Student Motivation to Succeed

Paulina Smietanka QC’14 and Jim Stellar

Paulina and I have written a number of blogs about internships, etc. You can find them by using the search window to look for her name. Now we want to write something about her transition from high school to college success in terms of a student’s motivation. This is a key topic in higher education today, having to do with the all-important retention statistic. In this blog post, we particularly explore the high-impact practice of engaging the student’s motivation, which fits well with the role of unconscious decision processes in which experiential education excels, but which is not limited to it.

Paulina came to Queens in the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) program which as the website says “is designed to reach qualified high school graduates who might not attend college otherwise.” I met her several years ago at the Presidential Achievers Awards ceremony which is for the very top end GPA achievers. So the question is how did she do it? How did she go from a student at risk for college-going to an award-winning high-achieving student in any population? The story begins with the SEEK program itself.

I began attending Queens College in the summer of 2010, however I was “registered” into something unique: the SEEK summer program. I had to take courses that would prepare me for the college experience. At first I didn’t quite understand why it was mandatory for me to come to school in the summer because my friends were not on the same boat as I. Maybe senioritis was to blame? With prom, senior trip, senior bbq, and other activities lingering on my mind, all I wanted to do was to join my friends at the beach. But when the first day came I was thrilled to see I was not alone. Shortly after I began to settle in, it all made sense: senioritis needed to end sooner than later.

The program had strict regulations: I had mandatory attendance, assignments, lectures, etc. For the most part it was an ordinary college classroom setting. The fine difference was there were no tests and no college credits. The purpose of the program was to lay a foundation for me. I was given a campus tour to avoid getting lost on the first day; I was told I didn’t have to ask to go the bathroom anymore; I was told I would be taking classes with students who were from different grade levels; I was told I would read and write a lot; I was given my requirements; I was suggested to take the first seat I see if I were to attend class late. As you can see all this information was valuable. It gave me a head start.

How did the college-level workload feel to a just-graduated high school senior?

The workload was not overwhelming but I remember that I tried really hard to prove my instructors that I was “college material”. I’ll never forget waiting for my results. Long story short, I never got them back. Nonetheless, I learned a lesson from that gesture and from a comment one of my favorite high school teachers said in class: “What’s in a grade? How would your life be different without them?” The secret to my success has just been revealed. When my summer program came to a close, I had a lot to think about. I was always a hard worker but from the fall semester I promised I would learn strictly for myself - not for grades and not to impress my parents. I entered the fall semester yearning to excite my thoughts and explore new interests. It still follows me today.

That summer I was given rules and warnings but today, looking back on my experience I received preparation and awareness. The transition from high school to college is unique for every student. Some people effortlessly adapt to their new environment, some struggle, some take a break, some avoid it and some never make it. Personally, mine was a new beginning, one that I did not know I needed. The summer SEEK program is what made mentally mature. For the first time in my life, I felt like my actions would determine my future and that I could make a difference, that is, only if I wanted to. I wanted to. I knew I had to wander into places where I could grow.

This transition to learning “strictly for myself…” as you say above, is critical. But there must be driving forces that helped you to get to this stage. Talk about them.

I did have driving forces, my mom. As mentioned, I no longer wanted to impress her with grades. Instead, I want to give back to her. She still doesn’t know this. I want my actions to speak louder than my words. But, it is her who has allowed college to be a possibility. For all her sacrifices and struggles, those that have passed, those that continue and those that will come, I will strive to give her back half of what she has given me. Nothing can replicate her generosity. My future will be bright if I am successful. I think everyone needs a push and once you start, you keep going. I’ve cried from being overwhelmed several times, wanted to give up, and played the role “pessimistic Patty”, but I made it. Luckily for me, all I had to do was look over my shoulder.

Very powerful stuff. This kind of intergenerational sacrifice for the future produces a serious internal motivational state that goes way beyond the necessary grades and a desire to do well in them. It adds to the self-growth motivation by connecting you the person to another growth operation – that of your family. How does it connect back to your program.

This connects back to SEEK because for those who don’t know, it a program for those who can not f afford college. Life itself is a battle. Everyone experiences an “outside” life, the life that exists beyond the classroom. That outside life directly influences the academic inside life. The key is to be optimistic and try your best. The effort a person puts into their work will pay off, even if it may not seem like it at the moment. If someone has a support system, it is important to acknowledge and appreciate it. For those who don’t, you can be your own source of encouragement and the result will be far more rewarding.

This story is so personal and compelling, that I do not feel we can follow the usual pattern of having us both sum up in the usual black-colored text font. Instead I want to thank you, Paulina, for sharing. What I think this story illustrates is what I said at the opening - the deeply personal internal motivation that comes from the unconscious decision making process about which we write so much in this blog. Clearly the utility of the knowledge is important and experiential education can show that utility with a proper internship in a major-relevant field no matter whether the major is Accounting or English. Students come to college for knowledge and the degree. But unless you somehow have the student’s heart, it is harder to get their mind to follow (to politely paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt). What we see here is one way in which a heart can me engaged, find itself, and lead the mind to accomplishment