When I talk with staff and faculty on college campuses, I often begin the conversations with an invitation:

Think about one or two college students you have known who were especially or exceptionally successful. What characteristics or attributes contributed to the students’ success? If you could develop a “formula” for student success, what would it include?

Most often, I hear things like: self-starter; motivated; committed; no excuses; planner; strong communication skills; proactive.

I then share “Eleanor’s Story,” about a food bank volunteer who I met several years ago. Eleanor was volunteering to satisfy a community service requirement resulting from a court case and was having a hard time scheduling the necessary shifts to complete her hours. She pulled me aside one morning to explain that she worked full time – and needed her 40 hours because she was raising her two daughters without the support of their father – but, she’d taken off work that morning to try to get the community service hours done. (The judge in her case had told her that if she came back to court without having completed her service hours, she would go to jail.)

Eleanor further shared that as a single parent, she was responsible for getting her young daughters to and from their after school activities. On her way home from work the previous evening, Eleanor had received a call from her mother, who was at the hospital with her father, asking her to come to the hospital. Eleanor’s mother did not speak English as her first language and needed help with translation. Her mother expected Eleanor to come to the hospital as she did not have a partner at home like her sisters did and could bring her children to the waiting room with her.

Eleanor had also been a successful student. She’d been enrolled in a degree program at a local university until recently, when she’d had to pause on this dream – at least for a time – until she could find a way to balance her more immediate obligations of rent, food, health, and caring for her daughters.