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“I think that you appreciate that there are extraordinary men and women and extraordinary moments when history leaps forward on the backs of these individuals, that what can be imagined can be achieved, that you must dare to dream, but that there’s no substitute for perseverance and hard work …” – FBI Special Agent Dana Scully

Oh, how my STEM students love to dream! Some want to major in forensic science so they can work for the FBI and become the next Agent Scully. Others want to study marine biology so they can swim with the dolphins at Sea World. In contrast, my nursing cohort is the most committed group of incoming freshmen. Before coming to the university, most had decided to pursue careers in the health sciences—some as medical missionaries—a very laudable goal. And most stick with it for all four years.

This is the difference between a dream and a vision.

Dreams are important. But a dream is not quite a vision, or even a calling. Solomon wrote, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).

When I was in college, one of the cooks in our dining hall, a deacon in a Pentecostal church, greeted me every morning in a loud voice saying, “Thank God for Jesus!” On his car he had a bumper sticker with this catchy phrase: Make your dreams come true – Wake up!

I am afraid this message is lost on many Gen Z college students. Studies have found, for example, that “young people dislike some of the facets of a more traditional learning model,” that “Reading and writing ranked among the bottom of the list of students’ preferred learning methods,” and that “Only 12% of U.S. teens say they learn best by listening to a lecture and fewer than half (46%) say homework is a helpful learning tool.”

These findings are not encouraging, and it goes a long way to explain why so many Gen Z students are struggling in STEM courses. It’s just not possible to succeed in the sciences without reading, writing, and homework—and lots of it.

Those who underestimate the amount of dedication required in college move on to something less demanding. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a few students who become so enamored with my chemistry course that they change their major to (gasp!) chemistry—or to pre-health science to pursue a degree as a medical doctor or a physician’s assistant.

A couple of years ago, my column, “Ten Suggestions for Incoming College STEM Freshman,” appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. One of my nursing students called it the “Ten Commandments for STEM Success.” Suggestions cover such themes as time management, college isn’t high school, college doesn’t give participation awards, and college requires sacrifice, among others. Several of us in the chemistry department have made reprints available to students to help them as they enter the discipline of STEM.

I have taken the ten suggestions a step further, incorporating them into both of my lecture courses as an extra-credit assignment. A link to the online version appears in my course tile on Canvas. Students are instructed to read the column, reflect on its content, and write a one-page summary followed by a second page of their own thoughts. For this, they get five points added to their first exam.

It is almost without exception that my cohort of nursing students complete the assignment (and make me feel as if I am preaching to the choir, so to speak). Students in my general chemistry class blow off the opportunity (violating Suggestion #8: “Do every assignment, even the extra credit”).

What is it about my classes of nursing students that distinguishes them from the majority of students in general STEM disciplines? For one, they understand the difference between having a dream and having a vision—this leads to a stronger work ethic.

So, I thought it would be worth sharing several pithy reflections from them. They are required to take my Introduction to General, Organic and Biochemistry. Although it’s an Introduction, they must learn an extraordinary number of concepts in one semester. As I like to describe it, “In just fourteen weeks, we journey from the simplest picture of a hydrogen atom to complex biochemical processes such as transcription of mRNA from DNA in the nucleus and protein synthesis on the ribosome.”

The only way to absorb this much information in so little time is neatly summed up in the answer proffered by a New York City police officer to an obviously confused tourist who asked how he could get to Carnegie Hall. “Practice,” the officer replied. “Lots of practice.”

So, let them tell you in their own words. Without further ado, here are some of my nursing students’ comments from this semester’s assignment that touch not only on STEM success but also, surprisingly, on various critiques of social media and their own Gen Z.

Writing about the necessity to “Put your cellphone away” (Suggestion #6 in the Sentinel column) several students shared their thoughts.

I feel like sometimes we need a break from electronic devices and just write in a notebook. This new generation, there are a lot of people who are not serious about school anymore or who give up and don’t work hard. They just want to take the easy way out of life and become an influencer because that is what they watch all day on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. But there is nothing easy in life. Everything is hard.

Cellphones are a blessing and a curse and can be our biggest weakness. A lot of people still have a lot of growing up to do. Mom and dad aren’t going to be here to walk you through everything. You are going to have to be independent and succeed or fail on your own. The most important thing is that you don’t compare your road to success to anyone else’s.

I have seen the effect that cellphones have on behavior, focus and even personality. Not many good things come out of cellphone addiction. Putting the device down and setting allotted time to study is essential to training the brain and being successful and disciplined.

Regarding learning how to manage time efficiently, (Suggestion #3: “College requires time management”) two students wrote,

Most students don’t realize how much simpler it is to begin their homework the day they receive it. I’m not saying to finish the assignment the same day, but if you do, congratulations. All I’m saying is that doing your homework throughout the day will save you so much time compared until waiting until the night before or the morning of the due date and wondering why you’re stressed.

Students should be proactive about their work and getting ahead when they can. Take advantage of all the opportunities, doing all of the assignments and the extra credit when it’s offered.

About college and sacrifice, (Suggestion #2: “College requires sacrifice”) a student wrote,

Learning to say “no” to my teammates when they go to the beach after a Saturday practice is not easy, but a necessary discipline needed to stay on track. However, I do believe you must allow yourself to have a brain break and have a social life in order to stay mentally happy.

A lengthy comment from one student was especially noteworthy and serves as a fitting conclusion. Writing from her heart, she neatly summed up the biblical perspective on Christian higher education, including her grasp of God’s vision for her life and many of the other points in this post without knowing in advance what I was planning to write. I include it in its entirety:

This column affected me emotionally in making me realize the purpose I am here [is] to serve. It is a good reminder of my end goal and desired career course. I hope to be a wonderful nurse to people, a person who makes a difference. I hope to leave a positive impression on people, leaving them wondering what is different about the way I am filled with God’s joy, peace, and happiness. I hope to be a shining ray in the dark days of those I help … Ultimately the hard work I put into college will lead to this dream. “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for which such sacrifices God is pleased, (Heb. 13:16.)” This verse sticks out to me providing a reminder in my desired nursing career with the impact of helping others. God commands us to do so. I am being called to use the gifts the Lord has given me.

Gregory J. Rummo

Gregory J. Rummo, B.S., M.S., M.B.A. is a Lecturer of Chemistry at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida.