Developing the Power of Grit in Higher Education
On August 7, 2011, just days before starting college, RaeVaughn Williams, the son of a Bronx school teacher, was gravely injured by a hit and run driver in New York City. Doctors drilled a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure on his swelling brain, warning his mother that he might never be the same. He spent the next week in a coma.
Seven days after the accident, RaeVaughn awoke. His first whispered words to his mother at his bed-side? “I’m supposed to be at college.”
Working with learning specialists to rebuild his motor skills and brain capacity, he attacked rehabilitation with the same ferocity that had enabled his high school success. His first semesters at Franklin & Marshall College were incredibly taxing, and his academic progress was uneven, but RaeVaughn never felt sorry for himself or took his eyes off the prize of a college degree. Aided by the dedicated English professor Patricia O’Hara, he committed to working harder and smarter, practicing new ways to plan, study, focus, and relax. In 2016, he graduated and now works as Assistant Director of Admissions at Muhlenberg College.
Where did RaeVaughn find the strength to adapt, overcome, and persevere, despite this extreme physical trauma? Where did his drive, determination, and resilience come from? Can these critical attributes be taught and learned?
Over the past decade, innovative scholars and thinkers have analyzed the personal qualities of individuals who overcome substantial obstacles. Angela Duckworth identifies an empowering blend of passion, persistence, and optimism that she calls “grit.” Carol Dweck points to a “growth mindset” in high achievers that embraces challenges rather than fearing failure. Malcolm Gladwell’s classic book David and Goliath profiles high-impact leaders for whom the seeming disability of dyslexia also gave rise to powerful coping and adaptive mechanisms that enabled subsequent world-beating success.
Research on grit and mindset is at an early stage, but at Franklin & Marshall College, we have seen these extraordinary qualities first-hand. Every year we witness incredible achievers who overcome poverty, discrimination, stigma, and even trauma on their persistent climb. There is more to discern about any negative effects of relentless striving, as well as to assess circumstances where success requires other qualities, too. That said, we know these students are inspiring examples to their friends and teachers, and we want to learn from them, confident that their stories will offer replicable lessons.
This week we are launching a new initiative to empower, support, and learn with students who have faced the most difficult of circumstances. Starting with 10 F&M first-year students this year and 30 over the next three years—many first in their family to attend college—we will develop a model program that mobilizes these qualities and applies them to academic and professional settings. Each scholar will benefit from full financial aid, tailored support focused on classroom and workplace success, supplemental faculty and upper class mentorship, and a summer job or internship.
Additionally, our scholars will organize campus-wide workshops each semester to share lessons across the broader campus community. Starting with a lecture by the University of Texas at Austin scholar David Yeager this week, every workshop will invite a prominent speaker who exemplifies or is researching the power of grit, persistence, resilience, and can-do mindsets. We will partner with a third-party assessor to evaluate and enhance the effectiveness of this effort, reporting on our findings. Building on F&M's highly successful initiative to more-than double enrollment and success of first-generation college students, we are committed to creating a demonstrably effective and replicable program.
Higher education has long defined talent in terms of grades, SAT scores, and leadership in school-based extracurricular activities. The premise of our work is that we must disrupt the traditional talent paradigm and challenge colleges to see and support other elements of human talent.
As MIT professors Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee persuasively argue in The Second Machine Age, fast-emerging technologies guarantee that rapid disruption is the new normal, both in our economy and across our society. Once secured by degrees, professional success in the future will increasingly depend on coping and adapting to disruption: intellectual agility, determination, self-reliance, emotional intelligence, and the ability to innovate.
Academic institutions need to better understand how to recognize and develop these capabilities. Leaders hoping to improve economic mobility in our nation will need to learn to cultivate them. America needs more RaeVaughns.
Dan Porterfield is the President of Franklin & Marshall College. Ken Mehlman is an alumnus and board member of Franklin & Marshall College who is investing in a new program to learn with and from high achieving students who have overcome obstacles. More about this effort can be found at Slingshotproject.org.