Thoughts on Academic Excellence

The News Magazine of HCU

By Holly Frost  

My name is Holly Frost. I wasn’t a straight-A student. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class. While at UT-Arlington (UTA), I had a full-time job that often prevented me from having a typical class schedule. I took classes that interested me and related to the type of engineering job I was looking for when I graduated. It took me 10 years to graduate with that schedule.

While studying, I creatively thought about how my studies would be used in the real world. My goal was to develop an understanding of how to apply that subject matter. True academic excellence is reflected by an understanding that can only be obtained by immersing oneself deeply in their studies and applying the knowledge gained.

The approach I followed provided me with both a mastery of the material I had studied and an appreciation for its real-world applications. After graduating from UTA in 1973, I was an engineer at Texas Instruments for a few years before I started Texas Memory Systems (TMS) in 1978. When I started the company, I was its only employee (unpaid).

At TMS, I had little money, so I cut expenses and personally tried to do everything. A customer approached and asked me to design a fast storage system for processing seismic data. I dove deeply into the project. I learned all that I could concerning application software, fast transfer interfaces, processor and memory chip technology, PCB layouts, and several minor technologies, too. I learned each technology as needed. Not too early or too late.

As the company grew, I kept building memory systems, kept expanding the requirements, and kept adding new features. And I began to hire engineers. Slowly we built an engineering company. When we had money, we hired more engineers.

All of the employees who stayed long term shared one common trait. They were each willing to jump into the deep end with respect to the projects assigned to them and learn. Not at a superficial level, but to the point they utterly understood the problems they were facing and the solutions they developed. They were also willing to make mistakes quickly (and work hard to fix them). At my company, we thought hard, worked hard, and – sometimes – made money. When we didn’t have money, we just survived.

The hands-on persistent learning approach I developed during my academic career and fostered at my company paid off. Texas Memory System grew to be a global leader in solid-state memory systems and was acquired by IBM.

In his book, “Outliers,” journalist Malcolm Gladwell notes that success is strongly associated with a depth of understanding of a particular subject matter that can only be obtained by hours of intensive focus, real-world experience, and practice. Citing numerous examples, Gladwell demonstrated that knowledge obtained through applying learned concepts with a hands-on approach produced the most dramatic results (as opposed to rote learning through memorization).

Approaching your academic efforts with the goal of obtaining a true, practical, understanding of your studies aligns with the teachings of Our Lord. In Luke 5:4, Jesus instructed Simon, James, and John to “Put out in deep water and let the nets for a catch.” Jesus knew that real success depended on taking the time and effort required to row out of the shallow waters and drop a net into the deep. The same is true with your studies. Instead of memorizing material just for a test, head out into the deep waters and truly learn.

To help you on a path to true academic excellence and future success, I offer the following practical tips that have served me well:

Be Intense and Evaluate Yourself Continually:

When in class (or studying outside class) ask yourself: “Do I truly understand what I am hearing/reading/ reviewing (or I am just memorizing it)?” If not, speak up. Ask questions.

Understand How What You are Studying Can Be Applied in Practice:

Once you have reviewed your academic material ask: “Do I know how this information or idea can be applied in the real world?” If so, visualize exactly how you could apply what you have learned. If not, push yourself hard to produce at least one practical application. If, after a reasonable effort, you can find no such applications, talk to a classmate and/or your professor. The act of understanding how what you are learning can be applied in a real manner will allow you to gauge the true depth of your understanding.

As an example, while a student studying electronics, instead of just memorizing concepts associated with electronic circuits, I actively attempted to use those concepts to do something practical, like designing a computer. While I didn’t have access to electronic components or equipment, I was able to attempt a paper design.

Several of my attempts failed and made me appreciate that I didn’t learn or understand all that I initially thought I had. But I kept trying. And trying. Through repeated attempts, I was able to learn what I needed to learn and obtained a depth of knowledge that I would not have been able to obtain had I not tried to use what I was learning in practice. Lessons learned easily are often written in sand and quickly forgotten. Lessons learned after persistent effort are written in stone and retained.

Expect Great Things From Yourself:

Set your expectations high and don’t give up if you find subject matter challenging at first glance. Most anything worth obtaining requires deliberate, focused effort. Those seeking marginal results, typically put in only marginal efforts. Those who truly believe that they can achieve great things will exert great effort and the result of such effort is often success.

Observe, Listen and Try to Deeply Understand Everything:

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus instructed: “He who has ears, let him hear.” In so doing, He was making clear that we should not lightly observe and listen to the messages provided to us, but that we should truly hear those messages, contemplate them, and learn their depths. While his specific Gospel message was not directed to a group of college students, it easily could have been.

About Holly Frost

Holloway “Holly” Frost was born in Venezuela. He earned a degree in Mathematics, with a minor in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. He is founder and CEO of Texas Memory Systems, an IBM computer hardware company that designs and sells solid-state storage systems that accelerate demanding enterprise applications. The company boasts its award-winning RamSan product line which delivers fast, reliable, and economical solutions to a broad range of enterprise and government clients around the world. He was named a 2021 Fellow by the National Academy of Inventors for creating and facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.