“Anyone can accomplish anything,” said Nichola Rowan, a 2023 UNT Dallas graduate, as the audience of current students listened and learned from her experiences. Rowan’s message, on the opening day of UNT Dallas’ first Growth Mindset Boot Camp, was meant to open students’ eyes and minds.
Rowan, who enrolled at UNT Dallas after serving in the U.S. and U.K. military, said the discipline and structure of the Armed Services were instrumental in her personal and professional development. She said they kept her focused. Others who want to pursue their dreams and achieve success can benefit from discipline and structure, too, even without joining the military. She added it’s okay if your dreams and definitions of success evolve.
Rowan earned a BA/BS in psychology at UNT Dallas, inspired by fellow military members who needed mental health care, and her desire to help others who may not be able to help themselves. But this is not the career path Rowan envisioned when she joined the U.K. military after high school. She thought she would serve forever. “My passions and interests changed because of life experiences,” she explained.
Change can be more difficult for some than others. You have to persevere in order to learn, grow and improve. Those are just some of the important takeaways for the young women and men who heard Rowan’s story.
The inaugural Growth Mindset Boot Camp was created and hosted by Dr. Naureen Khan, UNT Dallas professor of mathematics and a Fulbright Scholar, and Dr. Heekyeong Park, assistant professor of psychology. It was funded through a grant sponsored by the UNT Dallas Center for Socioeconomic Mobility Through Education (CSME).
The week-long series of exercises, presentations and conversations are designed to show students what is possible if they are willing to be vulnerable, take chances, and believe in themselves. They learned mathematics, 3D printing, and writing, and made close connections with third-year students participating as peer mentors. They even collaborated in a group exercise to build a pyramid of red cups.
Guest speakers included alumni and faculty serving as role models, whose lives and careers will motivate and inspire the students. The goal is for boot camp participants to aspire to upward mobility, which aligns with the vision of the university: Through education and community connectedness, UNT Dallas aspires to be the pathway to socioeconomic mobility.
On the boot camp’s first day, Dr. Park's presentation, “Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset” teed up the topic and set the tone by delving into the differences between the two. She encouraged students to assess their own performance and think of themselves “from a different perspective.”
Citing numerous research projects, Dr. Park said people with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges because they are afraid to fail. A growth mindset, she explained, involves extra effort and a willingness to take on challenges, overcome obstacles and learn from criticism.
Dr. Park told the students that one key to success is believing in your capacity, instead of limiting or doubting yourself. She described how “deliberate practice and grit” can help achieve goals, along with “being flexible” to “expand boundaries and open new doors.”
According to research Dr. Park highlighted, belief in yourself is often more impactful than your IQ. In one study, schoolchildren in Chicago were given a “not yet” grade instead of an “F” when they failed a class. As a result, they were much more likely to retake and pass the class than students who received the standard “F.”
There is a direct, documented connection between someone’s belief that they can accomplish something and their actual performance in doing it, according to another study of children cited by Dr. Park. Praising someone’s effort rather than their intelligence can pay dividends. In some cases, the performance of someone who believes strongly in their abilities will surpass someone who simply thinks they are smart, according to the research.
“Those who envision the future perform better,” Dr. Park told the boot camp attendees.
UNT Dallas Provost, Dr. Betty Stewart, inspired students by telling her story of achievement. Dr. Stewart was the first in her family to receive a four-year college degree and thought she would be a K-12 science educator. But her growth mindset led to a journey that took her to other places.
“I had good teachers and mentors,” Dr. Stewart explained. They pushed her out of her comfort zone to try new things, such as a summer chemistry lab program. She had a choice of three different projects and chose the most difficult one. Before she decided, her advisor had warned “it was not going well” but Dr. Stewart relished the challenge.
After lots of experiments, Dr. Stewart’s persistence paid off. She got the necessary results, then successfully repeated the process two more times, as required. Her advisor was thrilled, she co-authored a scientific article with him, and their expertise gained media attention. It was a turning point in her career and life.
Even after she earned her Ph.D., Dr. Stewart’s leaders and mentors continued encouraging her to pursue new opportunities, even when she was a bit hesitant. You “can’t be single-minded,” one of them told her, saying she needed to gain a “broader perspective and other approaches.”
Dr. Stewart said she advanced from working with “atoms and protons” to chairing an entire department, followed by positions of dean, vice president of academic affairs, and provost at other institutions. In 2017, she made the move to UNT Dallas as provost and executive vice president of academic affairs.
“I’m no different, I’m no better than you,” Dr. Stewart told the students. Just as she embraced a growth mindset, although sometimes reluctantly, she advised them to do the same, “Take advantage of those opportunities, they change your lives.”
Throughout her career, Dr. Stewart has not only taken advantage of opportunities, but she has also created them. She is the driving force behind a new $100 million STEM building on the UNT Dallas campus, for which ground will be broken in August.
More than brick and mortar, it will be a catalyst to change the lives of the students who occupy it. A full-circle accomplishment representing… a growth mindset. Just one of the real-life lessons shared with boot camp students that will serve them well through college and beyond.
Dr. Khan says summer bridge programs like this boot camp boost students' confidence and abilities and help them achieve greater success rates in college courses. She and Dr. Park hope to continue the Growth Mindset Boot Camp in 2024 and beyond.