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The Quality That Develops Initiative in Students

I watched as a Dean for Residence Life spoke to a college student recently. The dean was concerned about the lack of initiative the student was showing while serving as a Resident Advisor in her hall. The conversation went something like this:

Dean: Why didn’t you talk to your residents about the electrical problem?

Student: I didn’t know you wanted me to.

Dean: Well, as the leader on your floor, I expect you to recognize what your students need to know, to help them function in the dorm. This was important.  

Student: Sometimes, I am afraid to say too much. I don’t want to make a mistake and say something you don’t want me to share.

Dean: I can appreciate that, but this issue seems obvious. I want you to take more initiative on the job. You are a leader and leaders are supposed to initiate.

Student: I know, but I just wish you’d be more clear and tell us what to do.

My guess is, you can see both sides of this issue. The student appears afraid to make a wrong move. She doesn’t want to fail her supervisor. In addition, she had little intuition as to what should be said to her student residents. She preferred to just be told what to do, which would make her job safer and predictable.

Can you identify with the dean?

This dean told me later that initiative is harder to find on campus these days. Students seem paralyzed with making a bad choice or failing. They’ve been spoon-fed the answers as younger kids and may desire that same leadership style as adolescents and young adults. Sometimes, a young adult doesn’t even see what needs to be done. They expect us to tell them.

According to Ellucian, more than 70 percent of four-year colleges have a staff person in charge of student retention and success. While I believe this is great news, it can send an incorrect message to students: we are responsible for your success, not you.

What Helps Students Take More Initiative?

I believe there’s no silver bullet for building initiative in students. However, we can encourage initiative by addressing a pre-requisite for it in student life. It is summarized below:

Don’t just live out of habit. Live out of intention. 

Students have been conditioned to ask: What do I need to do to pass? What do you want me to do to get an A? What steps do I take to get this done as fast as possible? How can I get extra credit? They get answers from us, and many simply build habits from our steps. The fact is, we all live out of habits and routines.

What happens, however, when we begin to live out of intention?

Intentional living is powerful. On the surface, it may look no different than a person living out of habit. But the difference is awareness.

How Do We Practice Awareness?

Awareness occurs when we help students perceive the desired outcomes. When they see an objective clearly, they can work toward that goal and even come up with ideas and solutions we’ve not yet identified. They begin to “own” the goals, and eventually, the steps to reach those goals.

Conversely, habits are done by rote—out of the subconscious. They’re about routines and repetition. We can be half asleep. This is where many students live today. David Foster Wallace reminds us that some of life’s most important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. There are entire portions of adulthood that are dull, routine and lived out of pure habit. They involve boredom and petty frustration. Our default setting is to assume that every situation is all about “me.” So we get angry and frustrated quickly because people are in our way; things move more slowly than we’d prefer; life gets tedious and hard. We shift into habit mode—day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year.

But this is where the art of choosing comes in. We can choose to be aware, to be intentional about everything we do, about all we say and how we think about the petty routines of our lives. It is harder to be intentional than to live by habits—but it is better.

We actually get to choose how we approach those days.

We can be aware; to choose to perceive life differently; to empathize with others and see the big picture. This intentionality actually enables us to take initiative.

So, the next time you have a student who doesn’t want to take initiative, check to see if they are fully awake. Are they asking enough questions to step into the shoes of their peers or teachers to gain an understanding of someone else? Do they welcome not only ethnic, class and gender diversity, but cognitive diversity (those who think differently)? Are they living on-purpose? Are they aware of the big picture? If so, are they able to reflect on the best way to take initiative to respond to the realities occurring around them?

Who knows? Maybe your R.A. will actually talk about the electrical problem.


New Book: Marching Off the Map

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This new resource collates decades of research and experiences into one practical guide that helps adults:

  • Inspire students to own their education and their future
  • Lead students from an attitude of apathy to one of passion through metacognition
  • Enable students to push back from the constant digital distractions and practice mindfulness
  • Raise kids who make healthy progress, both emotionally and intellectually, through their teenage years
  • Give students the tools to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world
  • Understand and practically apply the latest research on Generation Z

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The Quality That Develops Initiative in Students