I Believe in You

Dr. Steven Angle

Chancellor, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Success breeds success is an expression we have all heard, but what lies behind this expression is the reality that determination and belief in yourself are often the difference between success and failure. As a university faculty member, I have come to understand that one of the most important things I teach my students is to believe in themselves.

The first time a student taught me this lesson was early in my academic career. I was leaving my office and literally ran into a student in the hall who was looking for Professor Angle. We introduced ourselves and he told me he wanted to do research in my chemistry laboratory. I asked some questions and found out he had transferred from a community college after one year and he loved chemistry.

I also found out his first two academic terms at a four-year university had been quite difficult.  He was currently on academic probation and would be dismissed from the university if he failed to get his grade point average above a 2.00 (C average) in the next term. He listened patiently as I explained he needed to focus on his classroom work and that doing research would involve a time commitment of 12 to 20 hours per week beyond what time he would spend on his classes. I ended by saying that once he brought up his GPA, he should come back and we could talk about doing research.

As I turned to walk away, he followed me and told me that he needed to see the practical side of what he was learning and working in my lab would allow him to do just that. He described his work ethic and how he knew that if he could work in a lab, he would become a successful student. As we moved on down the hall, I explained why this was a bad idea and why I had to say no. As I started down the stairs, I recall being struck with the thought that this student simply needs someone to say, “I think you can do this – I believe in you.” So I stopped and speaking more with my heart than my professional judgment, I agreed to have him work in my laboratory at the beginning of the next academic term. His research project on organic synthesis had no direct relation to the physical chemistry courses he planned to enroll in, but we gave it a try anyway.

Chris worked closely with a Ph.D. student in my research group and immediately began to thrive in the laboratory and the classroom. He finished the term with all A’s and B’s and was on the Dean’s List. Not only did he excel in the classroom, he was an outstanding student in the laboratory and we gave him his own independent project to work on. He graduated with a B average and was offered a job at five of the top pharmaceutical companies in the country. Chris dated a fellow undergraduate student who was also working in my laboratory and after graduation they were married and now have four beautiful children. Chris has moved up the ranks in the pharmaceutical industry, and even though he did not seek a graduate degree, he was promoted to the level of senior chemist. His coworkers at this level all hold Ph.D’s.

I often wonder what would have happened to Chris if I had denied his request to work in my laboratory. Giving him a chance, believing in him, gave him the opportunity to prove himself in the classroom, in the laboratory, and in life. The simple act of saying “I believe in you” provided the opportunity for this student to open doors and get on the track of success.

In addition, Chris’ success led me to provide a similar opportunity to many other students who simply need someone to believe in them. I learned that the greatest sense of fulfillment in my career was helping others to succeed. My students taught me that the first step to believing you can accomplish something, is often having someone else believe in you.