Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The #1 question you need to ask yourself in college

"Any time you feel overwhelmed, there's a good chance that the culprit is a lack of clear priorities." - Darren Hardy in Entrepreneur Roller Coaster
Is college your priority?

Before you answer yes, think about it for a moment.

Look at your calendar. Where are you spending most of your time outside of class? 

College, especially community college, requires you to focus most of your time and energy on being successful in that environment, which requires so much more than just going to class and going home. My blog and book are overflowing with these "other" things to help you be successful in and after college, but none of it will do you much good if you haven't decided to give this college experience your all. 

I have yet to meet a single successful community college graduate who didn't give the experience their all
- no matter what very real barriers or constraints they had in their way. They just decided this would be their priority and then they focused all their energy towards that goal.

While it would be nice to just do college on the side, it often doesn't work that way. It requires a lot of you. But the good news is that the people who give their all to their community college experience also tend to be the people who are having the most fun. 

Think about your schedule and your current priorities. Is there something you know you should be doing on campus that you haven't done yet (e.g. meeting a professor, going to the tutoring center, checking out a club, going to the career center)? Is there something you are doing too much of that's getting in the way of you really making college your priority right now?

College costs money and you are a good investment, but only if you actually invest yourself into this experience wholeheartedly. Is this your priority? What dreams will getting this degree help you accomplish? Write out your thoughts and think seriously about a change you can make to ensure college is really a priority. 

Because if a college degree is something you want, then it must be. 

If you find you're having trouble with this, sit down with a career advisor, academic advisor, or trusted professor/mentor ASAP and talk about your current goals and priorities and ask for advice. Sometimes the best thing we can do to re-prioritize is just talk it out and ask for feedback.

You can do this!

"Lack of direction, not lack of time is the problem. We all have 24 hour days." - Zig Ziglar

Monday, January 19, 2015

What is your dream?

Me in DC at the memorial last year
Four years ago, the week before Martin Luther King Jr. day, I started this blog. The second post I ever wrote was about Martin Luther King Jr. and how we all have tremendous power and influence to affect things for good.

With hindsight it seems I was somehow always on my way towards writing my next book about making a dream come true. But my journey has rarely, if ever, felt clear.

What I've learned so far from working on this book, as well as in my own life, is that dreams are fraught with difficulty, confusion, feelings of loneliness and fear - even sometimes darkness.

Dreams may start with a light at the end of the tunnel, but it doesn't always mean that light is bright. Sometimes it's so dim and you wonder if you've stumbled into the wrong tunnel. 

College can feel like that too. 

What is your dream?

When I started this blog four years ago I could have never imagined that community colleges would be such a big part of the national conversation, as they have been and will be tomorrow when the President gives his State of the Union address, proposing free community college.

I hope college is made financially feasible for you, whatever that means, wherever you go, and even if that means you have to invest in it yourself. I'm a fan of anything that can lessen your burdens, but I also think it doesn't change the fact that you are a good investment. Whether the government makes that investment or you do, I think it's a good one and I hope you make it.

Money can feel like the biggest part of the investment, and in many ways it is, but once that part is taken care of, there's a lot more to consider.

Like - What is your dream? A piece of paper or a far off promise of more income and stability is often not enough fuel to power you through the tough stuff that college promises to throw your way.

We can and should begin with big dreams of a good economy and  an employed, productive workforce. But we'll never get there until we consider you. Yes, you, reading this, in this very moment. 

You matter. Your dreams matter. Your dreams will get you to that graduation ceremony. Your dreams can help us all.

Dreams alone, of course, are not enough. MLK Jr. didn't just magically show up one day to give a speech. He and so many worked tirelessly before and after that speech - they took risks, enlisted help, and planned strategically about how to turn their dreams into reality.

Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life in pursuit of his dream. It was not an easy journey.

Now I'm not comparing college to civil rights, but I do think college can have a place in that larger picture, in helping people from all backgrounds reach their dreams of breaking cycles of poverty and getting an education.

Dreams can power people through some of the toughest circumstances. 

What are your dreams? What is the dream that's going to power you through college, help you make it the the priority that it must be if you are going to have any chance of graduating? 

Write it down right now, in your phone, on a piece of paper, on your hand, whatever. Just write it. Write one, write many, just write.

Tomorrow, look at what you wrote again. Reflect, edit, and write a final list. 

Then read it every morning, and decide on at least one thing you're going to do that day to get yourself closer to your dreams. It's the small, seemingly insignificant things done each day that can often build to make the biggest difference.

Monday, January 12, 2015

How to Make Your Dream Come True

If you haven't heard yet, I'm currently working on my next book! I'm interviewing 100 people who have achieved a dream in order to find out what really goes into making a dream you have a reality. Is it possible? What can we learn from those who actually achieve their dreams?

What I've been learning so far has been more exciting than I can express.

I recently shared a bit of what inspired this book (as well as what I've learned so far) on Huffington Post, and I wanted to share it here with you since the article shares some tips that I know can also help you as you work to achieve your dream of graduating from college. 

I hope you ROCK your spring semester! 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Secret to Being an A-Student

Spend most of your time doing A-student activities.


But seriously, what percentage of your time are you spending on A-student activities, such as:

Writing an essay
Editing an essay
Reading a textbook
Reviewing a textbook
Reviewing notes
Getting to class early
Meeting with a professor
Going to the tutoring center
Studying with friends
Putting together a study group
Reading about college success on a blog or book
Asking advice from a good student
Asking advice from someone who has a job or a life you'd like one day
Asking advice from a professor

I read lots of books over the winter break, and this year there was one concept that stood out above the rest (it kind of reminded me of those weird grainy pictures in the 90s that you held your eyes up to for 60 seconds and then, when you slowly backed away, you could see a 3D image of dolphins and such...this was a thing, I swear. I'm not crazy.)

The concept? FOCUS. Figure out what you want, and then focus the MAJORITY of your time and energy on that thing. 

So simple and yet so difficult. Why? Because we have so much going on. I KNOW you have so much going on. I taught a College Success class last semester and my students had so much going on.

But unfortunately you don't get As for trying.

You get As for dedicating the majority of your time to your goal.

Maybe your goal isn't As? Maybe it's just learning. Doing well? Graduating college? Getting a certain job. Getting OUT of a certain job. Excellent! Wonderful! Getting As doesn't actually have to be your goal. I don't decide your goals, you get to do that.

But I imagine you would like to get better grades (and graduate college successfully) or you wouldn't be reading this, so keeping that in mind, here is what I want you to try (and you can do this with any other goal as well):

Download a stopwatch app on your phone and set it every time you start one of the A-student activities above (or any activity that moves you closer to your goal, either directly (e.g. studying) or indirectly (e.g. reading a book about how to succeed in college)).

Just time yourself (don't judge yourself). It won't be fun, I hate tracking things like this, but I know it works so I force myself to do it any way.

If you don't want to track in real time, just consider how much time you spent on the activities above, on average, during any given week last semester. 

Notice how much time you're spending on college outside of class. If getting good grades and graduating successfully is a priority for you (and it must be if you're going to make it) then you should be spending more time doing this than almost anything else in your life. 

There's no magic percentage, but I'd say shoot for spending 51% or more of your waking hours doing activities that move you towards your top goal (do sleep; please, sleep).

If you find you're not spending the majority of your waking hours on your top goal, find a way to change that. Easier said than done, I know. But vital. Don't skip this.

College isn't something that works well on the side. To do it well in this competitive world, it must be a full time job, a real priority. That might mean you have to have two proverbial full time jobs. If that's you, hats off to you. I've seen it done, but only by the most dedicated people I've ever seen. So keep that in mind.

Just because college must be a full time job doesn't literally mean you have to go full time, as I know many of you have work obligations and family obligations that make four to five classes plus study time unrealistic for you (but if you can make it happen I do recommend it). 

Just do not make the mistake of ONLY making time in your calendar for the time listed on your official class schedule. College should never only show up in your calendar as "MWF 9am-9:50am."

You can't just make time for class. 

(You don't have a calendar or planner you say? Get one! Seriously. Please. Do it for me. Just kidding; do it for you. Your beautiful brain needs to be free to study - do not make it hold onto all your important dates and reminders and tasks. Google Calendar and Asana are my personal favorite productivity tools.)

If you can't also schedule two hours of study time each week (time where you can be alone and FULLY focused on school) for every hour you have in your official class schedule then chances are it will be very difficult for you to get the grades you are actually capable of. 

Consider how you've spent your time so far in college (or in high school if you are just about to start college for the first time). Don't judge yourself. Just think about it. Ponder. What percentage of time, would you guess, are you really spending on your goal? And then journal. Finish the following sentences:

I'm going to college because...

I want to get good grades in college because...

College is my priority because...

To improve my grades, I need to spend more time...

To free up more time, I need to stop...

Before you make any changes, consider WHY college is important to you at all. Almost no one cares about the physical piece of paper you get when you graduate or a letter grade. But we DO care about things like providing for our family, learning, growing, achieving, helping people, etc. WHY are you doing this? Write that down somewhere and post it where you can read it every morning.

Then, focus the majority of your time and energy on that. Work at it every day, not for the grade itself, but for your overall, personal reason for being in college, whatever that may be. You must have such a reason, because no one wants to spend a majority of their time on something that doesn't connect to something that truly matters to them in their personal life. 

To succeed in college you must focus on building your skills, growing, and becoming better. For some of you that may be a goal in and of itself, and that's great! But if it's not, then figure out your real reason. Maybe it's for your 6-year-old son. Maybe it's to qualify for your dream job. Maybe it's so you never work in retail another day in your life. Maybe it's so you can have opportunities to pay it forward to those who sacrificed so much so that you could go to college.

Those are all real reasons I've heard before. I've heard many - all different, all beautiful. The only thing that's been the same is the passion and energy behind the reason. When they tell you, you can feel the fire in their eyes. You can see the time. The energy. The hard work. The dedication. The persistence. It's THEIR reason. THEIR dream. And they're not going to give up.

What's your reason? The reason that will make spending more than half of your time on college worth it to you? Maybe even fun. The reason that will keep you getting up after every time you fall. The reason that will help you say, after each failure, "what other strategy can I try" instead of "I give up."

Figure out your reason for getting good grades, your reason for going to college. YOUR reason. Write it. Swim in it. Read it every day. And then let it motivate you to spend the majority of your time focusing on your goal. 

I've seen tremendous community college success stories. I've also seen and read about the failures. I don't consider the people failures. But they weren't able to reach their goal. They had barriers, for sure, but so have those who have succeeded, sometimes many more. What's the difference?

Here is what I've learned:

The lower you start on the ladder of power and privilege, the more you have to really want a college degree in order for it to become a reality. You have to be hungry. Really hungry.

It's not fair. But it's the reality as I see it today. And my ultimate goal with this blog is not to tell you how the system should be, but to help you thrive in whatever it happens to be today, however imperfect.

Community college only works if you really want it. 

Community college is an incredible opportunity. But it won't "happen" to you just by walking on campus. Community college is a stage, ready for you to play, to imagine, to dream, and to work. You are the actor. The main event. 

You can also think of community college as a field. You are the player. And you don't become a great athlete by standing on a pitchers mound. You have to pitch. Often. You have to practice. You have to play the game. Over and over. And you can't do it alone.

You can't just sign up for community college classes and hope to be a college graduate.

It requires so much more. 

But here's the thing. I think you can do it. How do I know? You read this entire article. You've got what it takes. 

Do you want this? Really want this? Awesome. Now just put your time where your mouth is. (Wait, that sounds weird. Don't eat a clock. Just, ugh, you know what I'm trying to say.) ;)