Opinion: The key to success in college – and life – is humility

It’s time to embrace the human connection.

by Abdulrahman Bindamnan

When I started college at 19 years old, I was functionally illiterate in English because I studied my formative years in Arabic and Islamic schools in Yemen. I did not know how to write an intelligent English sentence, not because I was cognitively impaired, but because I was handicapped by a linguistic impediment. I was fully literate in the Arabic language, but when I articulated my thoughts in English, they sounded incoherent to my prospective native readers.

I needed to embrace the attitude of humility to learn rudimentary literacy skills. I was an adult, but my English skills were at a children’s level – which created incongruency in my mind. Although I have sophisticated thoughts, I often articulated them poorly. In other words, the quality of my writing was inferior to the quality of my thoughts. I had to learn the basics from the ground up, which led me to coin the term “zero-generation students,” a group of students who differ from “first-generation students.”

I have previously written about the challenges of becoming a scholar in a new language and culture, and I recently realized the solution to navigating the unruly transition is through embracing the attitude of humility. It is the humility to learn, connect and aspire to become better human beings.

When I was starting my undergraduate studies at the University of Miami, I still vividly remembered my inability to comprehend the assigned academic readings, which exceeded my reading abilities as a non-native English speaker. But through humility, I increased the repertoire of my vocabulary, and now I can read and comprehend with relative ease. Now that I have passed the language barrier, I strive to write accessible prose. 

It is ironic that some scholars, who proclaim to deeply care about underrepresented students, write in extremely opaque prose, under the pretense of the genre of academic writing. If I have an education of seven years at U.S. colleges and universities, then I should be able to read and understand the corpus of literature. Academic writing that obfuscates rather than clarifies is part of the problem that excludes marginalized students from participating in the academic discourse.

The university concerns itself with preparing the scholars and leaders of tomorrow. And in our divided world, we need scholars and leaders who exude humility. The pressing problems in our world do not need more intelligence or money. They need people who lead with humility, who can prioritize the wretched of the earth, and who selflessly help those whose lives have been marred by trauma, wars and misfortunes. 

Modernity creates fierce competition within which people vehemently attempt to climb the ladder of success, by any means necessary. Amid this social and capitalistic mess, we forget those at the bottom of the pyramid, those who do not have the basic skills to even compete in the modern system. To bring them in, we need humility.

Modernity creates subjects who are illusioned by the promise of progress that is almost never realized. We read about the next groundbreaking study, yet the conditions of our world continue unabated: The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. The cycle of oppression continues undisturbed because so long as we use the same modern tools, we cannot escape the predicaments and ills of modernity. We need humility to find an exit from this impasse.

We need humility to learn how to connect with people from various backgrounds. Instead of looking at their difference as a liability or weakness, humility encourages us to look to the human within. All people around the world are looking for the same ideals – security, prosperity and happiness. Yet we modern people seem to be locked into a repeating cycle of failures. Although we may score an “A” at the frontier of science and technology, we certainly get a “D” on our ability to sympathize with others.

Therefore, the key to success in college is not to get an “A” in every class, but rather to cultivate humane virtues. After all, if we as human beings fail to regard each other with dignity, respect and humility, intelligence becomes an instrumental tool for oppression. Of course, kudos to students who strike a balance between intelligence and wisdom. However, we have reached an extreme of naked careerism that it behooves us to pause and reflect.

We are driving the planet into destruction. Social connections become more ephemeral than ever. Virtual connections can start in the split of a second…only to evaporate in the blink of an eye, as ghosting is increasingly becoming the default way of ending connections. Although the means to connect with people are almost endless, loneliness is reaching an unprecedented peak. 

A Harvard report suggests 36% of Americans suffer from “serious loneliness.” Of course, the global pandemic had exacerbated the loneliness epidemic. We do not need another technological app to address loneliness; no, we need to embrace the attitude of humility and learn how to relate to each other as human beings. We need to learn how to connect with people for the sake of human connection.

In conclusion, the time to embrace humility as a way to learn, connect and aspire is long overdue. If we do not treat each other with respect, dignity and humility, we will drive each other – and our planet – to global pandemics and social epidemics.


Abdulrahman Bindamnan is a PhD Student and an ICGC Fellow at the University of Minnesota. He is a contributing author at Psychology Today.