The Gift of Self-Confidence

In the 60’s, along with an outpouring of sentiment around the Civil Rights Movement and the war on poverty, there was a strong current of empowering marginalized people through education. My way of expressing it was through my early work at the Community College of Vermont (CCV). As I proceeded through those first few years, however, I kept thinking that there was more to my education than knowledge and degrees. The degree may be the external symbol of achievement, but the internal qualities of optimism and grit are equally important, both in earning the degree and in living a happy and productive life. With time I came to understand there was another lesson embedded in the breakthrough that allowed me to understand my fear of coming to Vermont. It took me awhile to get to it, excavate it, hold it, understand it, and use it, but when I finally did, I wanted to make it an educational objective as well.

As far as I could see, the greatest privilege was being encouraged to believe that when you get knocked down, when life deals you a blow, you say, “I am not supposed to be on my knees. I am supposed to be standing up and moving forward with my life.” After all, the difference between success and failure is whether you move through and around obstacles or you let them defeat you. This was part of our credo at CCV and I have carried it with me throughout life.

Recently studies at Gallup and the University of Texas-Austin (UT Austin) have validated this belief by, in different ways, describing why some people succeed (relatively) and others fail (relatively) in school, work, or life. At Gallup, they found that people who are optimistic about their futures do better than those who are not. They also found that “optimism” (their word) can be taught and encouraged by the structure of assignments, language used, and expectations created.

Likewise at UT Austin, they found that students with similar SAT/ACT scores coming from relative wealth (top 25%) and relative poverty (bottom 25%) performed according to their income level, not their tested capacity. Basically, the wealthier you were, the better you did. And traditional remediation had only a marginal positive impact, with the poorer kids graduating at a far lower rate than the more affluent. When the researchers probed deeper, they found a critical effect that had nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with sense of self. “Optimism,” if you will. Specifically, when poorer kids hit a bump in the road, got a failing grade, or had a negative social encounter, their immediate reaction was “I do not belong here. I am in the wrong place and I need to go home.” And ultimately, many of them did just that. But rich kids were far more likely to get up, dust themselves off, and proceed successfully to graduation. Their self-confidence was as innate as was the poor kids’ lack of confidence.

Based on these studies, UT Austin has developed leadership programs for these lower-income students, with high support, lots of active learning, and team building. These programs have caused their success rates to increase dramatically, rising to equal the success rates of the rich kids. By learning Gallup’s optimism through the structure of the program, they now understand that they are not supposed to be on their knees, which is one of the great gifts that education can give.

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