The Winning Attitude

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I write today’s commentary from Chicago, Illinois, where we are in the final day of our International Conference on Student Success, or RETENTION 2010. Thus, no more emails for another six months about this event. You must be relieved (Retention 101 coming up, though!).

More significant, perhaps, is that our host city is in the midst of a celebration after winning the Stanley Cup after a 49-year drought. The city just held a ticker-tape parade this morning and a few of us missed a conference session or two to watch the procession.

As a hockey fan, it was fun being here in Chicago for game 6 when the Blackhawks won the Cup two nights ago. There are many connections between my hometown of Winnipeg and Chicago. Twenty-two year-old phenom Jonathan Toews, a Winnipegger, led his team to Victory. And former Blackhawk and Winnipeg Jet Bobby Hull, who, as a 21-year old, led the Hawks to their last win in 1961, is taking it all in.

It takes an incredible amount of effort, talent, and luck to win a Stanley Cup. Like in any pro-sport, you need to have the right mix of talent and effort, and that intangible “chemistry” that lifts players to another level of sport. Luck is the ability of teams and managers to bring the right players together. The fact that the players know each other so well that a pass can go to an empty place because you just know that your colleague will be there isn’t luck—that is developed with talent and practice.

Over the course of an NHL year, the Blackhawks played 82 regular season games, and their playoff season stretched over two months and another 22 games—another quarter season. Many people don’t know that during a hockey season, there is rarely a day when players don’t lace up the skates. They practice on their off days; they practice the morning of game days. They practice seemingly all the time. They watch video. They have coaching sessions to discuss strategies and improving their on-ice game. Professional hockey players arguably work harder than any other type athlete.

So, here we are the RETENTION 2010 conference. Like hockey, student success—at any level—requires team work, talent, and effort. It takes a host of people to provide the encouragement, motivation, and strategies that propel students toward their collective goals. It takes determination on behalf of the student to persevere when things get challenging; persistence to move through barriers that make completion difficult; and dedication to the mission. For many students, getting to college is a difficult process. Completing even more difficult. But they need to practice and stay committed to the effort.

As practitioners in the college access and success field, we must teach students that the game of life requires dedication and hard work. Showing up for every game; giving it all and playing to the last minute. They need to understand that, as in hockey, there are penalties that put us back. There are injuries. But there are rewards to hard work. The Blackhawks started their training camp back in September 2009 with one goal—win the Stanley Cup. With 29 other teams attempting to do the same thing, it is more often than not an elusive goal. But they were dedicated to the task. We need to ensure that the students of today and tomorrow understand that work ethic matters. They also need to know that institutions of higher education have their best interests in mind and are there to help.

What all of us do in secondary and postsecondary education is critical to the economic prosperity of our nation. Our failure to improve college access and success could have disastrous implications for the next generation. We need to work harder and smarter to build the knowledge capacity to compete on the world stage. At the center of this work is our commitment to students and to teach them that sacrifice and effort is necessary to succeed in life—in business and at home.

Congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks. Congratulations to the Philadelphia Fliers for a stunning playoff performance. Let’s use these exemplary examples of dedication to encourage excellence in education and other matters.

We all want to hold the Cup.

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