I can remember the moment vividly. I was in a meeting several years ago that was examining campus retention trends. An administrator was sharing data that showed that number of the students who had left the university. While some had transferred to other institutions, other students had quit pursuing a degree entirely. The data were pretty eye opening and sparked a great deal of discussion.
One of my colleagues was aghast. “How could so many students just simply quit?” he asked. We discussed the challenges that some of our students face. Some are working multiple jobs. Others are single parents. Maybe a few are caring for loved ones or experiencing financial difficulties. As a public university, our students often need to navigate a whole host of challenges in order to succeed.
My colleague still couldn’t believe it. “Why would they just quit?” he asked. Before we go too far down this story, my colleague grew up in Africa and, from what he’s shared in this meeting and in other discussions I’ve had with him, it’s clear he understands challenges intimately and personally. Yet, he couldn’t comprehend why any student would give up. And that’s when he said something that created a fair amount of cognitive dissonance for me.
“In my culture,” he explained, “everyone is successful in the end.”
I have to admit. At first, I didn’t understand what he was saying. So, I pushed back a little. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“We don’t have the luxury of failure. Only success. Everyone is successful in the end.”
Still, I struggled with his message. “I don’t get it. Everyone is successful? How can that be? Everyone is successful?” I said, stressing the word “everyone.”
My colleague smiled. “Everyone is successful in the end,” he reiterated. “If someone isn’t successful, it’s just not the end.”
That’s when the light went off. It wasn’t a cultural mantra about success or some message about the exceptional native abilities of his country mates. It was a mantra about work ethic and effort and persistence. The motto communicated that things are always going to be tough and challenges will always present themselves. But don’t give up. Keep working and you’ll be successful. You only stop when you’ve achieved success.
What I like about this story is the clash of cultures represented by my colleague and me. While I believe in the power of the growth mindset and grit, my colleague has lived it and embraces it as a cultural standard. And maybe that’s what should be happening more. While we communicate the need for persistence and perseverance in our classrooms, large portions of society still celebrate the savants, natural athletes and child geniuses. We need a cultural shift, one that communicates that success isn’t a gift for a few but a struggle achievable by all.