I waltzed into the academic office, sifted through the stack of China-Africa relations papers and confidentially picked up my own before checking my grade. 52 percent. Once upon a time I was high school valedictorian, and now here I was, sitting two percentage points above the failure mark on a paper that counts for half the class’ cumulative grade. Oh, how times have changed. As has my relationship with “failure.”
My nonchalance at the prospect of failing a course for the first time in my life while receiving my personal lowest grade ever was not without reason. Thank the Lord my abroad grades won’t factor into my GPA. But apart from this technical reasoning, I have also come to terms with falling desperately short of success while abroad.
South Africa does not have the same grading system as does the United States with its GPA obsession. Instead, most of my peers at Stellenbosch are working to pass their classes, rather than score the highest marks to move a 3.61 GPA to a 3.63. It’s not uncommon for a student, even a bright student, to fail a class and have to retake a course now and again. In fact, it is quite common that students take an extra year or two to finish their degree rather than finish within the three year goal.
Students who finish in three years enter the work force immediately. Students taking an extra year or two have a slightly different journey, but ultimately enter that same work force with the same academic background. Perhaps South Africa’s concept of failure — one that eliminates the stigma and provides the necessary academic support to ensure no one is left behind — is superior to the American concept, which has connotations of degradation and humiliation. American ideas about failure can lead to pressure to drop out of school entirely for failing one class, or even worse, moving to the next level without mastering the foundations first.
I thought my paper analyzing China’s motives and future prospects with respect to naval anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa was brilliant. The grader thought the structure was trash and the title was too long.
No matter which one of us is closer to the truth, I know a whole lot more about China’s evolving military now than I did before. In fact, writing this paper gave me an idea for a second paper in my International Relations of Africa class that the professor recommended I attempt to publish. Yesterday’s failure became today’s success. They weren’t different paths; they were two parts of the same journey.
I’ve learned from failure outside of the classroom as well. The student protests that shook the nation a few weeks ago pushed exams back a week, heavily affecting travel plans. After failing to plan enough in advance, and then changing plans six times to finally fit my new exam schedule, I ended up deciding to travel solo.
Starting tomorrow I’m going to be spending a week hiking in a mountainous valley and wine vineyards. However, I won’t be alone on this guided 60 kilometer leisurely hike. As if third wheeling wasn’t already awkward enough, I now will be third wheeling four different couples I don’t even know. I’m starting to think I might have accidentally booked a honeymoon activity rather than a solo trek.
I have also failed to pack for this trip that begins tomorrow. That’s okay. I’m officially done with classes, with a break longer than Christmas for the first time since August 2014.
Out goes the structured life that got me to valedictorian and in comes more spontaneity that makes me enjoy the little things in life.
I failed to understand why everyone was weirdly touching my hand for an extended period of time, only to finally realize they were attempting the local three-part handshake.
I failed to go to the iconic Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held as a prisoner because I bought the tickets for the wrong day.
At the beginning of the semester, I completely failed to answer any question about viticulture. At the last Wine and Culture Society event I attended, my American friend and I ended up winning the trivia competition, proudly defeating the South Africans at their own game. Started from the bottom, now we have a free bottle of Pinotage — South Africa’s specialty wine.
It turns out that failure is not always so bad after all. Failure is not always the antithesis of success, but rather the other side of the same coin. Failure can spark new ideas, provide motivation to overcome obstacles and teach life lessons. Whether you are on the brink of a serious problem like failing a class or simply experiencing a comical “epic fail,” just know that failure doesn’t always have to be dark and gloomy.
We can shape failure into something new and good. We can also let failure go and start from scratch. We all will experience failure, even if it is entirely out of our control; what we make of that failure, though, is entirely up to us.
Alexander Bobroske is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Oh The Places You’ll Go appears every other Friday.