Achievement Culture at Furman: Let’s Ditch It

By: Michael Robinson, CLASS OF 2016

Class starts at 8:30 a.m. By the time that finishes at 9:20 a.m., it is time for breakfast at the DH. Another set of classes, breaks, and meals ensues and before the last class ends around 2:20 p.m., students go to labs or internships. For many students a meeting before dinner, a quick bite at the DH, then a meeting for another organization rounds out the day. Of course, the executive team has to meet for another hour after the large group meeting. By the time the average Furman student arrives in his or her study place to start on homework, the clock has already hit 9 p.m.

It is going to be a long night.

Few people outside of the South know about Furman so when I share about our school, I am met with remarks about our “achievement culture” with alarming frequency. While this phrase signifies something different to every student, to me, Furman’s “achievement culture” is manifested in a robust Greek system, a high percentage of student participation in extracurricular activities, and, most importantly, a high average number of organizations in which each student participates. In general, being “involved” at Furman is normal and expected. While this proves that our student body is motivated and active, the problem with our achievement culture is that it can be divisive. We become internally and externally isolated; students “burn-out,” and the culture homogenizes our already woefully non-diverse student body.

My bias towards the achievement culture stems from my first two years at Furman where I joined eight student organizations, including a fraternity. My sophomore year schedule was a ridiculous mish-mash of frantic notes-to-self in between meetings, a colorful array of post-it to-do lists—none more than half-completed—and the occasional demarcated reminder of an upcoming test or project. One might say that my story is the extreme: an example of over-involvement at a school where most students strike a healthy work/life balance. However, if you found yourself nodding or relating to the schedule of the typical Furman student in the opening, whether for yourself or your overly-involved friends around you, substantive and anecdotal evidence supports the over-involvement narrative; it starts before the freshmen arrive on campus.

First, we should recognize the positives of involvement. Organizations give autonomy to a handful of democratically-elected students and provide funding from SGA to do cool things. Two organizations I joined, TEDxFurmanU and the Furman Creative Collaborative, endeavored to do just that. Gaining experience leading your peers is advantageous. Its utility in job interviews after graduation, however, is overstated. Inevitably, organizations must compete with each other to attract new members. This emerges most clearly in the chaos of the Involvement Fair in the first week of fall semester. Organizations compete for new members by touting their credentials: “Last year we planned eight CLPs, won this award, and brought that speaker.” Why? Because at Furman, the blind trust of the CLP system establishes the most tangible metric for success: whether the event was CLP certified—or not. CLP events may enhance, to an immeasurable degree, our cultural intelligence. The involvement culture is also great in the interconnectedness it brings to our already small student body. A handful of big events every year—Heller’s Fall Fest in October and Homecoming are two examples—unify much of our student body.

As great as it may look on the surface, however, we cannot minimize the unintended consequences of our achievement culture. The first consequence is not unfamiliar to many: burn-out. The high-achiever’s schedule is unsustainable. It should not be envied. The “stars” among us may strike a more appropriate balance than I did, but regardless, after two short years and hundreds of hours invested into my organizations, I burned out. I left sophomore year with nothing in the tank, strongly influencing my decision to spend my entire junior year away from Furman. Many students view “burn-out” as a stage in their busy livelihoods—just another part of the cycle of the life of a motivated college student. What is important to remember is that we as individuals are affected by each and every stage we choose to place on our cycle of life. The arrows may direct us from one part of the cycle to another but the intensity and the direction of the cycle as whole is also something we must keep in mind.

Another consequence of Furman’s achievement culture is that it divides us. The division is attributable in part to the Greek system; natural rivalries sprout as a result of social grouping into organizations whose success is predicated on maintaining a “desirable” image. The division is also the fault of a culture, and society at large, where we covet immediate, achievable, and tangible rewards. In this reward-driven culture we set our sights on a certain goal—e.g. President of the sorority, Quaternion, or a Furman Fellow—and work to realize it.

The final consequence of over-involvement is the most serious: the creation of “the Furman bubble.” We are an insular community by every metric. Our geographic and socioeconomic isolation helps construct an invisible barrier that allows for uninhibited growth of our achievement culture.

We are no Bob Jones, but the “bubble” keeps us on campus, occupied during the week with our academic and extracurricular commitments and on the weekends with Greek functions and the occasional attempt to “pop the bubble.” The bubble’s persistence is a serious handicap to cultural enrichment at Furman. Heller, Greek philanthropy events, and a handful of extracurricular service projects and organizations constitute our attempts to start a university service culture.

Apprenticeships, volunteer opportunities, and summer internships are our efforts to start an internship culture, but the truth is, we are not a service culture at Furman. Our culture is not recognized for volunteerism, internships, or studying away. We have an achievement culture.

Changing a culture is complex and difficult and it requires buy-in from students, staff, faculty, and administration. First, we must value different metrics for success, support creativity and personal expression, and encourage connection to our community, city, and region. Greenville is a special place. Secondly, we should push for the CLP system to include off-campus service events and service learning, crediting students for seeking alternative opportunities for cultural enrichment. Finally, we must encourage one another to strike a more appropriate work/life balance. We must value intentionality and ditch the achievement culture that is driving our students into the ground.

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