Success in College – What it Really Means

by Laurie Kimbrel as an educator and parent

As educators, why do we spend so much of our time preparing our high school students for college? As parents, why do we send our students to college? Is it solely because it will prepare them for a great job some day? Is it so that they earn the most amazing grades possible so that they can get into the most competitive law or medical school? Or is there something else, something bigger and more significant?

When I picked up my own daughter after her first year at one of the most rigorous and academically demanding universities in the country, I wondered what metrics I wanted to use to measure her success. I wondered how to share with her that I care about her as a whole person, not just a scholar. Don’t get me wrong, I care about her grades, and I suppose that I’m lucky because they are excellent. But as I reflect on the reason that I sent her to the other side of the country and pay exorbitant tuition bills, it isn’t so she can spend every day in the library with a book or in a lab doing research. I want my daughter to understand that success in college and life is much bigger than classes, academics and straight A’s.

Here are the questions I really wanted to ask about her first year:

  1. Have you learned that you are in charge of your own destiny?

It’s not high school anymore. You can choose to go to class – or not. No one is going to call home or even ask you about it. It’s all up to you and the consequences of this decision are also all yours. No one will get you out of bed and no one will have your breakfast waiting for you. Have you figured out how to make it where you need to be on your own? You can also choose to join a club, participate in community service or help others. These decisions are no longer for a college application. Have you learned to participate or to help others for the pure joy of doing so? For how it feeds your soul rather than for an external reward?

Have you experienced colossal failure and bounced back?

Failure is part of life. We all experience it and we all deal with it differently. As parents we spend time trying to protect our children from failure, but as adults we are faced with big and small failures regularly. I hope my daughter chooses boldly, goes out on a limb and experiences bold and difficult failure. In fact, I hope she experiences frustration and uncertainty. It is only through experience that we learn to hold our head high, move on, and to try again. In fact, I hope she learns to continue to make bold decisions, with awareness that failure may be the outcome but that it is only through these failures that world changing breakthroughs happen.

Have you made unexpected friends?

College is a time to meet new people with backgrounds so very different from our own. I want to ask my daughter, have you given someone different from you a chance to learn who you are? Have you reached out to someone you would have never known in high school? Have you learned that diversity adds depth to friendship? Have you made sure that someone who is alone knows that you are there for them? Do you have a wide variety of friends but are you working to develop a few life-long friends who will be with you though the ups and downs of your life, career and family?

Have you discovered your passion or ruled out what is not?

Just paging through the university course catalog gives me goose bumps. There is so much variety and so much depth and I wouldn’t even know how to start to choose classes. I wonder if my daughter has taken a class that ignites her passion in something that she never even considered. I wonder if she took a class that she thought she would love and found it dull and boring. I want to tell her that success is finding what you love and pursuing it. I want her to know that a career pursuing what someone else thinks is a good idea is a waste of a life.

Have you learned that your family members are your roots but that we want nothing more than for you to discover you have wings?

During her first year at college, my daughter experienced what its like to be 3,000 miles away from home while she was sick, alone during spring break and hungry because the cafeteria food was almost inedible. It would have been easier if she were home. I would have fed her, taken her to her own doctor and kept her company. In fact, I want her to know that she can always get those things at home but I’m so proud that now she knows how to work though it on her own as well. I want her to know that success is having a solid set of values and an understanding of who you are but that those things are only useful if you use they to grow, learn and become the person you are meant to be. I want her to learn to fly on her own, to be her own person, to make the lives of others better through her actions.


I’m sad for the parents, educators or anyone else who thinks college is only about the grades earned. I’m sad for the undue stress it causes our children and the sometimes-tragic consequences that ensue. College is about learning to be responsible, self-motivated, passionate, and caring. College should ignite a love of learning, a love of oneself, and a love of others. As a parent, I’m most proud of the healthy, happy, passionate person that I can see my daughter becoming. I’ll happily send her back across the country for three more years.





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