John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What is Your Goal?

John N. Gardner

This posting was prompted by a phone conversation, a relatively brief one at that, I had from New Zealand, where I happened to be on vacation, with my nine year old grandson, Jon David, on the occasion of his birthday.

His birthday happens to be February 22.  So, naturally, as a recovering former historian, I asked him if he knew which American President’s birthday he was born on. He gave me an immediate correct answer and then went on to elaborate why George Washington was so important in our history. So far so good. I was impressed, particularly because I am paying for a world class private school education for this child.

Then I missed a perfect chance to quit while I was ahead. I asked him: Jon David, what is your goal for your ninth year of life? Without hesitation, he replied: “To relax”! And then without further prompting he elaborated to say that that had been his goal for previous years and that he had been able to attain that goal.

After this brief conversation, my wife, Betsy Barefoot, gently chided me for asking a nine year old boy for his goal for the year. She said: “Oh John, he is just a child.”

But then we started reflecting on what we know about this child. He is not a relaxed kid. He is a typical American middle class kid whose parents have him busy in various activities almost beyond my imagination, so different was my own childhood. He is in a rigorous, Episcopal, private school, very probably the best pre-college school in South Carolina. He plays soccer, basketball, and baseball. And, because his mother, my son’s wife, owns a very successful dance studio, this boy has gone, as my son says “dance nuts”! This means he is at his mother’s studio essentially every day and is both taking lessons and dancing competitively. The descriptions I receive of the child from his father would lead me to believe that he is investing more time, energy, effort, and commitment to dance than anything else in his life, just like his mother. And yet he is totally imbued with the South Carolina macho male culture and I would describe him as “sports crazy.” He is truly a walking encyclopedia of sports statistics, a knowledge that not one bit of it was contributed by this grandfather.

So why, I ask, doesn’t he have any other goals? Surely, every upwardly striving middle class kid who aspires to go to a good college has goals by age 9. It’s not like this kid was first generation. To the contrary, I am second generation and my son is third generation and so this kid will be fourth generation. And both his parents are college educated.

Those of us who work in the “student success” field know how important a variable correlating with student persistence is the development of life purpose on the part of students. And we can’t do that if we haven’t had some experience and success with developing goals.

Of course, we have to take what walks in the door. My grandson is making me wonder anew how many of our entering students arrive on our doorsteps with no history of goal setting.

I look back on myself as an example. Did I have a goal for my ninth year? Well, yes, kind of. And it was a goal imposed on me by my father who moved his family in the middle of my ninth year, to another country, because his US company moved him to Canada to run a Canadian subsidiary. So I suppose I did have a goal for my ninth year, which was to make a successful transition from living in the US to living in Canada, starting a new school, and making new friends. But did I freely establish that goal? No. It was really imposed on me. Nobody appears about to impose on my grandson a goal for his ninth year.

As I look at my experience nearer the college years, I can remember few goals. In my 10th grade, I had just been moved back to the US by my father and my goal for the 10th grade was to “fit in” my new school setting. And that I realize is the number one goal for many new college students: to fit in!

In my junior year I had several goals: to “go steady “(I achieved that one); to get a remunerative job after school once reaching the requisite age of 16 (I achieved that one too); and then to get my driver’s license (I achieved that one too).

I don’t remember any goals for my senior year other than to simply cooperate with my father who desperately wanted me to go to college anywhere. I didn’t care. I adopted his goal for me and off I went to college and a nearly disastrous first year.

So the point of all this is that my grandson’s answer to my question about a goal for this year of his life, has got me thinking about our entering college students and their tremendous ranges in experience with setting goals.

So I leave you my readers, with some questions:

  1. How are you introducing the topic of goal setting and developing of life purpose to your new students?
  2. What kind of support do you provide for your students to pursue these critical questions?
  3. How do you continue this support beyond the first year and well on into the second year?
  4. How can we give our college students more experience in practicing goal setting and then supporting them in the pursuit of the goals that they chose, as opposed to the ones that their parents and we might have chosen for them?

In the meantime, I am going to keep asking my grandchildren about their goals. I have four of them; and my wife has eight. So we will be comparing notes. And I hope we will be more insightful higher educators as a result from these contacts with future college students in the pipeline.

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