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Author: Ellen Riek

For the past several semesters I've have had students in my border community college classes who are part of our grant-funded migrant student program, known as CAMP. These students are usually first-generation college students. Their parents work in the fields from dawn until dusk, and many of them have worked right alongside their parents. They have tangible motivation for attending college. I was invited to give these students a motivational talk as part of their orientation program. What could I say? Motivation clearly wasn't a problem for these students. When I finally developed a plan for my hour talk, I knew that I would either create a connection with the students or leave them wondering why I had been asked to speak. I walked into the room. There were 60 or so students, far more than I expected. I was introduced, and all eyes were on me. I began by telling them I thought every student can be successful and that attitude plays a large part in that success. Then I put the chart below on the computer projector, explaining that these were two students I had known.

Student   A

Student B

Didn't graduate from high school   on time Started   college in a community college honors program
Married and divorced by 24 Helped   start the community college student newspaper
Didn't start college until six   years after completing high school Transferred   to an out-of-state university
Nontraditional student Selected   as a teaching assistant in graduate school
Failed algebra twice Completed a master's degree with   distinction

Changed majors three times

Honors faculty member for seven   years

Took eight years to finish bachelor's degree

Completed a doctoral degree

Had three kids during college

Published author
We walked through Student A's story first, and then I asked the students how they thought Student A felt about herself and her experiences. They responded, “She didn't have much confidence.” “She probably wanted to give up.” “She probably felt like she wasn't good enough.” And so on. Then I talked about Student B's outcome with the same question. “She probably felt really good about her accomplishments.” “She felt like she could do whatever she tried.” “She felt good about herself.” Then I asked them which of these students they thought I was. They immediately assumed B, although after I waited a bit, a few thought maybe A, but everyone was genuinely surprised when I told them I was both. All of the experiences of Student A were mine, as were all of Student B's. We talked about how everyone has obstacles and all of us experience failure but it's our response to those obstacles and failures that really matters. After that, I passed around some papers with ancient symbols for strength, courage, wisdom, etc., along with some that had inspirational quotes about never giving up. I gave them markers, colored pencils, and card stock I had cut into bookmarks. I asked them to choose two or three symbols that had meaning for them and put those on one side of the bookmark. They should also select a quote and put that on the other side. All of us made a bookmark. I asked if anyone wanted to share the symbol or quote they had chosen and tell us why. The floodgates opened. Several students cried as they shared. One student chose a symbol for caring and talked about how she almost didn't graduate from high school because she had given up, but then a teacher told her she had too much potential to throw it away. It was powerful. We wrapped up by making a pact that when that voice comes into our heads—and it always does—and tells us what we can't do, saying that we're not smart enough or strong enough, we'll pull out the bookmark or grab someone who shared this hour and have them remind us that every student belongs here and can be successful. When I shared this experience with those close to me, some worried that I'd made myself too vulnerable in front of the students and that it would affect my credibility as a teacher. In fact, as I planned my talk some of those thoughts had run through my head too (because that little voice speaks to us all). It was during my talk that I realized how vulnerable each of those students felt as they prepared to walk into their first college classroom. They aspired to be like Student B, but there was also the very real chance of being exposed as Student A. My decision to share my own vulnerabilities let those students know that overcoming the obstacles of Student A makes the accomplishments of Student B all the sweeter. And for about an hour that day the little voice in my head was silenced. Contact Ellen Riek at Ellen.Riek@azwestern.edu.