We invited a small panel of seven University of Wisconsin Oshkosh faculty members, students and alumni—most of them complete strangers to one another—to muse on and share how they define success. The setting: The UW Oshkosh chancellor’s residence.
The panelists’ backgrounds and their stories were diverse.
A radio-TV-film (RTF) student already directing music videos that promote the institution. A young, entrepreneurial dentist whose biology degree led to a doctorate in dentistry from Marquette University and the opening of her own practice in her hometown. A former campus Head Start program leader and alumna who is living her childhood dream as a Lutheran pastor. A 20-something, local restaurant owner who planted a passion for his family’s native cuisine and culture in the fertile fabric of Oshkosh’s historic downtown. A chancellor, a political science faculty member and a fast-food franchise Titan whose company continues to grow.
We wondered. We asked.
“What does success mean? How do you define it? How do you know when you’ve achieved it in such a success-oriented world?” … And we video-recorded the discussion.
It didn’t take long at all for the ice to break.
No one held back.
What resulted was an unexpected, endearing, poignant and, at times, hilarious two-hour conversation. It ended up being less about locking in definitions and answers and more about trading and sharing personal stories about their many roads to success.
In the stories, there were striking connections. More than one panelist was the first in his or her family to pursue and earn a college degree. Three have histories rooted in restaurants. Not everyone was following his or her field of study. Panelists frequently equated failure with success—more often than they defined “success” by its stereotypes—money, power or status. Each panelist also shared that they are pursuing a degree or a career that still affords him or her the opportunity to enjoy humor, creativity, music and art.
Enjoy a few excerpts from their successful, June 20 conversation.…
THE QUESTION: What does success mean? How do you define it? How do you know when you’ve achieved it in such a success-oriented world?
“For me success is the positive outcome of the goal you have. It’s not necessarily the outcome you were expecting. It’s a positive outcome. For me, when I do videos for the Admissions Office, obviously my goal is to inspire people to come to Oshkosh, but even if I can just get people to think about the college process in the right way, how they should be touring schools and what questions they should be asking, for me, that’s still success because it’s a positive outcome from what I’ve been doing.”
“My two-second bumper sticker for success is ‘getting back up, recovering, learning what you can learn from what didn’t go well and getting back up and going forward again’.… I have a friend for whom that is his definition of success: being certain to have plenty of failures so he would learn things and be successful. There’s a lot to learn. I don’t like how it feels to fail, but I love all of the things that come out of it. Sometimes you walk into a wall and fall down, and so the wall makes you turn a different direction. Again, exciting and good things can happen along the way.”
MARLO AMBAS ’08, Owner, Manila Resto, Oshkosh
“Success for me is being able to provide space for people to enjoy two different things. I’m very passionate about food and music and especially being able to share my culture with the community here. Being a resident and growing up here—my family and myself—we thought that by being able to share our culture, food and tastes in music and way of life, that’s something we wanted to do.”
THE QUESTION: What role has UW Oshkosh, and your experience while a student, played in your personal feelings about and definition of success?
“I feel like Oshkosh was huge for my development. I come from a family where no one on either side went to college—cousins, aunts or uncles. No one really graduated. And my father came here from Uganda as a refugee in the 1970s. So, there was very little educational component growing up. My mom was really supportive. But I decided to go to Oshkosh to work and save money and see how Oshkosh went. I was a little bit nervous. I felt like it was a great place. Doing undergrad there, getting my biology degree, before going on to get my doctorate-level training, I feel like it was a huge blessing. I got research opportunities that, had I gone to a larger school, I would have never gotten. I traveled to Boston one semester with my mentor, Dr. Holton at the time, and I got to present research at a national meeting—things that, as an undergrad who had never even been on an airplane, were really cool experiences… lots of great energy.… Doors opened that wouldn’t have been even allowed to open. I feel like that was a huge blessing.”
“I didn’t follow my educational path. Although, it’s an emphasis on botany, and I do love my gardens and things like that that we do have—playing around with native plants. Oshkosh was good to me. I was just proud to get a degree. I was the first one in our family to get a degree as well. I just thought that was a pretty cool thing. I was proud of myself for accomplishing that. It took me five years, however. My family has been in the restaurant business since I was a small child, and I ended up gravitating there even though I didn’t want to go there. Getting away from home, developing people skills I didn’t have before—I did become a better student, I matured—it helped me in all of those ways.…”
“You envision a role for yourself: ‘I’m going to be a faculty member, and I’ll spend a lot of time in the library and I’ll wear a lot of tweed.…’ This turned out to be completely not that. This turned out to be far better than I ever could have hoped it would be, and I say that very, very honestly. I am very thankful every day that this is where I landed.”
“There are people in our community, whether they are faculty, administrators or students, who, for the most part, respect each other and want to learn from each other. The faculty learn from the students. It’s not just the faculty teaching the students. You learn a lot from students, having never left higher education myself—I’m a first-generation college grad, too —I just never left. That’s a real specialness because it creates a real academic community—because everybody who comes into our community has something unique, knowledge that someone else doesn’t have that you can learn from. It’s not just a professor spilling all the knowledge to students. That dynamic is always here, and I think we really work on that.”
THE QUESTION: Describe a moment where you felt that contentment—“This is it, this is what I was meant to do…”
STEPANEK: “I was going to a movie on campus.… I was heading up to the theater and heading up front and getting all my popcorn and stuff. I was stopped (by a student) and it was like, ‘Hey, one second. I just want to let you know that your video blogs were the reason I came to UW Oshkosh.’ That just struck me. I was like, ‘Wow, to actually know that something that I made affected somebody that much that they would go, ‘This is where I want to be.’ That was just amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that….”
AMBAS: “We had our official grand opening on Sept. 8 last year. There are a lot of different things you have to go through in order to get a business operating. Overcoming all those obstacles along the way—being 20-something and going into these banks saying, ‘Hey, I want to open up this restaurant in Oshkosh.’ I kept those letters from those banks that said, ‘No.’”
CULVER: “And you’re not doing business with them either, are you?”
CULVER: “I remember.”
AMBAS: “It’s the same persistence—not taking no for an answer. Eventually, we found a bank that believed in our vision. We’re happy that we’re able to make it.… Another thing that’s great about it, or any line of work, is hearing people tell you, ‘Thank you for doing something like this in the community. Thank you for sharing your culture with everybody.’ It gives you that gratification.”
GOVANI: “My favorite thing is when patients bring me things. I had a lady who brought me a cheesecake. I didn’t like my dentist that much. I mean, I liked him, but not that I’d bake him a cheesecake. A woman brought me a handmade, crocheted washcloth. People do really generous things—heartfelt appreciation—that is just so amazing. That means more to me than any amount of money.”
CULVER: “We just did a groundbreaking in Lee’s Summit, Missouri; it’s a St. Louis suburb. I went down. I usually go to these. I get my opportunity to speak. I came back and the mother of the general manager sent us a letter back. She was just touched in such a way—not necessarily about me, but about the whole team—and how proud she was that her son, the general manager, was part of the Culver’s organization. Those are successful moments. But as I said before, it doesn’t stop there. You’ve got to continue to work at it, and work at it, and work at it.”
THE QUESTION: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
SLAGTER: “I’ll say something that my mom continues to say, and it’s with me every day, and it sounds a little ridiculous, but she’d say, ‘You know, Tracy, you’ve got to be a friend to make a friend.’ She says that probably on a weekly basis. It applies to anything.… That’s something that guides how I teach. It guides how I relate with most everybody, how I interact with my own children and what I want to teach them. That is one thing that is core to who I am. ‘You gotta be a friend to make a friend.’”
GOVANI: “…Whenever I was nervous about college or taking out loans, (my mom) would always say, ‘Well, you have nothing to lose, and you’ll always wonder, ‘What if?’ And it’s true. I don’t have a lot of what-ifs because I just do it, and if I fail, whatever. I tried. I don’t have to wonder the what-if.”
STEPANEK: “My dad said this to me when I was real little, so I’m gonna paraphrase this—‘to make sure you listen and observe before you make a decision or a statement.’ With everything in my life, I try to make sure I’m always listening to what other people’s needs are, observing what the situation is, reading the situation before I do anything.… Just in general in life, when you’re talking with somebody, you’ve got to listen and observe to make sure you’re communicating with them the best way you can.”
AMBAS: “I’d say my parents would always tell me that if I start something, I should finish it and do it well. There are always going to be things in life that you don’t always want to do, but you have to do it.”
WILKE: “I did get some advice, early in my seminary career. Pastors cannot afford throwaway lines, and I’ve got a million of them. I will go for the laugh or the witty comeback or the whatever. People need to take time to hear one another and understand one another. Sometimes those quick responses that just roll off my tongue don’t indicate that at all. They indicate that I think I’m being amusing. That’s hurtful often. That’s recent advice that I am really trying to follow.”
WELLS: “The first year (at college) was really, really hard. I almost didn’t make it. I remember going home and talking to my mother and telling her how hard it was. She said, ‘Son, the first year is always the toughest.’ That made me feel better. I was home for the summer, and I got recharged. I went back a second year, and it was still hard. I went home and said the same thing. (My mother) said, ‘Remember, I told you, the first couple years are the toughest.’ So, finally, the third year, I was getting a little better, but it was still pretty tough. I couldn’t wait. It was always this little ritual. ‘How did the year go?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know. The first couple-three years are the toughest.’ I said, ‘Mom, you keep telling me the same thing every year. She said, ‘Then, you’re ready for my final advice.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘It all works out in the end.’ There’s some truth to that. We worry so much about making it and taking on big challenges. You can worry yourself to death. But you sit back—‘It’ll work out. It’ll work out.’”
Watch the conversation in its entirety.