Not fit for college? Don’t believe it

February 28, 2014

Joyce Helens, President of St. Cloud Technical & Community College

“You’re not college material.”

Was this said to you or someone you know? Within a two-week period last semester, I heard from several successful professionals and a student who told me they had been told they were not college material or that they would never amount to anything.

Then I heard that same story from – literally – a rocket scientist from NASA, and that spurred the creation of a new St. Cloud Technical & Community College’s Orion Project. It is specifically designed to assist and inspire students who may not believe they can be successful in college or life. The project has several components, the first of which is the collecting and sharing of the stories of successful professionals who have overcome the “you’re not college material” statement.

In one story, a successful business CEO told me that more than 50 years ago he was told he was not college material, and, although he had built a successful business employing many people, he still carried around that deeply hurtful comment.

Bored in high school, this CEO found it difficult to excel. He grew up on the family farm and learned many important skills, yet these abilities did not seem valuable in the classroom. He barely graduated high school and went right to work. He found the skills on the farm – the ability to see and fix a problem – served him well. His boss told him about the “Vo-Tech,” so he enrolled in a program where he discovered his passion and abilities. Within 10 years he had built a successful company.

A few days later, I met a successful professional woman who said she was told that she was not college material in high school. She had broad interests and wanted to help people, but “I was floating,” she said. No one in her immigrant family had been to college, so they could not help guide her. Because she worked while she was in school, her grades were mediocre. She said the advice she received in high school was to continue with her job because she was not college material.

When her employer told her they would pay partial tuition for her to attend a program at the “Tech College,” she enrolled and received a degree. Eventually, she became an attorney.

That same week, a student at STCCC enthusiastically told me, “I got an ‘A’ on my algebra exam.” He said this amazing because he flunked math in high school and barely graduated. He said he was told he was not college material. But his family encouraged him to enroll at SCTCC. He discovered programs that fit his interests, enrolled and found the help he needed to build his basic skills. His “A” in algebra was the result of hard work, but he was more excited that he understood the math and could master it. Now he wants to go into engineering at St. Cloud State University.

These stories represent scores more we hear every week. Smart people with abilities come to STCCC, sometimes as a last resort, believing that they are “not college material” and find their inspiration and talent.

Recently, Adam Steltzner, who was NASA’s lead mechanical engineer for the crucial events when the rover reached Mars on Aug. 5, was interviewed. He said he struggled in high school, failing geometry, and was told by his father he would never amount to more than a ditch digger. He was told he was not college material so after graduation he played guitar for a living.

While driving home from music gigs at night, he noticed how the position of stars change. One of those clusters was Orion. To learn more, he decided to take an astronomy class at a community college, but he was required to pass physics first, and it was there he had a revelation: Nature could be understood and predicted. He excelled, and the rest is history.

Hearing these very different successful people who had been told the same negative comment made me aware how powerful stories like this are and how important it is to share them.

Will you tell me your story? I want to hear from successful professionals and current students who have been told that they were not college material or that they would not be successful.

You can contact me at I look forward to hearing from you!

Kate Wallace
Posted in Foundation