Real Talk: I Was a C-Student in High School Who Rocked it in College
“Have you ever thought about taking a year off before college?” my mom asked me one night in high school as I struggled to balance studying for an A.P. European History test and managing college applications.
I chose not to respond rather than ask why. I knew why. I'd always been bright growing up, but as high school went on, classes became more and more difficult for me. I routinely cried during tests that I thought I'd studied adequately for, confused by the way information was presented. I started getting Cs on most exams, managing to scrape by on class participation and my attempts to bond with my teachers. I got caught cheating on a Spanish test, and accepted a failing grade rather than being reported to the school's administration. I couldn't seem to pay attention in class; I forget assignments within minutes and seemed unable to remember basic information.
My mom was right—the prognosis was not good for me succeeding in college. Even though it hurt at the time, I understand her concern now—it was scary to imagine paying high tuition prices for someone who might not even be able to pay attention in a large lecture and could easily fail high-stakes exams.
But I didn't want to give up on going to college. Despite my academic troubles in high school, I didn't hate learning. I was passionate about books and writing, about art history and culture. I felt like a failure for not being able to do well when everyone around me seemed to be acing tests and getting 4.0s, but I believed that there was more to my situation than simply being a bad student. I knew there had to be another way to academic success.
I started channeling my energy into researching options for college that went beyond the big school vs. small school, state university vs. private college dichotomies that we were so often presented with. Instead of focusing on picking a major ahead of time, I sought out colleges that seemed to approach learning in unique and nontraditional ways.
After a lot of research and no small amount of waffling, I decided on a small interdisciplinary program, the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands. I'd loved my campus visit to Redlands—the classes were small and intimate, and all of the professors made the effort to speak with me individually. During my admissions appointment, the representative of the program addressed my specific concerns about college—we talked about how the program used narrative evaluations instead of grades, and students could work with professors to design assignments that best suited their learning style. When we left the admissions appointment, even my father was convinced that I should attend this tiny program in the middle of the desert.
Despite my enthusiasm for the program and starting a new chapter of my life, I was still worried that I'd arrive at college and find the same struggles plaguing me that had made high school so miserable. What if the university I'd chosen was total nonsense? What if even incredible professors and interesting classes couldn't help me focus and be a strong student? What if there was something fundamentally wrong with my intelligence and I just couldn't retain information?
Of course, there were so many things to distract me when I arrived at my school that I wasn't constantly debating existential questions of intelligence. I took a pre-orientation trip to the Sierra Nevadas and tried not to collapse under the weight of a 40 pound backpack. I clung to the two girl friends I made in my program as we tried to navigate ice breakers and parties, dorm décor, and the least disgusting things to eat in the commons. I signed up for a random array of classes: Books that Make You Want to Read, Latin Tutorials, Soviet Union History, and the required first year seminar, Living Communities.
My problems with learning didn't immediately evaporate—I was terrible at Latin and I definitely did not read every word of Crime and Punishment. But I quickly became involved in the unique dynamics of a small seminar-style class, buoyed by professors who encouraged my unique commentary instead of shutting it down. I found that I didn't mind staying up half the night to do homework when it was about subjects that I found interesting. I began undertaking projects that excited me and I realized that I was concentrating for far longer than I'd been able to in high school.
At the end of that first semester, I embarked on a multimedia project for my Living Communities class on the artistic community of Andy Warhol's factory. I made a large scale painting, completed a research paper, and wrote and performed a monologue in the voice of Warhol for a crowd of 200 people. Professors that I'd never spoken to before loved the project and encouraged me to enroll in their classes. I realized that by undertaking projects that enabled me to become engaged in the material, I was figuring out how to learn in my own style.
I zeroed in on the classes that focused directly on things that I loved, enrolling in nonfiction workshops and drawing classes, integrating different topics and thinking of new ways to interpret information. These explorations helped me find new areas I was passionate about—I started taking African Studies classes, eventually deciding to study in Ghana for a semester.
Many of my classes focused on papers and projects instead of tests, but when I did start taking tests again in my African Politics classes, I found that techniques of learning different ways to interpret information made them less stressful. I still had anxiety during the exam periods, but I was more confident in my studying abilities and communicated to my professors about my struggles. Unlike in high school, I never failed a test, earning As and Bs more often than Cs.
Approaching learning from a less normative perspecitve changed my life—I no longer thought of myself as a bad student, in fact I no longer thought of myself as a student. I stopped drawing lines between school and life. I realized that I was a person who adamantly loved learning, that I simply couldn't do it well in the confines of traditional academics.
During my senior year in my program, I began serving on younger students' committees to build their degrees as an academic advisor and co-teaching a class with one of my favorite creative writing professors—two things I couldn't have imagined as a flailing high school senior, unsure if I could even stay afloat in college. The discussion around college admissions frames it as though your academic success in high school is a prognosis for how well you will do in college. My journey from struggling academically in a rigid traditional setting to flourishing in an innovative atmosphere shows that this isn't the case. There are many ways to succeed and enjoy learning that have nothing to do with how well you score on a test. Everyone deserves the opportunity to find an atmosphere where they can engage their mind and find their own best strategies for learning.
Have you figured out the best learning style for you?