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Hope: The Secret Sauce for College Success

Parents can take steps to instill hope in Generation Z students.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. —
From “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley

In his 1875 poem “Invictus,” William Ernest Henley describes his hopeful belief that in the darkest of times he is unconquerable, able to overcome all the “wrath” and “menace” we face in life. A sickly child, he made the most of his life until dying at the age of 53.

This poem speaks to me in many ways, especially as it was my father’s favorite poem. My father, who recently passed away, always taught me that you could make lemons out of lemonade, that every problem had a solution, that hope was just around the corner. I don’t think I could have made it through college, medical school, and residency without this positive approach to life’s challenges.

Unfortunately, hope seems to be on the decline in the college population. In my work as a college psychiatrist for the last 25 years, I have seen a steady increase in students overwhelmed by hopelessness. In fact, according to a 2019 survey, 57.5 percent of college students felt that things were hopeless at some point in the last year; 47 percent of students felt this way a decade ago. This survey showed that half of students are overwhelmed by academic challenges, and a third by financial and relationship challenges.

In my office, students discuss fears that they will not do well enough in school to get into graduate school or find a high-paying job, and thus never be able to pay off their loans or help family members who are struggling financially. Overwhelmed by the belief that the future is bleak, some students feel like giving up, staying in bed instead of attending class. If they have clinical depression, I can prescribe an antidepressant that might give them more energy, but it may not change the hopeless mindset, and they persist in struggling academically and emotionally.

Hope is a critical factor in academic success. A study of college students showed that hope will actually increase their GPA: A group of college students on academic probation were required to take a course to enhance their academic success. The course focused on improving study skills, but also on connecting students with academic, social, and mental health resources. Students who started the course with a higher level of hope had a greater improvement in GPA than those who reported medium or low levels of hope. It’s important to instill hope in children even before they go to college, especially as one in four students who start college never finish.

How to Raise a Hopeful College Student

In an interview for Parents, C. R. Snyder, a pioneer in hope research and positive psychology, reviewed the three ingredients to raising hopeful children: goals, willpower, and waypower. Children need to have clear goals to be successful in any endeavor. They need willpower, the energy to make that happen. And finally, they need waypower, the ability to set a path toward their goal and to adjust their path if they face obstacles.

How can parents apply these ideas to college students to enhance their success?

1. Goals. It’s critical that your student have an advisor who understands their strengths and weaknesses, and can encourage them to take classes in line with their foundational knowledge. Often, I see students with poor preparation in the sciences overload themselves with challenging science classes in their first semester, a recipe for disaster. If your child stumbles or falls academically during freshman year, it is not the end of the world. But it’s essential that they meet with their advisor and a success coach in the dean of students office to make a reasonable plan for the next semester. That could mean reassessing their future goals, taking a lower course load and/or less challenging classes, setting up regular tutoring, and attending their professors’ office hours. It’s a good idea to talk with your student about this process and problem-solve with them. I’ve seen students be overly optimistic about how they will do the next semester without taking steps to enhance their success.

2. Willpower. If your student is dealing with mental health issues like depression or uses substances like alcohol and marijuana frequently, they may lack the energy and motivation to pursue their goals. Untreated ADHD could also interfere with their ability to initiate and execute their goals. If they have repeated academic failures, ensure they get tested for ADHD, and make sure any mental health issues are being treated.

3. Waypower. One of my favorite apps is Waze. If I am driving and there is a car accident, it can immediately offer an alternate route and get me to where I need to go in a timely manner. College students need a Waze mentality. They need to set their route but also make adjustments along the way. I recall a student who started out majoring in engineering, only to discover that he did not like it. But he found himself enjoying teaching math to elementary school students in a struggling school, so he changed his major to education with a minor in math. Once he altered his path, he was much happier—and more successful. How to reset our course is a valuable lesson to share with our children.

The most important thing you can do to teach hope is to live it, according to researcher Yair Emanuel. Maintain a positive attitude and take a problem-solving approach when facing work, financial, or relationship challenges in your own life. You may think that your child is not paying attention to you, but they closely observe how you deal with a difficult boss, how you manage your finances, and how you resolve conflicts with your spouse or partner. Be a role model in hope. And remember: If you appear stressed out all the time, they may want to protect you and not share their problems with you.

Finally, remind your children of the last two lines from the poem "Invictus":

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Believing in your future, and taking action to build your future, are the magic ingredients to college success.

©2020 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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