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Students leave Olaf due to culture of failure

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When it comes to St. Olaf’s retention rate, an article written by Sam Carlen ’20 for the Manitou Messenger reads, “Half of unretained students transfer to another school.” Shortly after this declaration, this statistic becomes the centerpiece of Carlen’s article: students are transferring and this is the main problem. I quickly realized, however, that this number means half of unretained students do not transfer; instead, these students choose to leave higher education all together. Why?

Though I do believe some come to realize, be it due to financial strain or vocational opportunity, that an undergraduate degree doesn’t seem in their best interest, I currently know several students at St. Olaf who walk a thin line when it comes to their return in the fall. These are the students who struggle.

An observation I’ve made is that different highschools have different education styles and resources at their disposal. May students, myself included, come from less demanding high schools than others do.

We need to change our school’s culture around failure. If we do that, successful, enthusiastic students will come and stay.” Alexia Nizhny ’21

For example, I graduated from an underfunded public school in New York City. For context, it was the kind of school where you got an “A” just for showing up to class. Those of my friends back home who’ve found themselves in college – which isn’t very many – tell me they’ve found themselves in the same boat as some of my friends at St. Olaf: their grades are falling short.

If they haven’t been prepared for higher education, how can they be expected to succeed in higher education? I understand St. Olaf has resources to provide guidance to struggling students, but issues like these cannot be resolved in a couple of advisory sessions. The administration needs to support students in failure, rather make them fear it.

During my first semester here, I found myself close to academic probation. I had failed my first-year religion class and almost received the threatening email about academic suspension that many of my friends did. When I found out I had avoided it, I felt like I could finally exhale. My homework was done with enthusiasm for the material, rather than fear of not returning to campus. Without this looming threat, I saw myself taking risks in assignments and projects. I was also better able to balance my social life and my hobbies. Isn’t that what we want for St. Olaf students?

Giving up is easy, and I can’t fault my friends for wanting to. Failure coupled with fear is a rabbit hole. They don’t pick themselves up because they believe they’ve fallen too far. We need to change our school’s culture around failure. If we do  that, successful, enthusiastic students will come and stay. Education should be driven by passion, not panic, and we need to give these students a chance to finally exhale.


Alexia Nizhny ’22 (nizhny1@stolaf.edu) is from New York, N.Y. Her major is undecided.