Around this time of year, I hear a number of professors begin complaining about their students and their excuses as major projects coming due. I have to admit that I sometimes share in these complaints, as it seems as if students have not planned well and have procrastinated, which leads to their not having assignments finished on time. Some professors pride themselves on being “tough,” but what they mean by that is inflexible. They stick to their rules, no matter if the rules make sense in a situation or not. They also refer to themselves as “fair,” as they argue that they apply the rules equally. My least favorite is when they talk about “teaching the students a lesson” (it seems that phrase is an obsession of mine, as I’ve written about it here and here already).
I used to talk about how hard I worked to get where I am today, and, more importantly, about how I never asked a professor for a deadline extension, turned in an assignment late, nor pulled an all-nighter, all of which is true. As is rather obvious, my comments were intended to convey to students that I, who worked 35-45 hours a week, managed my workload perfectly well, so they should be able to do the same (by the way, we don’t really know what’s going on in our students’ lives, as I wrote about last year).
However, when I think about my college career, I can point to three rather important events where faculty or staff helped me in a significant way, one of which probably made a difference in the course of my life. Without these two people, my path would certainly have been more difficult.
The first two happened in or around the same semester: the fall of my sophomore year. I’ve long since decided that the second or third semester of students’ careers are the most challenging, not because of the workload, necessarily, but because of an adjustment in attitude. Most students come to college with some sort of healthy fear that it will be more challenging than what they experienced in high school. Thus, they are much more dedicated to their classes in their first semester or year. Once they get to the second semester or year, though, they believe they’ve got college figured out, and they often stumble. I’ve seen it happen to many students, and it certainly happened to me.
I had an easy second semester, even landing on the Dean’s list for the only time in my college career. My first semester of my sophomore year, though, ended with my having earned a 2.5, bringing my total GPA down to a 2.975. One of the problems was a Humanities class I had that semester. The professor was challenging, but, more importantly, the writing part of that class (which was separate, but connected–too long of an explanation to go into here, so just roll with it) hammered me.
I turned in a research paper on W.E.B. DuBois only to get a note telling me to come to the writing professor’s office. At that time, the MLA was moving from the old footnote style to the in-text citation we still use. Our professors were kind enough to allow us to use either system. I chose the footnotes, not because I knew it better, but because I thought it would make my paper appear longer (this should tell you that the paper wasn’t going well). When I went to her office, she handed me the paper and asked, “Kevin, what is this?” I responded, as many students before and after me have, “I don’t know.” She let me revise the paper, and I did, bringing my grade up to a D.
Also at the end of that semester, my car insurance was up for renewal, and I needed the Good Student Discount to make it much cheaper. The problem was that I needed a 3.0 in order to receive that discount. I went to see the Registrar, and I explained my situation, even pointing out that my overall GPA was 2.975. She pointed out in return that that wasn’t a 3.0, and, more importantly, they went by the most recent semester. And then she signed the form, saying simply, “I’m sure you’ll pull it back up next semester” (for the record, I still didn’t hit a 3.0 the next semester, but I did get a 2.95, so I was at least on the way back up).
The most important moment comes from a scholarship that enabled me to attend college at all. I don’t know who made this decision, so I really have no idea who to thank, but this decision is the one that might have changed my life. I took the ACT three times and the SAT once in order to get this scholarship. I was one point away (on the ACT) from moving from a 10% off tuition scholarship to one that would give me 25% off. I finally got there, and I’m not sure I would have been able to even attend if I wouldn’t have gotten it. I was required to carry a 2.9 every semester, and I clearly had just missed that. I wasn’t the most attentive student, if that’s not obvious yet, so I didn’t think about the effects of losing that scholarship. I do know that I received a letter notifying me that I had not kept that GPA, but that the college would give me one semester to pull it back up.
I obviously did, and I was able to finish the rest of my time there with every semester my junior and senior years hitting above the 3.0 mark (even coming .01 away from the Dean’s list in the spring of my junior year). More importantly, I encountered the professor who changed my major and my life the second semester of my sophomore year. Without that scholarship, I would have had to switch schools, and I never would have taken his class. I don’t know what would have happened, of course, but I do know what did happen, and I’m grateful someone somewhere gave me grace.
Last, along the same lines, I received a scholarship at the end of my sophomore year for Bible majors. It was $1000, and I received the news while sitting in what we called honors chapel. Over the summer, though, I changed my major from Bible to English (after that class that spring semester). I hadn’t even thought about what that would do to the scholarship. When I came back to campus that fall, the professor in charge of scholarships (also the writing professor, I should note) told me that I had lost the $1000 scholarship because of my change of major, but she found an $800 scholarship for general majors. She didn’t have to do that for me, but she did.
That scholarship wouldn’t have changed my life, certainly, but it saved my parents $1600, and they certainly could use that money. It was people like her making decisions like this one that helped me through college. I chose to attend a private college instead of the state university that would have been free (or almost free), and that decision changed who I am in so many ways. I couldn’t have done so without the help I received along the way.
It’s a hard decision we professors have to make when students come to us (or even when they don’t) as to whether to give some sort of grace or not. There have been times I haven’t done so for a wide variety of reasons. I hope, though, that when I make those decisions, I can at least honestly admit where I came from and who helped me along the way.