Inside Mizzou: Student Success

Inside Mizzou Podcast:
Student Success, Ep. 11

Moving to a new city, meeting new people and entering a new academic or work environment can create exciting opportunities for students, but they can also be challenging experiences.

Join Chancellor Alexander N. Cartwright for this episode of Inside Mizzou podcast where he talks with Brandon Orr, former assistant teaching professor in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology; and Summer Collins, a Mizzou alumna who earned her master of education in counseling psychology with an emphasis on sports psychology. We discuss the obstacles students might face in various aspects of their personal and professional lives, what it takes to succeed and why a class that has students jump off the 10-meter diving platform at the MizzouRec isn’t as crazy as it might seem.

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Moderator: [00:00:08] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community. Today’s episode is called “Student Success.” Moving to a new city, meeting new people, entering a new academic or work environment — these are situations that all of us encounter throughout life. And while they are often exciting, they also come with some degree of uncertainty or anxiety. Joining Chancellor Cartwright today are Brandon Orr, former assistant teaching professor in Educational, School and Counseling Psychology; and Summer Collins, a recent MU graduate who earned her master’s of education in counseling psychology with an emphasis on sports psychology. We’re here to talk about how uncertainty and fear impact our lives and why learning to confront these emotions is an important step toward success — especially student success. Thank you all for being here today. So, Chancellor Cartwright, the college experience is a pretty unique one in that a lot of students going to college or graduate school are embarking on this new and kind of exciting but also kind of fearful journey as well. How does fear influence the student experience?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:01:36] You know, I think anytime you go into any new experience you’re always a little nervous about it, you’re afraid of some things that can happen, and I think a lot of students that come to college have that fear that they may not succeed academically, also may not succeed socially. And that’s something that over time they’ll be able to work through and recognize that they’re here for a reason. They deserve to be here. They can, you know, do as well here as they’ve done in high school, and it just will take them time to start overcoming that fear of failure. It really is about thinking that you’re going to fail in those areas. When I think about how important that is to us as an institution, students succeed when they feel that they can succeed, and having that positive outlook and that you deserve to be here — you’re a member of this community and that you certainly will do as well as anybody else at the institution — makes for a big difference in the outcomes for all academically.

Moderator: [00:02:41] Going off of that student experience, Brandon, you actually teach a class that kind of helps students confront that idea of fear, and it’s something I wish I knew existed because I really want to take this class. So, can you tell us a little bit more about that class?

Brandon Orr: [00:02:56] Yeah, it’s a doctoral and master’s level sports psychology course. It’s applied sports psychology. And the idea, obviously, is we know that the sport environment has a manner of impacting athletes on a psychological level. Obviously, it impacts them on a physical level but on a psychological level, too. So, really we all come at this with just a wonderment. What is this context of sport, this contextual environment? What’s it going to do to them? It might pull out the fear, and that’s a deep one. What’s the narrative that’s driving that fear? Are they using the outcome for self-worth? Are they using the outcome for their identity? Are they using the outcome for some acceptance that’s outside of themselves, so they’ve added something to performance that isn’t naturally there? And we see it every day with the athletes that we work with. So, in that course — and really programmatically — we’re big on acceptance: acceptance, commitment, therapy, mindfulness, acceptance, commitment. So, it is, I think absolutely, that you deserve to succeed, but I also think there’s a critical juncture there of, “It’s OK to fail.”

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:04:14] Right, I agree with that.

Brandon Orr: [00:04:15] Right?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:04:15] Yeah, totally.

Brandon Orr: [00:04:16] That’s, I think, where we really have to kind of thrive in terms of how we’re serving students. It’s OK to fail. It’s just data for the next attempt, for the next performance, and that class is really just about addressing that, and what better way to do that than to put somebody up on a 10-meter platform and commit.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:04:38] You know, it’s interesting that Brandon should mention that. The acceptance of failure is incredibly important in so many ways. It’s how you innovate. I tell people all the time in my research that, you know, being a researcher you’re failing 90-some percent of the time. It’s what do you do with that failure. How do you move forward? How do you improve? And that’s one of the things that’s key to that. So, being willing to accept failure is a huge part of what we can do to help our students move forward.

Brandon Orr: [00:05:09] No doubt, no doubt. I mean, if you think about when you look at CVs, you know, there’s obviously the publication, but there is the end press.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:05:17] Yeah.

Brandon Orr: [00:05:17] And then there’s the submitted, review, editing.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:05:22] A lot of it. (Laughing)

Brandon Orr: [00:05:23] It’s the natural course of what we do. (Laughing)

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:05:27] That’s right.

Moderator: [00:05:27] Summer, you took Brandon’s class, so do you mind telling us a little bit more about that experience of taking that class?

Summer Collins: [00:05:33] Yeah absolutely. So, one of the things Brandon is great about is figuring out ways for students to understand beyond the theoretical because it’s so easy for us to sit and talk about the physiological experience and fear or how fear impacts cognitive processing. It’s very different to feel it ourselves and feel that impact and figure out how we, as an individual, have to be able to work through that because it’s much easier to explain to somebody something you’ve already done yourself. Trying to explain something that you don’t fully understand comes off as disingenuous, and it’s very, very hard to do well. So, having the opportunity to be able to experience that fear pretty severely up on that 10-meter platform really helped for me to be able to explain to athletes and even non-athlete clients, you know, how they might try to approach that fear and work through it themselves.

Moderator: [00:06:27] Going off of what you said, you said the 10-meter platform, right?

Summer Collins: [00:06:31] Yeah.

Moderator: [00:06:32] Can you go more into detail about facing that fear of jumping off the high dive? Because I can’t even imagine doing that. I think I would just run away, just go down. But yeah, can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Summer Collins: [00:06:43] There was absolutely a little voice in my head that was saying, “You could just turn around.” (Laughing).

Brandon Orr: [00:06:47] This doesn’t matter. (Laughing) It’s just a class.

Summer Collins: [00:06:49] Yeah, there’s a part of that that you have to deal with that little voice because we’re all going to naturally have that. And, you know, what do you listen to when it’s important, and what do you decide it’s not important. I had a moment — so this began weeks and weeks before we actually showed up at the 10-meter platform. We were doing exercises to create a pre-performance routine to help us mentally get into a space where listening to that little or ignoring that little voice was a lot easier than it would be normally. And where we were really paying attention to our performance and the specific aspects of our performance to be able to jump off. And for us it was just a little hop. You know, for divers it’s a very complex series of moves that they’re going through off of that platform. So, we began weeks before at developing this pre-performance routine, so once you get up to the 10-meter platform, you’ve got a narrative in your head of what you’re going through and what steps you need to take. For me, I got up to that 10-meter platform, and what had been a little tightness in my hip, all of a sudden my brain was going, “This hurts. I could hurt myself. I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think this is a good idea.” And it was literally just a little tightness in my hip from working out a little too hard that morning and nothing that was going to hurt me. So, in the process of going through this routine, Brandon said, “Just do it as we’ve always done it. Same thing.” And I looked at him I said, “I can’t because if I do the exact same thing I’ve done before, I’m not going able to do it because I’ve got this voice going on.” And so, I stepped back. I did a couple of minutes of mindfulness. I sat down just to be able to kind of recenter my thoughts, figure out is this really a pain that I need to pay attention to, or is this my body just like amplifying that voice, that fear. And so, I realized it was just that fear that was going on. It didn’t really hurt, it wasn’t going to bother me. I got up, I started that routine — that pre-performance routine that we’d worked on so many times over again — and then ran off and jumped.

Moderator: [00:08:50] Wow. Whoo!

Everyone: [00:08:50] (Laughing)

Moderator: [00:08:50] That was a lot to even hear, and I wasn’t even there. I know that Summer touched on this a little bit, but Brandon and Chancellor Cartwright, how is a course about overcoming fear so integral to student success in general? Because when you were saying that whole process of realizing that voice in your head could easily just be muted, how is that — yeah — how does that benefit students?

Brandon Orr: [00:09:24] I always liken it to a grocery store. And we would never — all of us have done it, we’ve gone to a grocery store when we’re hungry. That’s the worse time to go to grocery store — nutty bars, Doritos, Twizzlers, Dr. Pepper, M&M, microwave pizzas, popsicles. It all just jumps in the cart because it all sounds good. We’re not using any kind of judgment or any type of like prejudicial curriculum or content for whether or not that should go in my cart. That’s a really awful way to think about our brains, and we do it all the time. Because we have a thought we think it’s true. So, I think — and a lot of what we try to do in the program, certainly with this exercise and with the work with athletes — is: A thought is just a thought. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It’s not positive. It’s negative. It’s just a thought. So, for students this fear of the GPA: “I may not get into journalism. I may not get in to comm. If I don’t get into comm, I’m 60-plus hours in, I’ll have to do gen studies.” It’s just a thought. What’s the goal? What’s the value? What do you “want to stand for”? And it sounds like a bumper sticker, it sounds cliche, but accepting that fear and accepting that worst possible outcome in a lot of ways is liberating, and it’s rooted in this fact: It’s just a thought. That’s it, that’s all it is. It doesn’t have to be true.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:10:53] Yeah, I mean I would agree with that. I think, you know, I often talk to students, and some students talk about the anxiety of tests — being nervous about the tests and not being good test takers. And then there are others who are really good at the test taking. And what’s interesting to me is I had a lot of friends who were very well prepared for the tests, but they’d go into the test and just not perform at the same level as others. And it really has to do with that ability to block out all of that thought process and understand that you’ve done everything you need to do. You’re ready. You have to go in there, and you have to focus on what’s going on. I didn’t realize it until I started looking into mindfulness that when I was in school one of the things that I was really good at was being mindful when taking tests, and the only thing that I would think about when taking a test is the test. Nothing else, nothing else.

Brandon Orr: [00:11:53] That’s a leap.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:11:54] Yeah, and it was interesting because then it really — all of that I was able to just focus on it. And I could tell you that outside of the test I probably wouldn’t be able to solve some of those problems as easily, but during the test I could. And I think that’s what it takes, is that ability to just block out a lot of other things, focus on what you need to accomplish and just do it.

Brandon Orr: [00:12:13] The cool thing is that that’s a skill.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:12:15] Yeah.

Brandon Orr: [00:12:15] For you, it was innately high. For that person whose narrative is, “I’m just not good at test,” that will remain true. Every time you bomb a test that’s going to be the truth, and you can’t really have a different thought until you have a different experience.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:12:30] Correct.

Brandon Orr: [00:12:30] And so, this is that rub that we try to like, “OK, well what goes in line with having a successful test”? And it’s: “I’ve studied, I’ve prepared, so go and perform.” And now you’ve got a new, hopefully new, successful outcome to counter the narrative of “I’m not a good test taker.”

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:12:50] Yeah, and I was always as a student very big on having my mind settled before a test, so I didn’t like to study the day of a test. You know, I’d look at things the night before. The day of the test I’d just relax, do other things and then go take the test because I always felt that that extra time just confused things if I started to look at it then. I didn’t want to do that. So yeah.

Moderator: [00:13:13] Well, you bring up an excellent point and something that segues really great into my next question, but what are some strategies that you use to comfort and combat fears that you have personally. Like I can start with I have a huge fear of lizards. I really hate lizards. I don’t know why. If they’re around me, I will run the other way, and the thing is what I do is whenever I see one I just stare at it because I just like — the more I stare at it the more I feel like it’s not going to do anything to me. And it’s just a small little thing, and that’s just a way that I combat that fear. So, what are some examples from each of you about how to combat fear?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:13:56] Well, I mean I’ll say, you know, one thing is I’m afraid of heights. I really am, and I always have been, but there’s certain heights I’m not afraid of. Like I think I could probably do the 10-meter jump into the water because I grew up around water, and it doesn’t frighten me that you do that into water. But if it’s a ground, then I’m a little more worried — if it’s solid ground.

Everyone: [00:14:20] (Laughing)

Brandon Orr: [00:14:20] Solid logic.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:14:20] Yeah, but I get that way even with just going up ladders, and, you know, you have to really just keep reminding yourself that, for me, it’s reminding myself that that’s an unreasonable fear. Is that if everything is okay with the ladder, then I’ll be fine, but just to be careful in doing it. So, it’s that really getting yourself over that. But it’s not easy. Overcoming a fear that you have is really difficult.

Summer Collins: [00:14:51] So, I’m afraid of embarrassing myself in social situations.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:14:55] Yeah, that’s another one. (Laughing)

Summer Collins: [00:14:55] So, you know, when I meet new people, I’m very guarded. I try to present myself as this perfectly polished professional, and I am silly. If you get to know me for five seconds, I’m silly, and I like to laugh. And so, for me a lot of it is just recognizing that I can either be authentic with people and be my silly self, and if that bothers them, that bothers them. Or I can present myself as this perfectly polished professional, and then I have to keep up that attitude forever, as long as I’m around this person. And, you know, for me it just becomes a choice of what do I want to spend my effort on. Do I want to spend it on this facade, or do I want to be me and be silly?

Brandon Orr: [00:15:34] I think mine’s a little more Dr. Phil. Mine’s mediocrity. I fear the feeling and self judgement of mediocrity. It’s not what others will think of me. It’s more how I regard myself, and what I’ve learned at this point is there is no counter to that. I’ve accepted at this point that I’m mediocre — if it’s normative. If I compare myself to Chancellor Cartwright, mediocre. If I compare myself to Wendy Reinke and Keith Herman and Lisa Flores and Matt Martens and Chris Riley-Tillman, mediocre. But if I compare myself to just my values, like this is what I believe in, this is what I want to live for in terms of maximum effort and commitment and unrelenting dedication and obligation to students in helping athletes win national championships and helping the military be as efficient and excellent at what they do, then in that regard I can base myself on my effort and on my commitment and not on an outcome. There’s no publication or Iron Man triathlon or career award or even somebody that I’m helping their outcome — it’s never gonna address the narrative of mediocrity. So, I base it off of commitment, acceptance and just trying to practice what I preach, truly. So, that’s my little Dr. Phil.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:12] That’s fascinating.

Moderator: [00:17:12] Well, thank you so much for being here today. It was a very enlightening conversation and one that I’m definitely going to use in my everyday life of combating fear. But one thing before we leave: What did the triangle say to the circle?

Summer Collins: [00:17:27] What’s your angle here?

Moderator: [00:17:27] Oh, Oh. That is a good one!

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:30] That’s pretty good.

Moderator: [00:17:34] It is, “You’re pointless!”

Everyone: [00:17:34] (Laughing)

Moderator: [00:17:50] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is “Forest Park Rhapsody,” composed by MU undergraduate and music composition major Ben Colagiovanni. You can find more information about Ben and his piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time, and keep an eye out for the chancellor’s newsletter to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Inside Mizzou. See you around the columns!