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3 Keys to Success in College

Foster the humility to learn, find a vocation, and connect.‎

Key points

  • Although students come to universities to learn, there is often a barrier that prevents them from doing so—the vice of “knowingness.”
  • Many college students adopt an attitude of “careerism” and pursue marketable majors that will increase their chances of getting a job.
  • With immigrants and refugees coming from different parts of the world, connecting with people becomes an especially challenging task.

Many students and teachers are concerned with how to succeed in college—in large part because we live in challenging times where "knowingness" and "careerism" run rampant. Especially for students who are overwhelmed with the reality of the world, these three keys may increase the chances of their success.

1. Humility to learn.

The mission of any university is to create and disseminate knowledge. Although students come to the university to learn, there is often a barrier that prevents them from learning—the vice of “knowingness.”

Students feel pressured to have the right answer to each question. They get the impression—whether perceived or real—that professors ask questions to get the right answer. It is an unspoken norm that students should remain silent unless they have either the right answer or an insightful comment.

However, this atmosphere discourages students from making mistakes and therefore from creative learning. It also creates a classroom culture where students are afraid of saying the “wrong thing” lest they sound “stupid” to their peers and teachers.

To counter this unhealthy atmosphere, students and teachers should remember the main mission of the university. If students already knew everything, then they wouldn't need to attend the university. Although the humility to learn is in large part an individual attitude, it also requires collective efforts from peers and teachers: We need to create a space where learning mistakes are not only tolerated but welcomed. If students aim to have a transformative learning experience in college, I argue, we need to address the vice of “knowingness.”

2. Humility to find a vocation.

Many students have serious trepidations about finding jobs after college, so they focus on pursuing the most marketable majors that will increase their chances of getting a job in the fiercely competitive job market. This is the vice of “careerism,” by which students base their decisions primarily on economic and capitalistic factors while ignoring their passion and failing to explore their creativity.

Here we are confronting societal conditions and the reality of the world. Students must respond to those big factors—and often, they do so by investing in a path that will make them attractive to the most profitable employers. In isolation, it may be a smart economic choice.

Yet done over and over, it creates a world devoid of creativity since every investment is calculated through economic factors. When students are deciding which classes to attend, they may not ask whether they find the class “interesting” but instead whether their prospective employers will find the class “relevant.”

3. Humility to connect.

The university is not only a place of learning but a place of socialization. For immigrants and refugees who come from different parts of the world, connecting with people becomes a particularly challenging task.

Making friends and influencing people is both a science and an art—and very few people can adeptly connect with people from various ethnic, linguistic, and racial backgrounds. Given such diversity, it certainly requires humility to have meaningful connections with people.

No one can learn in a vacuum and the most profound moments of learning happen in relation to other people. Learning is not only a cognitive process but also a social experience. If we cannot connect with our peers and teachers, it will hinder our learning.

But connecting with people is a “mutual transaction”—two people cannot connect unless both have a shared atmosphere and understanding. Therefore, forming genuine connections becomes a challenging social interaction, especially for marginalized students in U.S. colleges and universities, such as first-generation students and those whom I call zero-generation students.


To succeed in college, students should cultivate the humility to learn, find a vocation, and connect. Humility is an attitude in which making mistakes is not only tolerated but welcomed.

However, humility does not mean that we should not learn from those sometimes humiliating missteps—and positive psychology can facilitate this cognitive reframing. Humility is not a tool to hack through college but a tool to transform the college experience.

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