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.