It’s approximately 6:00 a.m. and Clinton James Cox has just arrived at the bus stop on Utah Street in Boulder City, Nevada. In 10 minutes, the bus will arrive and carry him across the 21 mile stretch between Boulder City and Las Vegas. He’ll then walk the rest of the way to one of Las Vegas’s many business plazas where he works at AT&T as a customer service representative.
“I’m not sure what I was thinking when I stopped going to classes. I just knew I wasn’t going anywhere, and that I felt really, really stupid,” says Cox, who stands among the 35 percent of college students who either drop out, or fail out of college by the end of their first year.
He doesn’t work until 10:00 a.m., so there’s plenty of time to talk. He’s told this story several times, and had so many not witnessed it first-hand, one might be inclined to believe that Cox – dressed in a blue dress-shirt, black slacks, and black Oxford shoes – might be wildly embellishing his story. According to his mother, Teresa Daley, he’s not.
“I was worried about C.J. because he wasn’t talking to me for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. I didn’t even find out he’d failed all of his classes until he’d already stopped living with me for the summer, and I just-so-happened to find a repayment notice for one of his student loans,” Daley recalls of her son’s Spring 2011 failure out of college.
Knee deep in debt due to demands from loan companies who sought immediate repayment and becoming more uncertain about his future than ever before, Cox spent the summer of 2010 in the small-town of Moab, where he worked two food service jobs and lived with the grandparents of a close family friend. Though he worked tirelessly, the monotony of constant food service gave him ample time to develop a plan for his future over the next several months. It also gave him a great deal of time to deeply consider why he had given up on school when he did — a choice which led him to leave the University of Nevada, Reno in May 2010 with a semester G.P.A. of 0.0.
“I knew, deep down, that I screwed up, but I was in denial. I tried to hide it, but I didn’t do a good job. I noticed I was getting mad more easily. I was constantly on edge, and I blamed everyone but myself for everything that went wrong,” Cox says.
By Cox’s account, he lived a life lacking in stability, with choices made at a whim and largely influenced by the activities of his peers as well as the images perpetuated by society. Cox had never been much of a student to his recollection and had performed to mediocre standards up until he graduated from High School.
While he had barely managed to obtain Governor Guinn’s Millennium Scholarship as a member of the graduating class of 2009, he managed to lose it by the end of his first semester—a blow which would further influence Cox toward failure in his second semester at the University. While Cox acknowledges that his failure could have been avoided, hindsight has allowed him to understand the contributing factors to his failure with relative clarity.
“There were a lot of reasons why I ended up slipping through the cracks. I thought (my girlfriend back home) was cheating on me. I didn’t have many friends. I kept screwing up all of my assignments, and I had a terrible roommate,” Cox says. “Those were some of the things I blamed for dropping out, but it was more than that. You know, the real reason I dropped out was because I didn’t even know what I went to college for. I’d never given it any thought and only went because my friends were going and society said that college was the next step.”
Cox does not believe that it was the right step for him, and in fact, he feels that rushing into his choices was what led him to the series of hardships that would define his life for the better part of a year. In October 2010, Cox would return to Reno with the intention of finding employment and returning to the University in the spring of 2011.
Unfortunately, due to the continuing decline of the economy and other factors, Cox remained jobless for the entirety of his time in Reno and as a result, he quickly burned through the entirety of his savings due to the high price of his debt to the University and to general costs associated with living such as rent, groceries, and utilities. Because of his financial situation and inability to find a job, Cox quickly sank into poverty, depression, and a brief bout of constant partying to distract himself from the reality of his increasingly desperate situation. At one point, Cox became so desperate to remain in Reno that he began to donate his plasma to the Biomat clinic, a plasma donation center which compensates donors for their donation with cash on a limited basis. He would not remain in Reno long, unfortunately, and by the end of his time in Reno, Cox would have nothing more than a briefcase of clothing, debt, and several maxed-out credit cards.
How did this all happen, though? According to Cox, it all came down to three failures: a failure to plan, a failure to choose, and a failure to be realistic about his situation.
“I didn’t think anything through. I let life come at me and had no structure or routine. I didn’t know how to get a job, I didn’t save my money, and I borrowed from everyone just to live here (in Reno) for no real reason. I only made one choice, and that was to fail. Take it from someone who really screwed up: failure is a decision. When you choose not to think things through and rush in just because that’s what everyone else seems to be doing, you’re choosing to fail, and that’s the worst thing anyone can do to themselves.”
Cox’s story is an unfortunate one, but his advice is sound. In fact, Zac Haley, 19, feels similarly about failure. Haley, an “A” student majoring in wildlife ecology, believes that success is a choice.
It’s a hot day in Reno, and Haley is unpacking a trailer filled with treasures, quality furniture, skateboards, and music equipment. One-by-one, he moves each piece with painstaking care and silent determination, until the arrangement of his new home resembles something one might see in an interior design magazine. A wet bar complete with whiskey, wine, and a drink-mixer stands on the easternmost part of the house, while an antique furniture set decorates the westernmost end of the front room. Paintings of Haley’s own making, as well as pieces completed by close friends and family, line the walls. The loud hum of music can be heard emanating from behind the door of Haley’s garage, which he has repurposed into a sound-proofed, acoustic workspace.
“Everything here, I’ve collected with time. I’ve had this planned since I was young, and now it’s here, and it looks great. Things are only going up from here,” says Haley of his first college home, a modern and expensive one-story home complete with hard-wood floors, surround-sound hook-ups, and more amenities than the average college student can even imagine affording. A lot of descriptors may apply to the ambitious Haley, but “broke college student” is hardly one of them. He is well-off, and more importantly, he’s self-made.
“The key to success is thinking like successful person. If you want to succeed, it’s not hard. It just has to be what you’re thinking about all the time,” Haley says. An extremely busy, but successful individual, Haley has modeled much of his life thus far on that principle. With the exception of one semester of High School, in which he received a B grade in pre-calculus, Haley has maintained excellent grades for the majority of his life.
He attributes this success not to an enhanced intellect, but instead to his drive to do as best as is possible for him — a facet of his nature about which he is particularly emphatic.
“When I say ‘as best as I can’, I’m being optimistic, but realistic. Anyone can be successful in their own realm: what’s important is having standards,” Haley says. “Put it like this: my standard is nine out of ten. Ten is perfection, and that’s unrealistic for most people. Nine is the result of hard work and determination. You can always reach nine if you push yourself, and think about what you want. You can always meet your own standards if you choose to, but you have to have standards in the first place.”
Haley, who has self-produced various projects — two albums of genre-crossing music, a high-quality skate video, and a three-piece soul band called Bazooka Zoo — might be characterized as a busy savant with little time for a social life. This is not the case. In fact, Haley’s social life serves as an inspiration for his success and is, in fact, an important part of it. Claiming that an individual is, in some ways, an average of the people with which they associate, Haley believes that it is of the utmost importance to surround oneself with positive people who are like-minded about success.
“I judge people based on the quality of their friends,” admits Haley. “If I go to someone’s house and he’s surrounded by slobs that do nothing, then I think he probably does a lot of the same things. If he’s around people that are constantly wasted, then he probably is, too. I don’t put myself in that position. My friends are constantly working, and saving their money, and being creative, and producing new ideas with me. I don’t let anyone bring me down, ever.”
Perhaps the most important part of being successful, according to Haley, is having the willingness to do what is necessary to reach one’s goals. While thinking like a successful person can help, and surrounding oneself with successful people is certainly a boon, overcoming one’s own mental barriers, and personal hang-ups, as well overcoming monotonous routines in search of innovation is the most important facet to success—or so Haley claims.
“I hate a person who’s all talk and no rock,” believes Haley. “You’ve got to get up and go. A lot of people talk about wanting to be the ‘best’, or the ‘greatest’. They talk about their goals constantly, but don’t deliver. What people need to realize is that success doesn’t come to you. Success doesn’t just happen. Success is created.”
Though it is true that both Haley’s and Cox’s stories are extremes when one considers the spectrum of experiences which form the lives of college students, it is also true that elements of their stories apply to students of all kinds. These stories are proof that there is very little that separates failure from success. Anyone can lose all that they have, and anyone can save. Almost anyone can achieve “A” grades, and anyone can fail all of their classes before they’ve even managed to conclude their first college year. It seems that, in the end, the fate of a student is self-determined, and the realization of that fact may just be the difference those who succeed from those who fail.
It seems that the old phrase rings true: “Make it a good day, or not. The choice is yours.”