Overcoming Failure

“Mom, Calculus is a problem for me. I could fail.” FAIL? The word made me wince. But there it was, in all of its one-syllable glory, transmitted via cell phone through my college freshman’s trembling voice.

Like many of our children who pursue an academic experience at Purdue University, Juliette cruised through high school with straight As while simultaneously building a resume reflecting outstanding academic and extra-curricular leadership. So how did we come to this?

“I don’t know, Mom. I study all the time. I just don’t understand what’s wrong.” I’m ashamed to say that for a sliver of a second, I fell into protective mommy territory. How easy it would be, I thought, to make phone calls, speak in high decibels and demand fairness. I’d pound a table for effect, too!

Failure: An Important Part of Learning and Success

Dr. Zenephia Evans, Director, Purdue University Science Diversity Office recently took time to share her views on failure. “When you fall on your face, you will learn or bear many scars. The best choice is to rise, dust yourself off, learn the lesson and move forward with knowledge that will lead to success!”

She speaks from experience. Some years ago, Dr. Evans enrolled at Purdue as a PhD student in Biological Sciences and had to pass two entry exams to get into the program.  “As the only African-American student in the incoming class, I did not feel fully accepted and spent a lot of time studying in isolation.” On top of this, she experienced the passing of her beloved uncle on the day of her first exam and a major flood in her apartment during the second. “Needless to say,” Dr. Evans recalls, “I passed only one of the two exams.” She was so distraught she considered ending her pursuit of a PhD.

Fortunately for Dr. Evans, help came in the form of accepting her situation and reframing it for success. “Family and friends, professors from my undergraduate institution and my faith family rallied around me and encouraged me to stay the course and finish what I started,” she said. “Initially, I had to come to terms with my first academic failure and it was difficult, but by hanging on I knew I’d be the first person in my family to earn a PhD!”

Before long, Dr. Evans spoke with professors to determine how to increase her knowledge base. Next, she conquered isolation by finding a study group. She even asked her primary professor to hold her accountable on a monthly basis for presenting what she had learned. The outcome? Well, we’re calling her DOCTOR Evans, aren’t we?

Practical Ways to Coach Your Student through Failure

The Purdue University Mental Wellness Task Force suggests the following ways to help students understand, and overcome, failure:

  • Accept the situation: Assist your student in accepting the situation in front of them and then moving from dwelling on what has happened to strategies to move forward.
  • Reframe it: Help your student look at the situation through a different pair of eyes and focus on how a seemingly negative situation could have positive aspects and a positive outcome.
  • Cope with humor: Research shows that laughter helps us cope. Help your student to actively use their sense of humor in dealing with the hassles and stressors in their lives.
  • Share a personal story: Share a story of a time when you failed and how you learned from the failure.  Students often look up to their family members, and knowing they are not alone can go a long way.
  • Talk about people who failed: Share stories about successful people who overcame failure. For example: Steve Jobs, who was initially fired from Apple; Steven Spielberg, who was rejected by two film schools; or J.K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was rejected by a dozen publishers before someone took her work seriously. This may bring to light just how helpful failure can be in the big picture.

Incredible Students!

Like Dr. Evans, Juliette accepted her situation but wasn’t defeated by it. She pursued a study group and learned new ways of retaining information. She went to tutorials and, once or twice when she was exceptionally down, pursued counseling. A year later, Juliette is doing so well she’s chosen to pursue a Mathematics Minor to accompany her Chemical Engineering degree.

You know, our students wouldn’t be at Purdue University if they weren’t kind of incredible—intelligent, driven and courageous enough to pursue their dreams at one of the finest academic institutions in the world. Let’s trust them by offering the kind of support that allows them to independently achieve those dreams, including when they fail!

By MaryJane Mudd, Parent & Family Advisory Board

Parent of Juliette Mudd, Honors Chem Engineering: Sophomore

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