Motivation Comes from Wins and Losses

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This is a post from Guest Blogger Dr. Brian Peterson.

Greetings Quest Scholars! My name is Brian Peterson. I serve as the director of Makuu, the Black Cultural Center at the University of Pennsylvania. I am also actively involved in college access and completion work through numerous other channels including a youth enrichment program I co-founded fifteen years ago, as well as research, consulting, program development, and writing.

Having attended Penn as an engineering student some two decades ago before language like “lower income” or “first generation” was widely used, and certainly before we could look to programs like QuestBridge as national models for student support, I often felt like I was blazing my own trail. I didn’t know exactly what it meant to be an engineer. I just knew I had an interest in technology and had done fairly well in math in high school. As an African American male (sometimes the only one in my classes) from a public high school and with modest means, it was difficult — and even intimidating at times — to navigate the Ivy League terrain. I was fortunate to find supportive communities that helped me balance the rigors of engineering life with the social justice and cultural identity work that ultimately became my passion. This led me to working at Penn after graduation, first in Information Technology, and later attaining a doctorate from Penn’s Graduate School of Education where I could further engage issues of culture, access, and opportunity.

I’ve been lucky to have been in the right places at the right times to be nurtured and mentored, and to be able to give back in some truly meaningful and exciting ways. But enough about me. This entry is about you, and the importance of reflection.

Coming off of the holiday season and winter break, and quickly moving into the spring semester, you are presented with numerous opportunities to look back on the previous semester (which for some of you was your very first in college). If you are anything like I was (and I guess still am in some ways), you are immediately driven to look at the areas where you feel that you fell short. This is a natural response. You want to bring your grades up, or better manage your time so that you can hang out with your friends and not feel guilty about it, or eat healthier, or land a great opportunity for the summer, or be more consistent about going to office hours. This is all a part of the life equation, especially for college students; we assess ourselves and we seek to push forward.

A critical part of the reflection process, and one that is often overlooked, is recognizing your achievements and growth. Sometimes it may feel self-aggrandizing to acknowledge the amazing things that you’ve done. I get that. No one is asking you to make a neon poster and tape it to your dorm door. You should, however, keep a brief log somewhere and jot down the things you’ve gotten right. Even if you didn’t get them completely right, list the improvements that you were able to make and journal about how they made you feel. Did you have a good stretch of getting to the gym or waking up earlier? Did you successfully lead a student group or a committee? Did you improve from the midterm to the final? Did you give back in some way? Did you do something unexpected, something that challenged you to break out of your shell? Did you spend your money wisely and keep some saved away for later? Did you help a friend in need? Did you plan a great event? Did you write a paper that you were truly proud of? What else did you do?

Growth is about balance. When we focus solely on where we want to go and fail to recognize the progress we’ve made to get there, then we can’t celebrate the present moment. Motivation comes from wins and losses. So enjoy where you are and the things that you’ve achieved as you continue to seek improvement and new challenges. Until next time.

— By Guest Blogger Dr. Brian Peterson, Director of Makuu, University of Pennsylvania’s Black Cultural Center, Author of “Higher Learning”, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education