Working Smarter, Week 3: Find Your Posse in College


I met my friend Gerry on the Greyhound bus heading to freshman orientation. I got on at the first stop, and he at the second. Four hours later, by the time we arrived in Boston, we were fast friends. I had briefed him about all the people I had met during the previous summer while attending a bridge program on campus, and I learned a lot about his family.

Gerry and I were connected at the hip for the first two years of college before our academic paths diverged, Gerry in mechanical engineering, and me in materials science and engineering. We lived in the same dorm, took many of the same classes, partied together, and even liked the same girls (though Gerry mostly won them over).

In college, you need friends with whom you can joke and goof off, but who also aren’t ashamed to talk about their grades and schoolwork. With some students, and certainly from my experience in high school until I found my posse, talking about schoolwork was off-limits. That’s wrong!

If that’s the way your college posse rolls, then you need to find a new set of friends. Here are three ways to form your posse in college.

Discover Your Posse

Find a posse that is mutually supportive in reaching your individual and collective goals. It won’t all happen at once. Friendships and social bonds take time through natural evolution. Your peer connections will and should continue to evolve throughout your college years.

Establish a Pact

Without knowing it, Gerry and I had an unwritten pact, a commitment to see each other through at least through the first two years when we were close.

As a freshman seminar leader, I had my incoming freshmen create an “Achievement Contract”, a pact that would encapsulate their goals and inspire and guide them over the next four years of college. After they came up with the terms of their agreement, I typed them up and had each student sign them. They would place the signed contract in the front of the seminar binder so each week they would be reminded of their commitments to each other.

Here’s an example of an Achievement Contract for one of my advising groups:

1. Maintain a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 4.5 (on a 5.0 scale) or better.
2. Graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years or less.
3. Attend all classes, recitations, seminars, and appointments on time, unless physically unable.
4. Do all readings before class meetings and to complete/submit no late work.
5. Pursue graduate studies (Master’s or Doctoral) within one year of graduating with the bachelor’s degree.
6. Commit to and perform at least one sustainable community service project/activity per academic year.
7. Establish a relationship with at least four professors who could potentially serve as recommenders.

It worked. Though there were times when I had to remind them of their contract, these occasions were rare. Because they were their terms (not mine), they internalized and owned them.

Avoid the Crabs in the Barrel

While every group of friends shouldn’t have “a specific purpose”, you should be careful not to allow any connection to distract you from your academic, personal, and career goals. Many of us regrettably form friendships because of the social currency they bring us. In other words, you’re popular because you run with the popular crowd. However, when those connections draw you away from being proud of your academic accomplishments, then you need to change your network. Here’s the test: If your peers make you uncomfortable about celebrating an “A” on an exam, then you’re running with the wrong posse. Period!

Everyone needs a Gerry!

For more tips, check out “Working Smarter, Not Just Harder: Three Sensible Strategies for Succeeding in College…and Life” available on


Working Smarter, Week 2: How Do I Make Critical Connections in College?


Now that the first week of classes has started, and you’ve gotten off to a fast start by gathering your course syllabi, placing critical dates in your calendar, and identifying your crunch weeks, it’s important to make critical academic and social connections on campus to be successful. Follow these steps to enrich your college learning experience.

Meet with your professors to understand the course learning objectives and curriculum plan

When I was in college, I wanted to know the big picture before I got into the minutia of any new course. If I didn’t understand where the course was going, I got lost in the minutia until the midterm or the final when I was forced to synthesize weeks or months of material over just a few precious days.

Getting the big picture first helped me understand how concepts or ideas strung together, and anticipate where the professor was going. There’s some brain science behind this phenomenon. If an overview of a course or subject is introduced first, you’re more likely and accurately able to recall the material than if you’re just assaulted with the parts or the details. [1] Our minds better remember or “encode” information when we connect concepts into a global understanding. By seeing the big picture, you prime your brain so that when you see the material again, you’re more likely to experience that “aha moment” when it all comes together.

Review the syllabus then take advantage of your professor’s office hours prior to getting your first grade to ask about the course and how to maximize your learning. By meeting with the professor early in the semester as I suggested in a previous post (, you’ll speed up those aha moments and increase your recall.

Form study groups

I recommend that you form a study group early in the semester, not when you need it! Previously, I wrote about how important study groups are and how to utilize them for maximum impact ( Here, it is important that you understand that study groups should be formed early in the semester; reach out to classmates within the first two weeks before the first assignments are due.

I recommend that you set specific start and end times and a location for your study group, at least two days before assignments are due. Scheduling these meetings ahead of time gives the group members enough time to review and complete their work on their own and see a teaching assistant (TA) if necessary well before the deadline of the assignments.

What connections work for you?

For more tips, check out “Working Smarter, Not Just Harder: Three Sensible Strategies for Succeeding in College…and Life” available on

And for specific tips on how to get to know faculty and utilize study groups, check out the links below.

Good luck with Week 2.

Getting to Know Faculty Even (or Especially) if Your Shy

How to Utilize Study Groups

[1] Jensen, Eric. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria. VA.

Repost: You’re Not at Your Best When You’re Stressed

Recently, I was privileged to sit on a panel at a local independent school when they previewed the documentary, American Promise to students, parents, and faculty. The film by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson vividly captures the 12-year school experiences of their son, Idris and his best friend, Seun while attending the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan.

The account of these two Brooklyn boys as their paths diverged in high school provided the all-too-common story of young men—and others—having to transition daily from a familiar and beloved home community to a new setting with different norms, attitudes, language, behaviors and expectations. It’s not unlike the sometimes tricky high school to college transition for many students.

Like Idris and Seun, I too had to make a transition, albeit much later, when I was admitted to a previously all-white magnet high school on Long Island. My six-mile bus ride was a metaphor for the cultural distance I had to traverse, being assaulted daily with questions about my competence, my hair, or music. It was a strange new world in which I had to learn to function.

Not surprisingly, I struggled academically in my first year at the new school while trying to discover the written and unwritten rules, navigate new social dynamics, and suddenly having to examine my racial identity, all the while taking tough classes. It was an emotionally draining period.

The main lesson I learned was this:  You’re not at your intellectual best when you’re under social and emotional stress.

Ultimately, I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class, but I learned important lessons along the way that apply to any transition, especially the transition from high school to college.

  • Gather Information about the School or College.

It’s striking how many students select a college sight unseen! These students who fail to do their homework are certain to struggle with their transition. It’s important to visit the school, spending as much time as possible meeting with professors, administrators and students. From home, follow student blogs; subscribe to the school newspaper and college Facebook page. Read everything students publish about their college experience. You’ll begin to paint a mental picture about the expectations and norms that make up the school culture.

  • Form Strong “Vertical” and “Horizontal” Relationships.

Students who are successful making the transition report having good relationships with teachers (faculty), and also have a strong and supportive peer group according to my research and others. Finding one or more mentors on campus—an administrator from your home town, a teacher or faculty member with similar interests—is key to learning the rules and, most importantly, having someone to advocate for you.

Likewise, forming a posse that has your back, but who also will academically encourage and challenge you is critical. Here, forming study groups, joining a student organization and getting involved in campus committees are great ways to build your social connections and learn the rules, even if you tend toward introversion like me.

  • Be Secure in Who You Are.

The school or college experience is not just about your intellectual development, but these institutions are also supposed to grow you emotionally, socially, and physically. That said, in my own research, students who are most successful in college are also most secure in their racial or ethnic identity. I’ll extend these identity qualifiers to gender, religious, and other characteristics that are important (salient) to you. In other words, students are less prone to suffer from stereotype threat—the under-performance that occurs when a negative stereotype about them is triggered (i.e., “you got admitted because of affirmative action”, or “girls aren’t good in math).

Being comfortable in your skin is an antidote to feeling that you have to prove something. You’re the only one you have to satisfy (and God, depending on your faith identity).


In the end, Idris graduated from the Dalton School, while Seun transferred to, and graduated from a public high school better suited for him. The boys and their parents learned to manage their transitions, and in Seun’s case, he moved to a school with lower cultural boundaries to cross.

Managing your transitions, whether by making the rules explicit through enhanced social connections, examining your motivations, or by bringing the worlds closer positions you to perform at your best.

For more information, check out my new book, “Working Smarter, Not Just Harder: Three Sensible Strategies for Succeeding in College…and Life.”

Share this post with others who are making transitions, and follow me at or @educator2us on Twitter.

Working Smarter, Not Just Harder

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I was a good student in high school. However, like many who had early success, I hit a wall my freshman year. I soon realized that the learning strategies I employed in high school were ineffective in the more challenging environment, particularly in engineering.

In my subsequent years as a student, advisor, researcher, dean and now advocate for broadening access to college and engineering, I’ve observed that there are one of two ways that students respond to academic (and similarly professional) challenges like mine.

The first group shrinks back because their “smartness” is tested. In response, they pull back their effort, change their major, transfer to another college, or drop out completely. The statistics bear this out. Barely more than half of all college students earn a four-year degree within six years of entering as freshmen, and 28 percent don’t return after their first year! If they’re a male or a person of color — African American, Native American or Latino — their odds of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in six years are even worse.

The other group finds an embedded, hidden resolve to face down this challenge. They apply themselves in new resilient ways, like I did (miraculously). A 38 on my first physical chemistry exam caused me to buckle down like never before.

But working harder is not the only effective response. It’s true: Students need to work harder by putting in more hours to prepare for class. According to one recent study, the average number of hours college students spend doing schoolwork outside of the classroom has dwindled over the past 50 years, from 24 hours per week to only 15.

But putting in more time doesn’t always translate into better grades or deeper learning. No, to be effective, students need also to learn how to work smarter.

In my new book, “Working Smarter” guides high school and college students through the learning approach that helped turn things around for me as an undergraduate, an approach that I refined as a doctoral student, a freshman advisor and a college dean. It will help students get smarter — not just intellectually, but smarter in the way they approach their work…any work.

Ultimately, I’ve had great success: two degrees in engineering from MIT, a doctorate in education and a fruitful career — first in the software industry, then in higher education, and now as executive director of a professional engineering society. But it didn’t come easily.

This book provides a model, one that students can adapt to their own style and situation. And it offers a mindset — a way of thinking — that will underpin those strategies as they learn to adapt them to meet their particular needs.

These strategies, I’ve discovered, make all the difference between successful and unsuccessful students. I call them “shifts,” because most students have to dramatically shift their thinking and their actions in college to succeed. Doing the same thing harder and for longer periods of time is like revving the engine in lower gears. It doesn’t get the job done!

“Working Smarter” is all about how to shift gears. Specifically, how making three specific “shifts” will help students succeed in college:

  • The first one, The Attitude Shift, focuses on developing a new mindset about their intellectual ability, and on the importance of confidence and how to rebuild it, especially after they suffer setbacks like I did. That’s Chapter 2.
  •  The Connections Shift (Chapter 3) shows how important it is to engage faculty and peers on campus, and how to do it. This chapter teaches students how to approach teachers, even if they’re shy, and how to utilize study groups of fellow students to maximize their learning.
  • And finally, The Behavior Shift (Chapter 4) offers practical steps for improving grades and deepening their learning. This chapter provides both the rationale behind, and the steps toward, developing the kind of comprehensive approach that has helped countless students succeed.

One could apply these strategies as a professional as well. In fact, my research and the broader success studies boil down to the same three central differentiators between the successful and the mediocre professional:

  1. winning attitudes;
  2.  empowering relationships; and
  3. productive behaviors.

Everyone struggles at some point in college and in their career. “Working Smarter” is designed to help them face down these challenges and learn to work smarter.

What strategies worked for you to face down your academic and professional challenges?


“Working Smarter” is available on in both paperback and Kindle versions at


Guest Blog: Why Silicon Valley Needs Black People, and Vice Versa, by Gerald Harris

This post is written by, and posted with permission from Gerald Harris, Principle of the Quantum Planning Group, Inc. Email your thoughts to Gerald Harris at, and find him on LinkedIn at

In the spring of 2009, I met Diishan Imira, a unique, 27-year-old, biracial African-American man with a deep entrepreneurial spirit. Diishan had just returned from two years in China, where he taught English to grade school children and picked up their language. He had already started and closed two businesses importing goods from China into the United States, one for running shoes and the other for furniture. Now the CEO of Mayvenn, Inc., one of the fastest-growing businesses funded by 500 startups in Silicon Valley, Diishan has become one of my closest friends. I had the honor of coaching and supporting him as he formed Mayvenn, and I am an investor in the company. Mayvenn is still in its early growth phases, but I am confident that over the next few years, it will emerge as one of the biggest African-American success stories in Silicon Valley (For more about Mayvenn, visit

While working with Diishan, I also served for four years on the National Advisory Board of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), whose 31,000-plus members include some of the best and brightest young minds in Black America. These young men and women were being trained at some of the top universities in the United States and were being hired by some of the nation’s top companies. From the perspective of this experience, my background as a futurist and scenario planner, and my residence in San Francisco, where I see and feel the tech community in action, I have come to the view that Silicon Valley needs more African-American minds and hearts, as it evolves, and that the black community needs more of what Silicon Valley has to offer. Here are my key thoughts.

Five Reasons Why Silicon Valley Needs African Americans

  1. Lucrative Market

African-American consumers spend more than $1 trillion annually. This is a staggering sum of money that is largely ignored by Valley entrepreneurs. Some of this spending is, of course, being picked up, as African Americans consume just like other Americans, using Uber, buying from iTunes, listening to Pandora and buying iPads and iPhones. But targeting the African-American consumer can prove to be lucrative, as Hollywood, the fast food industry and others have figured out (Popeye’s Chicken anyone?).

  1. Product Promotion

African-American consumers are style-setters and pacesetters in many industries. Imagine the music or fashion industry without black people: no hip hop, no blues, , no fancy braided hair styles (being adapted by Iggy Azalea), no jazz (I could go on.). Black athletes and other black celebrities are prominent promoters of a wide range of products aimed at young people of all races — clothing, including athletic shoes; energy drinks; nutritional supplements and more — and could fill the same roles in the marketing of tech products and services.

  1. Product Improvement

African Americans (and other “minorities”) provide unique perspectives and approaches that can augment products and services so they best serve the needs of their own communities and often other communities as well.). African Americans have long been trend setters in fashion, music and entertainment in general.  We have led the way in creating publications for our communities including Ebony and Essence magazines and now have  groups which speak to our concerns on Twitter and Facebook.  Silicon Valley should learn from these examples and create more customized products h   while seeking input from more black customers to serve their needs better and more profitably.

  1. Enhanced Creativity

Black perspectives combined with perspectives of others can produce insights and ideas that only emerge from a mix of diverse viewpoints. I know this well from leading groups tasked with creating future scenarios. I am fascinated by how many racially integrated bands —  The Black Eyed Peas, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem and others — create globally successful music. Silicon Valley, likewise, may gain greater success, and avoid some spectacular investment failures, by expanding their creative teams beyond the white guys from Stanford University who regularly appear.

  1. Political Support

Support from blacks in the political arena could prove useful to the Valley over the long term, as it runs into more restrictions, regulations and barriers. Political attacks will grow with the influence of Silicon Valley firms, as they change the basics of how we live our lives. Airnb and Uber are transforming our use of our homes and cars. Other firms will change how we receive medical care or get an education. To the extent these companies impact our lifestyles, they will face political consequences. If Black Americans are being served by and benefiting from this change, we might make good political supporters.

Five Reasons Why Black America Needs Silicon Valley

  1. Better Products and Services

Silicon Valley is best at pointing out many parts of our economy that are out of date, inefficient and stuck in old paradigms. These archaic patterns of operating are costing African Americans just as they are costing others. We, too, will benefit from cheaper, faster and better products and services. Other black men may find, as I do, that Uber makes it much easier to hire a ride in New York City. Booking my vacations is cheaper and better with Airnb. I can listen to more of the music I like at lower cost by streaming on Spotify or Pandora. What Mayvenn is doing for black hairstylists by bringing them into the digital economy is an emerging story with great potential. Products and services are sure to emerge that can help black people improve our health and education, using digital technology.

  1. Wealth Creation

Black Americans need to participate in the wealth creation that technology is stimulating in other communities. We need more black tech millionaires and billionaires who can support our communities with jobs and other forms of investment.

  1. Career Success

Young black Americans need to be part of the unfolding future that Silicon Valley is creating. During my time with NSBE, I saw this clearly in the career choices that young, very well-educated black youth were making. Black parents want great futures for our children just as all other parents do.

  1. Showcase for Excellence

Black genius and intellect needs to demonstrate their value in the technology world just as they have historically in other realms (law: Thurgood Marshall; writing: Toni Morrison or Alice Walker; engineering: Elijah McCoy; dance: Alvin Ailey; music:  Ella Fitgerald, Aretha Franklin (an endless list); social change: Dr. King, Marian Wright Edelman, or Mary McLeod Bethune; science: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson or Mae Jamison (first Black woman NASA astronaut)). America is at its best when it takes full advantage of all of the talents of all people.

  1. Philanthropy

Wealthy philanthropists have played key roles in the elevation of black Americans from the historical injustices of slavery and Jim Crow. Black colleges received some of their startup funding from and continue to be supported by the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Warren Buffett. Silicon Valley billionaires can find some of their most satisfying social investments in historically black colleges and other black organizations that have made the lives of all Americans better.

Email your thoughts to Gerald Harris at, and find him on LinkedIn at

How to Make SMART Resolutions

Karl W. Reid


If you’re planning to make resolutions for the new year, you’re not alone. In a recent Huffington Post online poll, 73% of readers set new year’s resolutions, and only a quarter of respondents say that setting goals is “Too much pressure!”

The new year is an optimal time to set new goals. Here are a few tips that, if followed,will  increase the likelihood that you’ll stick to them throughout the year.

“Begin With the End in Mind”

As you set your goals, you should first be clear about your priorities. Steven Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says that we should “begin with the end in mind.” In other words, in whatever tasks you pursue, by thinking about what you want to accomplish or the outcome you desire, you’ll become more focused and motivated than if you have no clear vision of “the end.” However, rather…

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Hands Up? Sure, But I’m Also Fighting Back!

Tommy Smith photo2

This week, I joined thousands in Washington, DC for the “Justice for All” rally and march organized by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. With repeated chants of “Black Lives Matter”, “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” the multicultural and multi-generational show of unity was moving.

Black Lives Matter

The marchers, and others like it in New York and Boston gathered to decry the recent police killings of unarmed black men and boys, the non-indictment decisions of the Grand Juries in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City, and to call on Congress and the Justice Department to make requisite changes to the criminal justice system to ensure that there is indeed justice for all, not just for some.

The rally and march were peaceful and purposeful, and yet watching the sea of humanity repeatedly hold their hands up in a sign of surrender started to rankle me. In my mind, something is wrong with a call to surrender, especially for this cause; especially now.

Hands Up2

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the “Hands Up” symbolism to the rolling national protest movement. Some witnesses to the Mike Brown shooting testified that his hands were raised to surrender when he was shot multiple times by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson after a brief struggle near Wilson’s squad car. (Others say Brown was charging the officer. We’ll never know the truth since the officer was never cross-examined during the Grand Jury proceedings.) The “Hands Up” mantra became a righteous symbol of the national protest movement against police brutality and biased criminal justice.

Full disclosure here. My late father was a New York City police officer who rose to the ranks of detective during the 70s. Public servants like my dad put their lives in danger every day to serve and protect us. But as we’ve seen recently, not all police officers have the best interests of the public in mind. And when police officers have unconscious (and conscious) biases and can’t do their job objectively, their attitudes may have deadly consequences.

Like many other Black parents, my father counseled my brothers and me how to interact with police when stopped and questioned: “Always keep your hands where they can see them”; and “repeat every instruction they give you (‘OK, officer, I’m reaching for my license and registration.’)” His guidance may have saved my life several times when I was pulled over or questioned by police, each time for no other reason except “Driving While Black.”

And yet, while marching, I felt we’re past the time to surrender, even symbolically. For this movement to have a long term impact, it’s time we fight back, not with retaliatory violence, but with action!

Here’s how.

  1. Push Congress to remediate the “Ms. Education” of Black males in school. It’s time to demand that Black males (and females) get quality education in elementary, middle and high schools across the country. Did you know that only 62% of African American 9th graders graduate in four years? What happens to the 38% who don’t graduate right away? According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested in their lifetime. Therefore, by increasing four-year high school graduation rates, we could lower the likelihood that our young boys and men will encounter the criminal justice system.
  2. Require that all schools have access to critical math and science courses. Part of the educational problem is structural. For example, did you know that nearly half of African American high school students don’t have the full complement of math and science courses (4 years each) in their schools? Such an enormous opportunity gap prevents a large segment of young people ineligible to attend their state flagship university, never mind elite private colleges and universities.

But Mike Brown had graduated from high school and he was days away from going to college when he was gunned down. So there’re other structural problems for which to fight:

  1. We need to push Congress to require and fund body and dashboard cameras for law enforcement professionals to hold even the bad apples accountable for their actions.
  2. Let’s require police departments to surface and redress unconscious bias among their officers, while at the same time, weed out the bad apples before they even put on a badge.
  3. And let’s push the Justice Department to require special prosecutors to argue Grand Jury cases involving law enforcement personnel to minimize the reality, or even the perception of favoritism and bias.

I’m thrilled to see the “Justice for All” marches and protests nationwide, sparked by our youth. But I’m done surrendering. Like Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics ceremony, I’ve decided to fight back too.