Lessons From 35 Years: The Power of Relationships in College Success

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Tim StickelLessons from 35 Years: The Power of Relationships in College Success
Tim Stickel in the UAF eCampus office, his last stop before retirement

In my 35 years in higher education, I have written and read my share of research, advice and best practices on student success in college. Everyone has their own take on what it takes to succeed, and I suppose I am no different. Most experts talk of study skills, organization skills, time management and other factors that lead to success. Over my years in this field, another factor that often isn’t discussed is the relationships. The connections we make with people who have encouraged, motivated, or advised us, become important in our journey. Although I could bore you with my own stories of tragedy and triumph and those who helped me through, I want to leave you with some life lessons I have learned along the way. These might be applicable now, next year, or after you are well established in your career, but at some point I hope you find something you can use in your educational life, work life, or personal life.

People Matter

Your time in college will go by in a blink of an eye. Looking back, I don’t remember all the courses, professors, or even the good or poor grades I received. What I do remember are the connections I made with the professors I had or the friends who surrounded me. For the first time in my life, I formed an unequivocal bond with my peers because we not only took courses together, but we worked together, hung out in the dormitory and participated in activities around campus. Doing well in school was important to me, but the times in between made lasting impressions. Some of my most cherished memories include the ragtag intramural team we put together, the championship game we played against the football team and won on a buzzer-beater. I remember the late-night runs to Taco Bell, the 2 a.m. cramming sessions with friends at the local Country Kitchen, or playing flag football in the quad. Throughout your college and work career, you will work on teams, with classmates on presentations, or with co-workers on projects. While the efforts are important, the people and connections you make matter. If you are not connected to campus, find a way to engage with your peers, in your classes, or with your professors.

There’s No Growth in a Comfort Zone

Life is about learning, stretching and growing – you will do a lot of that in college. This new stage in your life will bring newfound freedom, independence, responsibility and accountability. The same will be true when you leave college. In many cases, these changes are uncomfortable.  As I frequently told my childen: “there is no comfort in a growth zone and no growth in a comfort zone.” Once we get comfortable and complacent, we don’t grow. In your social circles, there is mostly comfort (after all birds of a feather flock together). Outside of your circle is possibly outside your comfort zone.  It’s during those times that you grow by being open to new ideas, new people and new experiences. Stretch your comfort so you can grow.

People Over Practice

In this fast-paced world of instant gratification and instant social connections, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the practice of not giving people our attention. Society has become quite distracted by the latest gadget, the latest political controversy, or the latest viral video on social media. These distractions take us away from real relationships and the things that matter. In life, we all get busy and distracted, but take the time for the friend who needs to talk, for the partner who needs to vent, or the sibling who just wants to spend time with you. Be in the moment, and don’t forget your roots. While in college and being pulled in a thousand different directions, it will feel like you don’t have the time. But find the time to connect with those who matter to you and who continue to encourage, support and love you. Call home –they want to hear from you. In your life, put people over any practice or problem you are entrenched in.

Good Intentions are Not Good Enough

People often desire to somehow improve themselves and to achieve great things. And while not lacking sincerity, determination, or effort, they nonetheless fall short. Why? Because they only have good intentions. The truth of the matter is that good intentions are not good enough – we need an action plan or a map to get us from where we are to where we want to be. Getting to college is an accomplishment in itself, but you aren’t done. Success isn’t measured by reaching the destination, but by the little steps or strides you make every day toward your next goal. Continue to push yourself through the journey. Have more than good intentions.

Failure is Not Fatal

Whether good or bad, a grade you received on a test or project won’t make or break your life. In college and in life, you will fail. You will fall. And storm clouds will often rise on the horizon of your life, usually followed by heavy wind and damaging hail. You might think you can’t possibly survive the coming storm this week – the exams, papers, research projects, work – that it’s the worst situation imaginable. After it’s over, even if you received a poor grade, you will look back and realize that it wasn’t as bad as you thought and that you can do almost anything you put your mind to. Failure is not fatal. Our mindset should be to learn to dance in the rain, to get the sail out and to know these storms shall pass.

Be You Anyway

There will be people in college and in your life who won’t agree with you, who won’t like a decision you made or a comment you said. They may even want to take advantage of you. These people can make it challenging to see the positive in others and in life. In all cases, be kind, honest and positive because you don’t know the battle that person is fighting in their life. Take some wise words from Mother Teresa of Calcutta who dedicated her life to serving others: “If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives: Be kind anyway. If you are honest and frank, people will try to cheat you: Be honest anyway. When you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous of you: Be happy anyway.” 

No matter where you are in life, your college experience is not a destination but a journey. While it is easy to get caught up in the busy traffic of higher education (studies, exams, papers, side hustles, working to make ends meet, research projects), enjoy the ride! Success in college is not only about learning but also about connecting. Be sure to enjoy the people that surround you. They are your greatest gift and, as I’m famous in eCampus for saying, teamwork makes the dream work!


  • Tim Stickel

    Tim spent his entire career in higher education. Soon he will sunset that career and as he looks back, it's the people that made his time memorable. Tim will continue to be connected to the UAF community and beyond through teaching, coaching and some fun side hustles.

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