What 'Grit' Means for College Educators

Educators should seek to build campus ecosystems where those with certain qualities can shine, strengthen themselves and inspire others, writes Daniel R. Porterfield.

December 12, 2016
 
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One of the hot topics on campuses this year is “grit,” which University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth understands as a fusion of passion, aspiration, tenacity and resilience that launches people to success.

Her important new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, challenges educators and institutions to see and strengthen this mind-set in our students. Yet some critics have taken issue with Duckworth, arguing that grit is too hard to isolate and measure, or too weak for broad impact in the face of structural barriers like generational poverty.

Recognizing these caveats, when I consider the lives and stories of my mentees at Franklin & Marshall College, grit seems like a crucial X factor in their achievement.

For example, there’s Markera Jones, who grew up contending with racism and low expectations at school. Throughout college, she kept trying and striving, whether studying Arabic or doing research with a psychology professor, working in a warehouse over breaks or studying abroad in France.

Central to her sustained drive was a calling to improve the lives of African-American children. Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, she’s now following her purpose by teaching in Memphis, Tenn., as she prepares to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology.

Then there’s Carolina Giraldo, whose parents fled the Colombian drug wars so that she and her younger brother, Luis, could grow up safe and free in America. Tragically, after years of hard work and family sacrifice, her father died suddenly during Giraldo’s first year of college.

Hurting profoundly, she picked herself up and vowed to persevere. As a sophomore she earned excellent grades and made all-conference in women’s varsity crew. The next year she won the campus award for best painting: a rendition of the eye of Michelangelo’s David. Last May, Giraldo graduated cum laude with a major in biochemistry and molecular biology on her way to medical school.

And there’s Becca Meyers, a history major who has Usher’s syndrome, which takes away hearing and sight. Navigating campus with her service dog, Birdie, and meeting often with professors, she also maintains a rigorous training regimen as a competitive swimmer. Her day-to-day life is more grueling than most people can imagine.

This September, Meyers won four medals -- three gold, one silver -- and set two world records at the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Of course, it wasn’t grit alone that propelled her to triumph. She had the moral and financial support from her loving parents to access great resources. And she came to a college that could help her balance the high demands of training and serious academics.

But that doesn’t change the fact that grit is a component of Meyers’s overall talent, which I define even more broadly than Duckworth, as all the resources we can draw upon to thrive in the challenges and opportunities of life.

Well, some ask, isn’t the idea of grit self-evident? Doesn’t everyone already know that most people need to work very hard and stay positive to achieve their goals?

Not really. Duckworth reminds us how often our society relies on mythical notions of “innate gifts” and thus fails to give grit its due. Sadly, when colleges are blind to the real assets and resources of students, we fall short of a key American ideal, which is that talent deserves the opportunity to rise.

Her research implies that highly selective colleges should do a better job identifying which applicants are strong on grit. Could we really do so? Sure -- by looking for students who have constantly sought out opportunity. By listening when applicants tell us they have acted on their passion for education in demonstrable ways. By seeing who has sustained strong grades over time or made the commitment to develop a skill that requires arduous practice.

And then there’s the educational process itself once students get to college. Because grit is not innate or fixed, Duckworth argues, we can cultivate and grow it, thereby enhancing student growth.

How would that happen?

Obviously, not by ignoring obstacles and deprivations and placing responsibility on the students alone to use their grit for success. Rather, educators should seek to build campus ecosystems where those with grit can shine, strengthen themselves and inspire others.

For example, we can give students more challenging research opportunities and one-to-one time with faculty members. We can help them pursue self-generated projects in areas of passion. We can treat those ubiquitous work-study jobs as opportunities to learn practical job skills or address inequities on or off the campus. We can celebrate the grit in the cultures and communities of students and encourage those with passion and perseverance to serve in peer leadership roles. All of this presumes that we’ll partner with students to meet their financial needs rather than asking them to assume unfair work or debt burdens.

As we consider such ideas, Duckworth places in the forefront the developmental fact that undergraduate education should be about much more than simply acquiring information toward a linear set of “competencies.” Strengthening grit can help the young develop the inner power to grow up, push forward and live well as active citizens.

Which brings us back my student Carolina Giraldo, who lost her father.

Last spring, during her senior year, she and I were partners in a workshop that asked us to choose a word that describes us best. Knowing her well, I thought she might pick “high-achieving, “caring,” “creative,” or “new American.” All true.

Instead, with pride in her eyes, she said, “Resilient.”

Which means this: more than her high grades and honors, this student values her optimistic drive against the headwinds of adversity. Having grit has become core to her moral identity and developing self.

Of course, Giraldo isn’t only resilient. But, indeed, it was her ability to bounce back from setbacks that empowered her to live all the other values that I and other mentors see in her: the readiness to work hard to learn difficult material, the freedom to dive headlong into new opportunities, the yearning to create growth and make meaning.

Such interior growth is one of the great aims of education. Where both perseverance and passion flourish, education has done its most sublime work. And, by the way, successes are probably not far behind.

Bio

Daniel R. Porterfield is president of Franklin & Marshall College.

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