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A Simple Willingness to Learn is the Door, not the Key

I appreciate Dr. Jonathan Malesic, Professor of Writing at the University of Texas at Dallas, tapping into the value of personal responsibility in his op-ed for the New York Times, and his assertion that “a simple willingness to learn” is the key for college success. Hopefully, the title of the article will draw readers in for this important discussion of success during uncertain times. However, Dr. Malesic places this burden solely on the shoulders of the student and     does not focus enough attention on all the keys necessary for college access, success, and career leadership development beyond that student’s own will.

For over 25 years, the organization I work for, Chicago Scholars, has led our students to success largely due to the extensive research, professional experiences, and best practices that inform  our work. Our Scholars achieve college access, success, career development and leadership – as we like to say, they go wherever their dreams may lead. But my work with Chicago Scholars has confirmed for me that a singular focus      on “a simple willingness to learn” – at the expense of addressing other important factors – is exactly why a student like me, and many other academically ambitious students, almost left college after failing the first semester. That experience left me questioning my desire to be a college student at all. If I was failing, I felt that I couldn’t be committed to learning. Could I? Thankfully, my own college experience began and ended with a willingness to learn. I wanted to learn how to change my circumstances. I wanted to learn how to combat the barriers that I had already faced trying to earn admission into college. I wanted to learn how to navigate a system where my race, gender, and economic status were a factor in my ability to succeed. Unfortunately for me, my willingness to learn also included heavy student loan debt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and continued barriers to entering the professorate. Luckily for me, I found the support I needed in equal opportunity programs when my willingness to learn just wasn’t enough.    .

A few weeks ago, we sent a wellness check email to some of our Scholars. Tragically, they had experienced a school shooting, and a classmate was killed. I highlight this not to draw out the stereotypical assumptions that surround safety in Chicago but to acknowledge the gun-violence pandemic faced by children in every neighborhood across the U.S.  Given this reality, I am challenged to agree that “simply having the willingness to learn” is a significant predictor of success. Our Scholars are willing to learn, but that is simply not enough when they also must worry about their safety while they try to do so.

Dr. Malesic’s brief mention of low enrollment, remote learning, careerism, and knowing the obstacles that hinder learning leaves much to be desired for those who understand and need real tools for success. What, really, does it mean to embrace learning for learning’s sake when your institution does not acknowledge your lived reality?

I share Dr. Malesic’s frustration with the economic and cultural issues our Scholars must confront on their college success journey. But my greater concern is how professors like Dr. Malesic determine whether a student is responding “appropriately” to those challenges. How do they measure the willingness to learn? This could be quite subjective. And how do they react when that willingness to learn just isn’t enough?

Nameka R. Bates, Ph.D.

Managing Director of College Access

Chicago Scholars