How does one go from failing college to becoming a college professor? Honors College Assistant Professor Dr. Darren Surman can gladly answer that question. Although he now has a Ph.D. in political science, he did not always have a strong desire to get an undergraduate degree, let alone a doctorate.
After failing out of college, Surman had a choice to make about what he wanted for his future. His journey from college dropout to professor highlights the importance of challenging yourself and relying on those around you.
When Surman first stepped onto campus at The University of Alabama in the fall of 1996, it was because his parents encouraged him in order to have greater opportunities in life, not because he had an extreme passion for continuing his academic career. His friend was majoring in business, so he figured he would, too, despite having a passion for music.
However, when music became his main focus later that fall, Surman stopped going to classes, and when he attempted to go back in the spring, he quit going then, too. Surman said he did not go through the process of dropping out – he simply failed.
He returned to UA in 1998 after spending time at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Phoenix, Arizona. At this point, he had changed his major to religious studies and took some classes. He went for a while but said he didn’t have an academic drive and didn’t know what it meant to sit in a 200 person class. As a result, he failed college for the second time.
It was not until he met his future wife on a blind date in a canoe that he decided to go back to college seriously. However, his previously failed classes faced him with a problem – he couldn’t get back into UA. So instead, he attended Shelton State Community College for a year and made all A’s. After pleading his case to an advisor at UA, he began retaking classes at the university with a strong GPA of 0.97.
Dr. Surman sits outside his office in Honors Hall and discusses how he became an Assistant Professor.
When he found himself back at UA, he decided to go to the library to see if he could find something that sparked an interest in him. The most formative books he had read were the Autobiography of Malcolm X, identifying with the self-education that he did in prison. Then, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning revolutionized something in him, giving him the drive to do something.
After reading a few more books, he realized he was studying sociology even though he had never heard of it before. His wife (girlfriend at the time) told him about New College and how students could create their own majors. After talking to advisors in New College, he discovered that he could major in sociological approaches to the study of religion.
This newfound drive for knowledge led Surman to complete his undergraduate degree in two and a half years. He notes that his resilience to continue his education was deeply supported by those around him.
In 1998, Surman had a professor who saw something special in him and noticed when he stopped coming to class. Since most people didn’t use email at the time, his professor made multiple phone calls to his home phone, encouraging him to come back to class. Surman never returned his calls, but when he came back to UA seriously, he decided to reach out to his old professor.
The professor was happy to help Surman; he was on Surman’s dissertation committee and attended his wedding. “Any resilience that I had was because of the people allowing me to be resilient,” Surman said.
It is not an uncommon occurrence for college students to walk on campus their first day and be unsure of what they will do for the next four years. This anxious feeling arises in lots of college students because of the fear of failure.
Surman believes it is vital for students to know that it is not the end of the world if they fail. He believes that failure will not derail you as much as you believe it will, and if you allow yourself to lean on the support from others, then you can figure it out as you go.
“Most importantly, follow what you are interested in, then it all will work itself out,” said Surman.
Failure on its own is a scary idea to face, but concern over how others view your failure can lead to feelings of embarrassment or discomfort. This was not the case for Surman.
When looking back at his failures, he said, “it was the failure that even gave me the initiative in the first place to want to come back.” He decided it was not something to hide or avoid; it became a necessary part of the story he created for himself.
Today, Surman stresses that instead of letting your failure be devastating, learn from it. He says to take ownership of what you know you didn’t do in class and move on. He wants his students to know that during their years of college, they should be working to become the best version of themselves they can be. Failure does not define who you are; instead, it becomes a part of your story.