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Celebrating the Little Successes in College

Cambria Pilger

For most of us, college happens in the time of life between being cared for and taking care of oneself. Students tend to see themselves as adults and spend a lot of time striving for solid grades, good jobs and mature behavior (not always succeeding, of course!).

If your student is like me, they moved away from home for college and initially may have had only a few friends and not a whole lot of support. There were so many things I had to learn about taking care of myself and managing my new routine. When I accomplished something small, like getting my laundry done and reorganizing my room (on the same day!), I usually didn't share it with anyone. Maybe that doesn't seem like an achievement, but the fact that I had dozens of homework assignments and life issues to deal with made accomplishing those basic chores feel like winning immunity on a survival game show.

The joy of being a child who is cared for and celebrated for everything from using the bathroom for the first time to getting the leading role in a play seems to almost vanish in college — and adulthood. It's understandable, since college students are challenged to be independent, but it's also sad, because students easily get bogged down by work, responsibilities and stress.

So why not celebrate more?

Recently, I was working at the grocery store and met the mother of a university student. I was checking out her order when she spontaneously told me about her daughter. The student got an A on a midterm paper worth 30% of her grade! The mom was so proud that she felt like telling me, a random college age-looking cashier.

I wish I'd been that excited for my big and small successes!

Which leads me to think that celebrating success in college should involve changing our mindset about what is and isn’t  considered an achievement.

Imagine if your student texted you every time they cooked a healthy meal, completed a boring but complex assignment, or took themselves off campus for alone time.

Imagine if during calls, you asked your student what non-school activities they had this week, and you cheered when they told you about the mundane tasks they did. They might feel ready to actually celebrate their chores rather than just sighing and crossing them off their to-do list.

Your student might be feeling a lot of pressure about whether or not they're doing the "right" thing or heading toward success. You can relieve some of that pressure by validating what they're already doing right now: taking care of themselves, making new friends, learning to take care of a budget and manage their time and fill out applications for campus jobs and other opportunities. Encourage your student to think about their tasks as small achievements, not boring necessities for living.

If you're looking for ways to help your student in this, ask what makes them feel motivated and celebrated. Then, do it for them the next time they have some kind of achievement!

Every midterms or finals week, my university would offer "survival kits" that parents or friends could order for their student(s) filled with snacks, candy, a few pieces of fruit and a note from the sender. The snacks didn't help me get my homework done, but the encouragement from my parents sure did.

Letters or texts can go a long way, especially when your student lives out of state. It's probably not worth it to send a care package every time they do their laundry. However, when they tell you about how they survived a tough week, send them a message letting them know you're proud of their strength and dedication. (You could congratulate them on being an adult and getting their laundry done, too.) Consider sending them a bag of their favorite coffee, a surprise Door Dash meal or another treat.

In the midst of the many unknowns of college, a change of perspective about what achievements are might help your student feel more successful. I encourage you to keep reaching out, celebrating and supporting your student as they grow into an independent adult.

Cambria Pilger is a recent graduate of Whitworth University. She studied journalism and mass media communication, with minors in Spanish and business. She is a freelance writer and a Communications & Development Admin at a local ministry. Cambria is passionate about understanding humans, exploring the world, thinking deeply, developing skills and getting to know people.
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