I really enjoy celebrating accomplishments, but I also like normalizing failure. We do not always achieve what we want, and it can take several tries before we accomplish a goal. If we are mentally prepared to understand that failure is a possibility, we are more likely to build strength to pick up the pieces and try again. There are many instances in which I have failed in the past, yet these experiences did not stop me from continuing to pursue what I wanted to accomplish in the long run.
While I was in my master’s program, I determined that I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree. At that time, I was teaching a technology integration course to preservice teachers. Every week during our class sessions, I felt strongly about the importance of teaching others how to engage in the learning design process and the application of educational technology. I knew then that I wanted to work as a university professor teaching others about learning design and technology practices.
During the last two semesters of my master’s program, I explored doctoral programs that I believed were a good fit for me. I was particularly interested in the educational technology program at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Already knowing that I wanted to pursue a career as a university professor, I felt that the curriculum at Concordia University covered the knowledge and skills I wanted to further explore within the field of educational technology. Also, the faculty had the expertise I was looking for in my future research mentors. The program was highly selective and provided a residential experience with graduate research assistantship funding. More importantly, the doctoral program at Concordia University would allow me to pursue my studies while being close to family who lived in Toronto—giving me opportunities to visit them regularly. I saw this program as being perfectly tailored to my needs and saw myself as an ideal candidate. I was ready to complete my application, get accepted, and start a new chapter of my life there.
In preparation for the interview, I thought about my research interest. At that time, similar to today, I wanted to explore the design of online learning. During my undergraduate and master's degrees, I was exposed to different kinds of online learning modalities and wanted to research how those experiences could be improved. Though I was confident in knowing what I wanted to research, I had very little coaching or mentoring on how to navigate the doctoral application process. As a first-generation college student, all of these experiences were completely new to me.
A few months after submitting all of my doctoral applications, I received an invitation from Concordia University to interview for their doctoral program. During the interview, I was asked what research topic I was interested in exploring, and I quickly said: “online learning.” I was asked if I was open to researching other topics that aligned more with the faculty in the program, and I said: “I really want to focus on online learning.” I remember thinking immediately after I hung up the phone that perhaps I should have been more flexible with my research interests. But, it was too late. I already completed the interview. Now, it was time to wait for the admission decision letter. A few days after the interview, I received a letter in the mail from Concordia University letting me know that I was not accepted. The disappointment I felt was so strong that I cried!
Though I was confident in my ability to be accepted into the Concordia University program, I had also identified and applied to two other programs in the United States that would serve as alternatives (i.e., Boston University and Old Dominion University). A few weeks after getting a rejection letter from Concordia University (and without an interview), I was accepted into the Boston University doctoral program and was offered a graduate assistantship that would provide me a stipend. In addition to applying to Boston University’s program, I participated in an interview for the Instructional Design and Technology (IDT) doctoral program at Old Dominion University (ODU). I was notified shortly after that I was accepted to the IDT program at ODU and was offered a graduate research assistantship with a tuition waiver and a stipend. Eventually, I decided to attend ODU for my doctoral studies.
Attending ODU led to many wonderful opportunities. Through my graduate research assistantship, I was exposed to other areas of research (i.e., simulations, multimedia instruction) and research methods (i.e., physiological methods) that have shaped my skills, knowledge, and expertise in the learning design field. I worked collaboratively with faculty members and research scientists on projects that were published in journal articles and presented at national and international conferences. I was provided with funding to complete my studies, but was also often supported with travel stipends for professional development opportunities. I also made professional connections—many of whom I am still in contact with today.
Failing forward taught me that it is important for first generation students to seek mentors that can provide insights into higher education processes and expectations. Perhaps, if I had consulted with a mentor, I would have been better prepared for my doctoral interviews. I also learned that it is always good to apply to multiple programs. If I had not applied to other programs, I would have had to wait a year before reapplying to other doctoral programs. The most important lesson I learned from this experience was that you may be surprised what opportunities “an alternative option” brings to your life. I was so blinded by my first choice (Concordia University) that I felt like I had failed. In reality, that failure opened the doors to possibilities and options during my doctoral studies.
Since starting my career as a university professor, I have had the opportunity to experience many instances of failure in everyday life: the article that gets rejected, the class activity that does not go as planned, and the award that I did not get. We start looking at what others are doing and assume that everyone is “doing things,” “going places,” and basically just “living the dream.” The reality is that we are all working towards our goals and experiencing moments of failure. In many instances, we are failing forward.