My freshman year of college was a year of firsts. My first time living outside of my home. My first time stepping foot inside a sorority and even truly knowing what Greek life was. My first time having a slice of Antonio’s pizza at two in the morning. My first time learning what “icing out” meant. (It’s a U of I thing.)
I also had another monumental first. I failed my first semester of college.
Looking back now, it seems so trivial in the grand scheme of things. But at the time, I remember feeling so overwhelmed and underprepared for both the rigor and freedom that university life brought on. I remember taking a midterm in late September, flunking it, and assuming I had multiple exams throughout the semester to make up for it. It was only after I reviewed the syllabus that I realized that midterm was 30% of my grade and there was not going to be another opportunity to make it up.
Arriving to campus as a journalism major, I was so confident that my future as a news anchor was what I wanted. All it took was plopping down for JOUR101 and hearing the first fifteen minutes of class to start perusing my university website for steps on how to drop a class. I remember feeling so lost on where to go next, especially considering I had four years of coursework up in the air now.
Failing my first semester of college was a massive reality check for me. It pushed me to face my inefficient study habits, my irregular sleep schedule, my misalignment with my proposed major and course of study, and to make a game plan for what I actually wanted to study and accomplish.
Today, I have not one, but two degrees from the University of Illinois. I found my passion in the Political Science department and spent my undergraduate experience interning with an Illinois state senator and government affairs office, making lifelong friends in my sorority, studying abroad in Granada, Spain, and living my best life on a Big Ten college campus. I continued to make Illinois my home, as I pursued my graduate degree in Technology Management and Information Systems in the Gies College of Business. Today, I work with Fortune 100 companies and their C-Suites to solve complex cyber security and data privacy issues.
On one hand, I’m far away from the freshman Sam failing college. On the other hand, I’ve never been closer to her. She is the reason I’m here today.
Failure didn’t deter me or make me feel like I wasn’t capable of handling a university experience. It led me to seek external resources such as tutors, create a study schedule, stay organized, and to build relationships with my professors and teaching assistants. It was a stepping stone to greatness and not the boulder that took me down.
If I were to go back and give advice to freshman Sam, here are some of the things I’d tell her to keep in mind.
Whether you prefer digital calendars or a paper planner, having somewhere to document upcoming dates, events, deadlines, and homework assignments is critical. Before you start every class, download and print out the syllabus and make sure you go through and highlight any important call outs and dates to know. This way you won’t get caught off guard when your midterm is three weeks into the class and worth a large chunk of your grade. It’s also important to stay organized and know what your graduation and major requirements are. As someone who changed her major multiple times, this was only possible because I took classes that either overlapped or counted for my overall graduation requirements. Figure out what you need to get the overall degree and then figure out what classes it’s going to take for you to enjoy yourself during the process.
MANAGE YOUR TIME
This was an area I really struggled with. Although my classes were rigorous, there was no one to stop me from staying up until five in the morning and sleeping all day. I could go out with friends and push off my responsibilities and no one was there to tell me otherwise. Learn how to manage your time and account for the fun times and the academic ones. I learned that I liked having my classes bulked in the morning because I could go and get them out of the way, take a nap when I got home, and work on homework or relax later. Making a plan and figuring out my own preferences was critical to getting this down.
College is the one time in your life where you are constantly surrounded by free resources to help you succeed. There are always professor office hours, peers that have taken the class before and can provide support, teaching assistants to answer questions, libraries to pull research from, etc. If you don’t get something, odds are there’s a resource out there to help you. Take advantage of this and don’t be shy! I showed up to so many informational meetings, office hours, free lunches with a speaker, etc. but I loved being able to use these resources.
GET TO KNOW YOUR FACULTY
Remember that exam I told you I failed in the beginning? Well, I ended up working my butt off and received an A- on the final. My TA knew how much work I had put into studying because I was constantly asking him questions and coming in for office hours, so he hand-wrote me a note on my exam that said he was proud of my improvement and to keep going. This was a major deal because it was a lecture hall kind of class with over 300+ students. I kid you not, I saved that exam with that note and still have it today. I also ended up taking every single Political Science course he was a TA for because I knew I enjoyed his teaching style and we had built a good relationship. This was only possible because I made it a point to get to know my professors and to reach out to them when I was visibly struggling.
FAILURE IS NOT THE FINAL STOP
Failing a class or a semester is not the end all be all. Routine behavior that doesn’t honor your academic responsibilities over an extended period of time is. It’s okay to not be great at every single class or to nail every single exam. There were some classes where I was just happy to pass. But study hard, try your best and move on. You can always take an easier class to bump up your GPA if need be or do a grade replacement course if it’s offered.
As an adult, you don’t remember that horrible final in ECON203 or that difficult essay for your Religion class. (I’m looking at you Intro to Buddhism 101.) You remember that you made the best of your college experience, tried hard, stayed honest with yourself, and fought for the grades and opportunities you know you deserved. I ended up graduating on the Political Science Honor society and going off to get my graduate degree from the Gies College of Business in Technology Management and Information Systems. Sometimes, I’ll sit back and think “Oh yeah, that did happen”… and then I move on with my life. Being the first in my family to enter the American academic system was not without its challenges, but I made the best with what I had. The idea of “failing forward” is the recognition that we’re all to fail at some point. We’re never going to get everything right on the first try and that’s okay. Fail in the direction of where you want to go, learn from your mistakes, and keep trying until you get it right. For me, failure was not the end of the world, but there was a lot of work that went into making sure that was the case.