Learning to fail forward

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

Twenty years ago, I arrived on the Luther College campus as a bright-eyed first-year. I came from a small town in Iowa and was the first in my family to go to college. I had no idea what to expect from Luther, but I was eager for the opportunity. I recall my general excitement in those first few days and weeks, but I don't remember the specific events like meeting my roommates, going to my first classes or learning the L-U cheer. I know these events were important to me, and at the time monumental, but today? Thinking back, there are memories from my first year that I remember quite well, some even vivid. Unfortunately, these were times when things didn't go so well. The times that I remember thinking I messed up, screwed up or just plain failed.

My first disastrous grade came from an exam in Psychology 130, a lecture-style class, taught in Valders 217. I remember sitting in the stadium seats, trying to read every question so carefully to narrow down each multiple-choice question. A few days later the professor announced that exam scores would be posted outside the classroom on a piece of paper secured to the wall. I was scared to look, I knew the results were not going to be good. I waited until most of the crowd had cleared, I scanned down the page, found my ID number and saw the "F" posted next to it. I can still feel the pierce in my chest and the lump in my throat as I tried to collect myself before my next class.

Later in the semester, after receiving two sub-par grades on Paideia papers, I dug in and decided to work even harder for the next assignment. I started writing days before the deadline, I went to the writing center, I had peers read my draft and I talked with my professor. I spent more time on that paper then I ever had before. I was confident my hard work would pay off. I remember sitting in the classroom in Koren, anxiously anticipating the smile or "good job" my professor would offer as she handed me my "A" paper. Then, BAM, the paper was on my desk (if you haven't guessed yet, it wasn't an "A") and I melted into my chair trying to understand how could this have happened.

Fast forward to the present where ironically, I work at Luther with students that share stories of similar concerns with me. I hear about the biology test that will "prevent me from being a doctor" or the poor grade in Paideia that confirms "I am a bad writer." Sometimes I am shocked with the lack of resiliency and debilitating fear of failure that we all face, but then I think…why can I still remember the feeling and the details of the times that I failed 20 years ago?

I failed…it sucked…I can still remember it today…but I needed those experiences.

Luther gave me the opportunity to fail, it made me work harder, think deeper and challenged me in ways that I didn't know were possible. I can't precisely recall an office conversation or hallway talk with the people that coached, supported and pushed me to improve, but I know I had a lot of them. Without my failures, I don't know if I would have connected to my community the way I did. I reached out. I found ways to ask for help. I made connections. I remember the people that were influential in my experience, the ones that helped me grow. This deep feeling of connection and support is what I value the most today even though it is not attached to a specific memory. I failed forward.

Earlier this semester I participated in a workshop for first-year students where Luther tutors talked about their academic pitfalls. Each tutor shared details about the times they personally "failed," how they reacted, what they did to respond and how they recovered.

Most tutors talked about a tearful phone call home, a conversation with a professor that wouldn't have happened without the grade or accessing resources that they had denied in the past. After the tutors had shared their stories, a first-year student, with fear in her eyes, raised her hand, stood up and asked, "Will I really have an academic 'fail' moment at Luther?" And I thought to myself, I hope you do!

Gwen Van Gerpen

Gwen Van Gerpen

Gwen Van Gerpen is the director of Luther's Student Academic Support Center and has worked at Luther since 2004. She graduated from Luther in 2001 with a degree in history. Gwen has a passion for supporting teaching and learning, and provides leadership for campus-wide tutoring, disability services and academic coaching. She is the advisor for the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega-Mu Theta and Habitat for Humanity. She and her husband Chris, '02, and their daughter enjoy country life- gardening, hiking, hunting and all things outdoors.

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