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The Power of 'You Can'

Submitted by Laura Deeter,

No one likes to be told you cannot do something. For some people, the phrase ‘you can’t’ is enough of a motivator to do something simply to prove someone wrong. The Internet is rife with stories of people told a version of ‘you can’t do that’. Walt Disney heard he ‘lacked imagination’. Albert Einstein was thought to be mentally handicapped as he didn’t speak until he was four. Stephen King’s now-famous book Carrie was rejected by 30 publishers. Even the movie National Treasure tells the story of Thomas Edison failing 2000 times in his quest to create the lightbulb, supposedly responding to criticism with ‘I didn’t fail, I found out 2000 ways how not to make a light bulb’. These stories are inspirational, but they all have one thing in common. These individuals are now famous. What about the rest of us?

Most of us don’t like to be told ‘you can’t’. For most people, hearing this phrase is tantamount to failure before you even start. Hear this phrase often enough, and you quickly stop even trying. I’ve heard variations on this theme many times in my career as an advisor and professor. Our students enroll here often having heard variations on the theme ‘you can’t’. “You aren’t good enough for college”, “You aren’t smart enough to be in (insert major)”, “You aren’t smart”, “You aren’t good at math”, “You should try harder”. Some students enter Ohio State ATI with an ‘I can’t’ attitude, and we need to reach down to try to overcome years of ‘you can’t’ to turn it into ‘not only can I, but I DID’. And we have only 2 years to accomplish this.

Does this mean every student can complete every dream? Personally, I believe that every student, given no other obligations, can get an A in any class. The challenge, of course, is no one has zero other obligations. Our students take many classes, have jobs, have social lives, home lives, and many demands on their time preventing them from spending all their free time studying for any one class. Given the demands on their time, is it realistic that every student can reach every goal? Perhaps not.

Some careers will require high grades in certain classes. Some students say they are ‘bad’ at a subject and thus work less, becoming a self-fulfilling proficy of bad grades reinforcing their belief. Some careers will require classes that are thought of as ‘hard’. Chemistry, physics, math, public speaking often present students with challenges. What is our role as an advisor/mentor to students facing difficult majors, classes, or professions? How can we encourage students who might already have a negative attitude?

I believe we can lay out a pathway for class, major, or career success without using the phrase ‘you can’t’. We CAN say any of the following: “You will need to get an ‘A’ in chemistry to be competitive in graduate school”, “You will need to get ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s’ in all your classes to bring your GPA up in order to graduate on time”, “Yes it is mathematically possible to pass this class, but you have to decide if you are able/willing to dedicate the time to get above 90% on the rest of your assignments. If you can’t, or don’t want to, I would recommend you drop this class and take it again next semester”. Those are all phrases that indicate the difficulty, set out the reality of future challenges, and provide the student with choices. It is up to us as professors, advisors, mentors, tutors, etc. to set out the challenges, discuss various pathways through those options, and outline criteria for success. Mentorship is ‘You CAN do this. Yes, it will be hard, but you CAN. Let’s find a way’. It is up to the student to do the work, and ultimately determine if they have the dedication and determination to overcome the challenges. Change the ‘you can’t’ to ‘you can’ and implant the seed of possibility.