The Overwhelming Power of Fear (and how to break it down)

Fear and Opportunity 2Last week I spent close to an hour trying to convince a 17 year old student not to throw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was one of the most intense and honest conversations I’ve had in 16 years of working in higher education. The student is a participant in a six-week residential summer program at the university where I work. The program prepares select incoming freshmen  for the rigors of college academics and acclimates them to campus life. Students must successfully complete it to attend the university. The young man came to my office one evening to tell me he was dropping out of the program and going to community college instead.

As I listened to his litany of reasons, I resisted the urge to systematically shoot down each and every one of them. I knew I had to tread carefully here if I was to convince him that he was potentially making one of the biggest mistakes of his life thus far.

He was so fragile. I could see this as he explained why community college would be a better fit. He wasn’t quite ready to leave home. He had a girlfriend that he loved. His high school hadn’t prepared him well enough for university academics. He was shy about meeting new people. He was scared of student loan debt. What if he graduated with loads of debt and couldn’t find a good job? He said community college was a better place to start and he’d transfer to university later on.

His reasons were valid, but I also knew they were excuses. I could see clearly that this guy was terrified of failing, of not being good enough, of not having what it takes to succeed. His reasons were lumped together into one big ball of fear.

After listening to him without interruption for what seemed an eternity, I took a deep breath and asked him if he was here simply to inform me of his decision or did he also want my feedback. He told me to go ahead, he’d listen to what I had to say.

I began by telling him that I understood his concerns and they were valid. I told him I thought community colleges were terrific and believed he could get a great education at one. I told him I understood that love is a powerful thing. And yes, he had graduated from one of the worst performing high schools in the state and he was correct that it hadn’t adequately prepared him for university academics, which is why he was in the summer program. Student loan debt is scary and there are no guarantees of well-paying employment after graduating.

Then I told him what I really thought. That he was scared to death. That being on campus, taking college courses, immersed in a foreign environment, was bringing out his fight or flight response, and his reaction was to flee to safety, the familiar.

Love is powerful, but true love means wanting the best for one another and supporting each other’s growth and potential. True love would stand the test of being apart and time.

His inner city high school, which I knew had a lovely view of a prison directly across the street, was low-performing, but the admissions office clearly felt he had the potential to succeed here, otherwise they wouldn’t have admitted him.

True, he’d have to take out some student loans, but they were minimal. He’d been offered an amazing financial aid package with lots of grant aid. I asked him to think of people he knew who’d purchased nice cars. Chances are their auto loans were as much or more than what his total student loans would be over four years. This was an investment in himself, in his future earnings and job options.

I agreed that a college education doesn’t guarantee high paying work. Indeed, there are no guarantees in life, period. But at the university, he’d  be able to get involved with clubs and organizations, complete an internship, perhaps study abroad, and build a network of people who might help him out in the future insofar as employment goes. Did he think he’d be able to do all that at the community college, which was located in the same inner city he’d grown up in and would no doubt have some of the same people he’d gone to high school with attending?

Then I pulled out my trump card. I told him that the university had received over 30,000 applications for only 3,500 freshmen spots, that he was one of the chosen few. Was he really willing to throw away this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? If he left, there was no guarantee he would be able to transfer back in. Being admitted once was no guarantee he’d be admitted again.

I didn’t stop there. Instead, I said something I never thought I’d say to a student. Fear I was about to make a huge mistake that would come back to bite me made my stomach tighten, but something in me decided to say it anyway. I told him there weren’t enough black males in higher education. We needed more. We needed him. We needed him to complete his degree and get out there working in fields that don’t have enough diversity. Then I held my  breath as I waited for his response.

This is when the real conversation began. He admitted he was scared. As a black male from an inner city who grew up without a father, he had no positive male role models to emulate. He worried that a racist society wouldn’t want to hire him. He worried he’d go to this mostly white university, rack up debt, and then end up right back where he came from, no better off. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep up with his peers from more privileged backgrounds, who had the good fortune of going to much better public or even private schools. He felt like a fraud, like he didn’t belong here, like admissions must have made a mistake.

What does a middle-aged, middle-class white lady say to all that?

Something inside me welled up. I felt a sudden fierce protectiveness over this vulnerable young man. Though I couldn’t understand first-hand how he truly felt, I could empathize.  I desperately wanted him not to throw away this opportunity. We talked for a while longer, and then I offered a compromise. What if he completed the summer program and then started at a regional branch of the university? This way he could commute from home, yet still be within the university, and be guaranteed a spot if he wanted to transfer up to the main campus at some point.

He seemed interested in this option. Asked a bunch of questions. I told him not to decide right then, to think about it overnight and come by my office in the morning to let me know his decision. He agreed, thanked me, and left.

A group of my female colleagues was gathered in one of the offices, in what looked like an intense discussion of their own. They waved me over. We’d had a head’s up about my student wanting to leave the program from the residential staff earlier that day, so they knew what my meeting with him was about. They ushered me in, closed the door, and asked how it went. I burst out crying. Thank God for the comfort of these women, who knew first-hand the intensity of what I’d just gone through, who’d had enough of their own intense conversations with students to understand. It was close to 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night and we were all still at work, having arrived early that morning for a staff meeting. We were exhausted, but we stayed a while longer and talked.

A few years before, I’d completed motivational interviewing training. It taught me the importance of being invested in the intervention with students, but not the outcome. I knew I’d done all I could to help my student understand the opportunity he’d been given, and the ramifications if he chose to throw it away. It was time to let it go, and to go home.

The student didn’t come by my office the next day, as I’d instructed him to. I ran into him later in the afternoon. His demeanor was nonchalant. He said he thought we were supposed to meet at 9:00 p.m. (huh?). He said that he was going to stay in the summer program and go to the regional campus in the fall.

It was as if the clouds parted and the heavens opened up. My mind screamed hallelujah! I wanted to throw my arms around him. Instead, I simply said that I felt he’d made a good decision and to come by my office later that week so we could schedule his courses at the regional campus.

We parted and went about our day, me a little lighter, him a little braver.

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12 thoughts on “The Overwhelming Power of Fear (and how to break it down)

  1. Such a terrific powerful post Kim. It was emotional reading it and I wasn’t there in the room with you. How sad that he felt this way. How fortunate for this young man that he had you to speak with, someone who refused to let him give up on himself.
    It must be very difficult for someone to step into an environment that is so foreign to all that he knows and not only live in those surroundings but have to succeed in ways he might not have faced before. That was a terrific compromise you offered him. I wondered after I finished reading it, if you thought he might do better being away from familiar surroundings and the tough areas he left behind or if going back home would make him more comfortable. I guess you’ll find out soon enough. I hope you’ll keep us informed on his progress. Hopefully you will still have some contact with him in the future.
    Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You raise an excellent point, George. Actually, I feel he would be better off being away from his surroundings and at the main campus. I’m hoping since the summer program goes on several more weeks he’ll chance his mind and stay. But if he doesn’t, at least he’ll be at the university and we have the same program I work for at the regional campus, so I will get him connected to our staff there. Praying he sticks to his decision.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If only there were more people in the world like you. If only someone had cared enough about my future to take five minutes to talk to me when I was his age — what a difference one person, one conversation can make in a person’s life. No matter, win or lose, you put the effort, the love, the concern and the time into speaking into his life. Young people today need this kind of support in spades – not from their parents who, too often, have their own agendas, but from people like you who know what their up against. Let me say thank you, in case no one else does. Thank you, for making a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am so impressed that you were able to handle that situation so well! It would have been so easy for you to just jump right in and tell that young man what you thought was best (probably what I would have done), rather than sit and really listen to his concerns and even asking if he wanted your feedback before giving him advice. I think, in many ways, you have just made a huge difference in his life. Even if he doesn’t stick with the university, he will always remember that you cared enough to listen, and that you told him he was good enough and encouraged him to face his fears and meet the challenge head-on.

    I suspect that he as nonchalant when you spoke to him later because he was a little embarrassed about the honesty of your earlier conversation with him. We are both mothers of sons, so we know how they tend to “back off” a bit after a truly open conversation. But clearly, you helped him! I hope he sticks it out. The world needs more people like you, and like him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, Ann. Years of doing this kind of work and some professional training has taught me the importance of listening to hear, not to respond. Listening is probably the most important, yet least practiced, communication skill there is. Imagine a college course in listening instead of public speaking! Really listening to others can also be exhausting! This student, though, is a prime example of how much power fear has over so many of our lives, my own included. I am so sick of fear holding people back from realizing their potential. Sometimes I could just scream!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know exactly what you mean. It’s so hard to stand up to our fears, and sometimes it’s just more than we can do, even with the encouragement of others. And I agreed that listening is so under-valued! I think if you had not truly listened to this young man’s fears, you would not have been able to help him, and he would have just dropped out. Yes, his fears are legitimate, but if can find the strength to face them, then he holds the key to such a wonderful future. (Pretty much true for all of us!) Thanks for all you did to help, and all we can do is pray it was enough.

        Liked by 1 person

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