“Success is feeling good about the work you do throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or nay not wind up at the launch pad.”
– Chris Hadfield in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, p. 41
I was “over the moon” seeing Commander Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to command the International Space Station, present the keynote at the Ontario Student Counsellors’ Association conference (#osca14). Not to undersell the spellbinding video of rocket launches or the final serenade in which Commander Hadfield sang “Space Oddity” to a star-struck crowd, what has sent my thoughts orbiting for the last two months has been the succinct notion that success cannot be defined as achieving the end goal; success has to be recognized as celebrated as part of the process.
Having just witnessed Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, Commander Hadfield, at age 9, decided that he too would be an astronaut. But what was struck me then and has stayed with me for the last couple of months is this: Commander Hadfield never defined his success by actually flying in space. Success was making decisions and executing effectively all along the way so that should the opportunity to go to space present itself, he would be ready.
I’ve been thinking about this notion of ‘success as a process’ pretty much non-stop since the OSCA conference. This idea that success must be seen as what you do along the way and not as a discrete outcome is precisely the argument that Joe Henry, Diliana Peregrina-Kretz and I advanced in the article, Beyond “Completion”: Student Success is a Process, published in the July 2014 issue of SEM Quarterly. Drawing from findings from the Supporting Student Success research study as well as results from related work at Sheridan College, we note that students, staff, faculty and senior administrators defined “success” as more than the solitary outcome of completing a credential, whether the credential is a degree, diploma or certificate. Rather, student success was defined in terms of setting and achieving academic AND personal goals, developing life skills, becoming career ready, and igniting a passion for lifelong learning. Success was not accomplishing a single outcome, like completing a credential, but the process of growing in this multifaceted way.
Unfortunately, credential completion has captured the minds of policy makers and the public as the key indicator of success. You can see this notion in performance based funding policy in which institutions are rewarded for improving their graduation rate. In this respect, graduation equals success. I am not suggesting that institutions shirk responsibility to support students in achieving their academic goals in a timely fashion. This is clearly an important concern. What Joe, Diliana and I suggested in our article is that policy makers and higher education administrators re-orient their notion of success from that of a discrete outcome (credential completion) to one that recognizes success in the decisions students make and the opportunities they seek that place them in good stead towards a long term goal.
Commander Hadfield states, “In space flight, “attitude” refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the sun, Earth and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicles starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board and it strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel could mean the difference between life and death” (p.41).
When higher education administrators, policymakers, and the public simply hold the attitude that “student success” is credential completion, I fear we take on an orientation that sends the wrong signals to students back at Mission Control. I worry that we are sending the message that, “Diploma in hand, you have reached the goal” which implicitly suggests, “You’re done. The learning is over. You have succeeded.”
But if we take a page from the Astronaut’s Guide to Life, success isn’t the outcome. It isn’t completing a degree, a certificate or a diploma. Success is being fully present in the daily learning and training – the process of living if you will. Like Commander Hadfield cautions: it’s critical (life-preserving, in fact) to “sweat the small stuff” (p. 73). Being comfortable and content in what you know is not enough. You simply never know when an asteroid may be coming your way.
We live in a complex, interdependent world that is constantly changing. So much so that the word “gamechanger” has become ubiquitous in the media. With this understanding of the world, it seems unwise, imprudent, and perhaps even irresponsible to send a message to students that success is embodied in completing their credential. If postsecondary faculty, staff and administrators are truly committed to communicating the value of an education, it is necessary we instill in students the notion that success isn’t an end destination; it is the process of learning and growing throughout the journey, whether on Earth or in space.
By Tricia Seifert