Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to overcome setbacks in college

In high school I was on the dance team for two years. Confession: I’m not a great dancer.

A few months before my ninth grade year, I walked into the gym to try out for the dance team. My parents couldn’t afford dance lessons, but I had gotten a taste of dance as part of a Junior Beta talent show in seventh grade, and I loved it.

So with a boldness I can only attribute to middle school, I decided to try out for the freshman dance team.

By a miracle, I made the freshman team. That year, I took every dance elective that was offered at my high school, and my parents and late grandpa will tell you that I didn’t walk around our tile floors – I danced.
One day towards the middle of my freshman year, my dance coach called me out and wanted me to try a split jump (something we were learning about in Dance II class, but not actually doing). A split jump is where you leap into a split and then land flat, in a split. Whaat?! I said to her. I can’t do that.

She told me I could. I hesitated at first, but then, I could tell she really believed I could do it. She wouldn’t tell me I could if I was going to break my legs, right? So I timidly leaped. And I landed. In a split. I did it.

That dance coach continued to push me in a way I had never been pushed in my life, and that next year, I tried out for the Varsity dance team.

I’ll never forget those tryouts. I have a really horrible “movement memory” (that’s the name I made up for not being able to remember dances when I first learn them). For the tryouts, we were quickly shown a routine and expected to perform it. They turned on the music, and I saw the other girls around me effortlessly repeating the moves.

I got maybe the first and the last move right.

The next day the results of who made the team were posted in the locker room. My number was not on that list.

It was posted in a little side category that essentially said, “see me.”

I was crushed with the kind of devastation that you can only feel in high school. I walked out of the locker room and circled around the secluded areas of the school, ugly-crying until the bell rang. I wasn’t good enough. The work I did hadn’t paid off.

I went to see the dance coach during lunch, and she told me that while my tryouts weren’t great because I messed up the routines, she still believed I could do it and wanted me on the team. I made it, just barely.

I was overjoyed. But of course, the work had only just begun. Being on that dance team was the hardest thing I had ever done. I twisted my ankle at the first practice, worked for hours to memorize a dance that others would get in a matter of minutes, and would often feel humiliated being corrected in front of everyone.

But I made the team. I got the backpack with the pink letters. I got to dance next to the girls who had danced their whole lives. I had to work harder, but I did it.

I know many of you are in that same circumstance when it comes to college. I am constantly astounded at the students I meet across the country who are going to college despite incredible obstacles that would threaten to (unfairly) put them behind everyone else: physical disabilities, learning disabilities, financial setbacks, deaths in the family, etc.

So if that describes you, I hope you are incredibly proud of what you have accomplished so far, and that you are willing to continue to put in the hard work to make it in college and make it towards the future you dream of. You have it in you. It is possible.

So below are three tips from my dancing days to help you overcome obstacles when you feel like you’re just barely making it:

1. Figure out what you want: When I danced for the first time I fell in love with it. I still get that feeling when I walk into the locker room of my gym and do my old dancer stretches. It’s hard to even explain why or how much I love dance. 

That’s how you should feel about the major and career you are pursuing (or at the very least, how you should feel about learning in college). The only way to overcome obstacles is to have something you really want, really connect with, and would do almost anything to get. Explore, experiment, and decide on what you truly want.

2. Find your coach: I could never have made the dance without my coach. I still think about her all the time, and realize no one had ever pushed me in my life the way she did. She challenged me to do things I didn’t want to do, things that scared me to death. She saw things in me I couldn’t see in myself. Think about it, all professional athletes have coaches. We can’t always see our own potential. Find mentors and tell them what you want and ask for their advice on how to get there.

3. Practice more than anyone else: When I was on the dance team I danced constantly. I took every dance elective possible (there were four) and I even became an office aide to my dance coach so that I could take an additional two classes. I practiced at home. I asked the better dancers for help and coaching. I bought the songs we were dancing to for football games and did the routines hundreds of times in my room. Are you really dedicating yourself to college? 

Are you studying more than anyone else? Are you getting ahead? Are you going above and beyond? That is what it takes. And while it’s hard work, walking out of exam day knowing you aced them all brings the same exhilaration that comes from nailing a new dance move. 

It’s the feeling that your hard work has paid off, and you’ve grown. Or rather, leaped. 

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