Taking Risks: One of the Great Hidden Benefits of College


College is a time for exploration and taking risks. From the professor’s chair, I see students from every stage, maturity level, and economic background. What binds them all together is the experience of taking risks to explore their own gifts and direction.

Recently, I was speaking to a group of students about this very subject of taking risks. Normally, when it gets to the point in the “College Planning” speech when I talk about taking risks, students are interested; but, this group was silent and locked into my every word. I was talking about Diane, a third-year student of mine, who had sought out advice some years ago. She needed to take a risk in order to really succeed, but for her, the risk involved deep family and cultural shifts in thinking. Something my current group was struggling with as well.

Diane’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico. She was the first person to go to college in her family, something she was very proud of; however, her Dad viewed a college education as a “nice to have” rather than a “necessity.” She found herself arguing frequently with her Dad over financial issues.

For Dad, his issue was with Diane and her choices. Diane was at an age where typically she would offer to contribute financially to the family expenses rather than incur expenses, like college tuition. From his perspective, as the head of the household, his daughter’s college expenses were a drain overall. He wanted Diane to quit school and get a job to start making a financial contribution to their family. That is what was expected and for him, her conflict seemed very misplaced.

College Goals Differ

As a third-year college student, Diane was quite upset. She felt isolated in her conflict over school versus family. With only one more year to complete her studies and get a degree, she could see all the hard work and effort thus far, but the pressure to do the right thing by her family was agonizing. Diane didn’t know what to do and feeling more anxious and confused, she finally reached out to me.

As her professor, Diane felt a connection with me. I represented the part of her life that held all three years of accomplishments that her father failed to understand. As she explained the conflict to me, I could see that as an educational institution, we were not preparing her and others like her, to deal with these cultural conflicts. Even for myself, as I have always given my students an outlined College-plan-of-action, there was an insight that allowed me to include some additional tools that could carry more students to the finish line of their education.

After speaking to Diane over the course of a few days, it was clear she was in a painful dilemma. Her family needed her to earn a wage to help the family financially. There were several other children in the family that her Dad was still caring for, and her Mother was not able to work to help them financially. Her Dad and the entire family looked to Diane to fulfill an unwritten obligation to contribute to the family by getting a job. None of them understood the advantage of this college degree or understood the tremendous work and effort of Diane’s three years entailed. All they knew was that she was old enough to work and pull in an additional income that the family needed.

For her Dad, the choice was easy: quit school to contribute financially to the family. For Diane, there were only hours and hours of arguing that was making things worse for both parts of her life. She was unable to convince her Dad that her education was a path to a much better life, and a better paying job: a career. Her Dad only understood what it meant to have a job and for him, a career had no meaning.

“Taking Risks” College to Career Speech

For my group of students listening to my story, I could see their interest in how Diane finally found a solution. Many of the students were familiar with my Check It Off! book and they began to ask: “What specifically was Diane going to do that would finally change her father’s mind?”

Check It Off! is intended for you, as students, to create a plan and with that plan, you can navigate through each year in your education to find solutions that will put you in line for success.”

Diane and I worked through her own plan and discussed a couple of options that could possibly resolve her conflict, but there one option, in particular, that would not only keep her in school but also help her father at the same time.

When students are navigating their education and “checking off” all the things they need to do in order to be successful, it is easy to overlook the most obvious things when you are in the thick in the process. I asked Diane if she had reviewed the section on scholarships. She had looked at it but pushed it aside not fully understanding how this particular “check” might help her to finish school and gain her Dad’s support.

College Coaching Help

Diane had no idea how many different types of scholarships there were and, more importantly, that she was a perfect candidate for some being offered. We talked about certain scholarships based on what country a student is from, what zip code they resided in, and what degree program they might pursue. She was aware that there were just a couple of scholarships offered of this type, but she was not aware that very few students actually take advantage of the opportunity.

Diane’s optimism over the process was brief. Sure, there were scholarships out there exactly for her, but to apply for them requires a copy of her transcript, and a personal letter stating why she would deserve the scholarship and how she would ultimately use that money if it was given to her. Like so many other students, Diane explained why writing this letter would not be worth her time. She believes, like so many other students, that it would take a lot of time to write this letter and the probability of her actually getting the scholarship was so small. “Why even do it? “ She asked. “It seems like I would be taking a huge risk with no return.”

“Because college is a time when you are given opportunities that are worth taking such risks,” I told the students in the audience. In Diane’s case, she did take the time to write out a personal, thoughtful letter to go with her scholarship application. We worked together on her understanding of how “risks” can achieve great “rewards,” and in the end, Diane was awarded a $1,500 scholarship for the effort.

The risk of her effort not only eased the financial hardships at home by helping to pay her tuition and book costs but more importantly, for Diane, it was a symbol to her Dad that her choice to stay in college and complete the coursework and graduate was a choice worth the risk.

“Check It Off” Freshman Checklist


“It is important to stand out from your competition when applying for jobs once you graduate from college,” I continued to tell the students in the auditorium. “And one of the not-so-obvious benefits of obtaining a scholarship is that when you place this information on your resume, employers feel that these candidates are worth interviewing.”

The most obvious success of what Diane achieved was that she had a plan for her education and she sought out help when the list of things to do didn’t seem to apply to her situation. Risk-taking is part of the many great lessons one learns in college. Sometimes students just need to have faith in their education plan and work to keep checking off all the tasks that make the process so rewarding for their future.

So, take some risks. It literally might pay off!


Vera Teller is a professor at California State University Dominguez Hills. She is a Ph.D., and has written two books to help her students navigate the bumpy road from college to career, Check It Off! and Navigate Your Way to the Career You Want. She lives in Southern California, is an in-demand College-to-Career Speaker, and consults with parents and students on navigating the entire process. www.verateller.com

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