As educators we can talk about what is needed at our institutions to retain students.  I believe every institution should seek, investigate, and implement measures to make their institutions a safe, healthy, diverse environment for all students. It is vital students have countless avenues to thrive that is suited best for them.  We can ask ourselves what measures students need to take to persist in higher education.  But more importantly, we need to ask every student “What do you want?” “What does graduating from this institution mean to you?”  “What does this degree help you to achieve?” And from those answers, we as educators need to assist students, regardless of population, in designing their lives.
To design is to have a plan. Plans exists to show the function, or workings of something before it is built or made. And even after it is made, design is also a purpose, an intention that exist behind the actions. Higher education should provide academic advisors, mentors, learning communities, faculty, and staff, who aid students on this journey.  Students who attend college, especially community colleges, can have a variety of situations, opportunities, and challenges from childhood, primary and secondary education or just obstacles in life. Higher education can shine a light on their strife, ambitions, aspirations, or goals and offer hope to a better life.  How? Without a plan, it is easy for the dreams to get lost in access, financial aid, engagement, and coursework. Yet, with a plan, students can unpack their past, discover who they want to become and the contributions they desire to make in the world.
Through a planning process, students might uncover negative behaviors, self-talk, habits, and practices.  As educators it is our function to empathize, help them define the issue, come up with some ideas to solve the issue, sample those ideas, test, or evaluate if those ideas were effective.  This is design thinking. Used by designers, artists, engineers, and other creative gurus, to create products and services.  Yet, it also works when designing lives.  I believe higher education can aid students to discover the things that make them ineffective, expose them and show a path of correction.  All the while encouraging them to build their talents & gifts by testing new mindsets to success.  This is a life process, students need to practice, discover, and develop.  Students need to be ready to be solution-oriented, not only in the profession they choose, but also in life. 

This 5-step process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test) also comes with a designer mindset.  Without knowing how designers think, the process can become just about solving a problem without emotion or experience.  In the Designing Your Life book by Burnett & Evans, they describe the designer mindset and state designers don’t think their way forward.  Designers build their way forward. That means there is no dreaming up a lot of fun fantasies that have no relationship with the real world –or the real you (Burnett & Evans, 2016).
In higher education we need to use design thinking and build student success on important fundamental values.  These are values we should not necessarily be spoken, but be shown in our mentoring, learning communities, in our classrooms, extra-curricular activities and overall everyday life of higher education: the value of hard work, the value of good relationships, the value of leadership and the value of humility. 

 

Hard Work 

I was taught early in life, the only job that starts at the top is digging a ditch.  Everyone has humble beginnings.  Encouraging students to “put the work in” is a noble concept they can carry with them throughout life and will never regret its reward.   Hard work is designed to keep all of us moving forward, aspiring for the next challenge, the next success, or the next rest.

Good relationships 

No one truly becomes a success on their own.  The relationships we build with family, friends, teachers, and colleagues, prove to be valuable or learning lessons over time.  College is such a pivotal time to establish and develop how to create quality relationships. One way that happens is allowing the students to get to know themselves and what they value in their relationships. I believe bad company does corrupt good character.  Higher education is an excellent place for students to learn to be their best self. Also, to surround themselves with those who will allow and challenge them to be their best.

Leadership 

A leader is a self-starter, solution-oriented and pays attention to those around them. They know when to lead, when to follow, when to motivate and ask the tough questions. It has been said, not everyone is a leader. While, that may be true, all students will have to work with leaders at some point in their lifetime, so it is important in higher education we show them good leadership and why it is vital.  Higher education should strengthen student leadership skills in the classroom and through other extra-curricular activities. 

Humility 

Humility is true emotional intelligence.  To consider other’s needs first, to not think of yourself so highly as an administrator, that you forget it’s about the students and those that teach them.  It’s knowing the power of silence and making decisions with people in mind and not just the budget.  Humility puts you in a posture to listen greater and care deeper. Its value is immeasurable and those that have it, treasure they have found it and the people in their lives feel it.
When students leave the walls of higher education, I desire them to get a quality education in a field of study that fulfills them. Just as important, is the process I hope they learn to be critical thinkers by using the design thinking process and these values.  These are professional development skills students can use to reinvent themselves as they mature, evolve in their career, and develop as the world continues to change.