of the liberal arts and sciences. Some of our greatest innovators and leaders have been liberal arts and sciences majors. As the sidebar in the New York Times piece shows, the two candidates in the last presidential election had undergraduate majors in political science (Obama) and English (Romney).

Our very own dean of the conservatory, Brian Pertl (a Lawrence University English and trombone performance major who went on to manage Microsoft’s Media Acquisitions Group before rejoining his alma mater in 2008), made perhaps the best argument for this both/and world in his recent TEDx talk called “Dancing Between Disciplines.” In typical liberal arts fashion, his argument is not so much an argument as it is a performance. (Warning: mind-blowing ideas accompanied by remarkably talented musicians included.) Check it out.

A guest blog from one of our favorite people

Marty O’Connell is a force of nature… and a college search Zenmaster. As the Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Colleges That Change Lives, she has been serving up anecdotes as antidotes to the high-stakes, high-pressure, win-at-all-costs college admission game that repeats itself year after year. We have the good fortune this week of traveling with Marty O’Connell and nearly all of our fellow Colleges That Change Lives as we make our way up the East Coast this week at a series of information nights. We will do the same in August all over the country. (For locations and dates, visit CTCL.org.)

In the meantime, we’d like to share Marty’s perspective, in her own words, about how to approach the college search. It’s a perspective she recently shared with our friends in the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling, and one that we invited her to share with you. (Thanks Marty! ihrtluhc)

We trust you will find it equal part wise, calming, and invigorating. You may even find some surprises in it.

If I made a bumper sticker for how to approach the college search process it would read: College: It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination. Too often, students will race through their secondary school years, compiling tallies of courses and AP credits completed, joining activities to lengthen their resume, taking and retaking SAT and ACT tests and always keeping one eye on the prize of the college destination. These same students arrive at college only to repeat this process with a goal of admission to graduate and professional school or the perfect first job. We live in a goal-focused society where becoming a mindful, life-long learner, instead of an educational trophy hunter is not an easily achieved state of mind. If I had the magic wand for education, my wish would be that students might approach the college search, as well as their day-to-day learning, with a greater appreciation for the long view: it is not about the race to the end, but instead what you learn from each step in the journey to get there!

Too often the college search begins with a flawed approach by using ranking lists that tout the entering class statistics, rather than focusing on what happens during the four years students are enrolled. The late author Loren Pope, of Looking Beyond the Ivy League and Colleges That Change Lives, often known as the “Ralph Nader” of college admissions, said that choosing colleges based on the entering statistics of the freshmen class is like choosing a hospital based on the health of those in the ER—it’s the treatment that really matters; in the case of college, it’s what happens between the first year and graduation. Researching colleges based on student outcomes will highlight many colleges that outperform the Ivies and Name Brands but don’t have the benefit of name recognition. The research from the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium on the Undergraduate Origins of Ph.Ds finds lesser known colleges listed in the top ten in various categories of producers of future Ph.Ds, often ahead of the usual suspects.

If you had to choose a spouse or partner for life, would you like to use a publication ranking them by income, IQ scores, and reputation as reported by others who have never met the person? As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing electronics and cars; the college search requires a more thoughtful, personal and time consuming approach. It can’t be reduced to rankings with numerical values when it requires starting with who the individual student is and why they are going to college, their needs and desires, and learning styles and interests. This self inventory is the start for finding colleges that “fit” for the individual, instead of starting with the assumption that only the “Top 20” on the USNWR and other rankings lists have any value. These ranking guides sell big, but their value (or lack of it) in the college search process can certainly be diminished if students, parents and counselors go after fit, rather than name recognition. Students and their anxious, hovering parents would do well to add some lesser-known colleges to their search process, where the chance for gaining admission is greater and the outcomes the same or better than those colleges admitting a fraction of applicants.

NSSE: The National Survey of Student Engagement is a wonderful resource for gathering information about college outcomes and provides a list of the right questions to ask during the college search. Most importantly, how quickly students engage in the academic and co-curricular life of the campus will make the difference, not only in their early success as an undergraduate, but in on-time degree completion and in reaching their goals beyond college.

The current weakened state of the economy and worry over the cost of attending a four-year college has made the option of attending community college and transferring to complete the bachelor degree a very appealing one. It can be a positive experience if a student chooses it because it is a good fit for them and not just because it will save them money. Community colleges have changed dramatically since their rapid growth in the 1960s, when because of their “open admissions” policies, they were too often erroneously labeled as options only for those with no other college choice. This is a much different case today when community colleges attract top high school students with honors programs that rival those at competitive four-year colleges. If students apply the same investigative process in considering a community college as they do with four-year colleges: visiting campus, sitting in on classes, eating a meal, meeting students and professors, they are less likely to feel like they “settled” instead of chose…

Perhaps the Irish poet Yeats had a better idea for that bumper sticker with this quote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”…

[So, too, we will add, should be your college search.]

 Martha “Marty” O’Connell’s 35-year college admissions career includes posts at large and small colleges, beginning with Rutgers University in New Jersey and ending with McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. In July 2006 she began her role as Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Colleges That Change Lives, Inc., which has a mission to advance and support a student-centered college search process that looks beyond the college rankings industry.

(For the record, we think she is awesome.)

Important Dates for Incoming Lawrentians

With all the things you need to do to get ready to arrive at Lawrence, sometimes it’s easy to get a little lost. (It even happens to us from time to time—and we work here.)

That’s why we’re posting here—in addition to having sent you a handy little card for posting on your fridge, bulletin board, forehead, etc.—a list of what you’ll need to do and when you’ll need to do it:

By early June

June 18-22

June 25-June 29

  • Pre-registration for Bachelor of Arts candidates
    • Bachelor of Music & double-degree students take care of things once they arrive on campus

July 15

  • Your bill will be available online through your Voyager account

Late July

  • Welcome Week information will arrive via postal mail to your home address

August 1

August 15

  • Initial tuition payment is due

August 31

  • Move-in for international students

September 4

  • Move-in for domestic students

September 4-7

September 5

  • Family send-off

For more information to help you prepare to transition to Lawrence life, visit our web page for new students.

How some of our students spent Mother’s Day

Nancy Truesdell, our Vice President of Student Affairs (and overall awesome lady), sent the following email to the Lawrence administration today. Seems fitting and proper to post here, too. Since Nancy’s message pretty much says it all, we’ll close by going right to her note:

I thought I should pass along that I heard we had 80 students go to senior homes yesterday to provide Mother’s Day makeovers (manicures, etc.)  to the senior residents and offer little homemade gifts (particularly going to residents who had no family visit on Mother’s Day) as part of the regular outreach that the fairly new campus org Glamour Girls arranges.  Glamour Gals (featured on one of the This is Lawrence videos) goes weekly to offer companionship and spend one-on-one times to both men and women in the senior centers by doing nails and hair, etc., but I thought the Mother’s Day outreach was very special and demonstrates the heart of our students.

My office also received a call today from the daughter of a blind woman who lives at one of the senior centers who so enjoyed the “singing visit” from Sinfonia (men’s music fraternity) – the daughter gushed about how special this was very [important for] her mother and how touched she was that busy college students would take time to do this…