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Month: December 2012

The Mentor

The Mentor

As I continue to await the final grades for my students to come in, I have been thinking more and more about the specific challenges success coaches face and the particular roles we take on towards the end of the fall semester. Even outside the realm of academia, this season can bring on challenges to productivity and motivation, (let’s see…I could get a bunch of work done today, or eat another Christmas cookie and get some online shopping done from my desk….hmmm…), but especially for college students, many of whom may have spent their first weekend home all semester at the Thanksgiving table, this final stretch can be an uphill battle. Students get a taste of home and are eager to return. This mental shift is only exacerbated by the myriad holiday events- from concerts to parties to decorations- that spring up all around campus. This is the time when I am talking, calling, texting, cajoling, cheering on my students 24/7 in an effort to prevent them from losing the momentum they’ve built throughout the fall.

Then, it’s time to become the mentor. It is in this period that we celebrate small victories, like when Allison made a 98% on her last sociology paper, her best grade in college to date. I remind students how hard they have worked- how they made it through a class they didn’t particularly like or will likely move from academic probation to academic warning, or off academic probation entirely. Even something like taking a 1.0 GPA to a 2.0 can be a huge victory. But mentorship is not all cheerleading; it’s also about teaching life lessons and helping these new adults learn how to deal with reality.

At the beginning of each semester, I always ask my students what GPA they would like to have by semester’s end based on a realistic assessment of their courses and current GPA. We then make plans based on this goal (some of which need to be adjusted after mid-term), and go from there. However, since the majority of graded assignments, like big projects and exams, occur in the second half of the semester, this is the time when we really have to look at the numbers and figure out exactly what needs to happen in these last few weeks in order for a student to accomplish his or her desired GPA. If it looks like a student is going to make a D in one class, I explain that, in order to get off of probation, he’s got to make a B in this other class to offset the D. We go through best and worst case scenarios, and it almost always comforts students when I explain to them that fully understanding the worst case scenario means that any result better than that with which they came in will be a net positive.

But what if the worst case scenario actually happens? This is when my role as “success coach as mentor” is perhaps the most difficult, but also the most crucial.

Dylan is a student in our program who is most likely going to be dismissed after grades come in. Throughout the first half of the semester, he told his success coach that all his classes were going well and he was doing everything he was supposed to do, while in reality he was attending only two of his classes regularly while putting in appearances at the other three exactly once. In the classes he was actually attending he was making an A and a B respectively, but he was failing the classes in which he’d been MIA since Day 2. His success coach and I took a look at college transcript and noticed that this was a pattern. One semester he would do well and the next he would tank. Wash, rinse, and repeat. When presented with reality, he continued to lie, going so far as to tell a professor to her face that he’d been attending her class when she knew for a fact he hadn’t. For this student, the best case scenario may just be this dismissal if, as I hope, the experience shakes him up and makes him realize that the way he’s been doing things is not going to work anymore.

One of my current students, Chelsea, has the opposite problem. Chelsea works harder than almost any student I’ve seen walk through my door, but college level work is extremely difficult for her. She badly wants to succeed, but her ability in core academic subjects such as reading and math are simply very low. As a mentor, I have been trying to help Chelsea think about the big picture of her life. Would it help her to attend community college for a couple of years, do some remedial work, and then try again at a 4-year institution? Is there a career path in which she is interested that might not require a 4-year degree? I know that, while I would love for Chelsea to graduate from my university, in the end it’s her whole life that she’s got to think about, and the best thing that I can do is to steer her in a direction that gives her every possible chance to succeed.

I have mentioned previously that, while most of my students are freshmen and sophomores, I have a few students who keep coming to me throughout their college years regardless of their academic status. I have found that, in these cases, it is usually my role as mentor that keeps them coming back. I think about the conversations I have been having recently with one of my seniors, a football player named Thomas. While Thomas is going through many of the uncertainties brought on by senior year and that scary first look into the future, he is also coming to terms with the end of his football career. Football has been such a part of his life- part of his identity- for almost his entire life, and though there is a small chance that he might be drafted into the NFL, in all likelihood he has played his last game. Over these last few weeks, Thomas and I have spent a lot of time talking about how, while this feels like an end- and while it is an end in some regards- it’s really the beginning of a whole new chapter in his life.

It is in conversations like these that I know unequivocally what my favorite role as a success coach is; it is as a mentor. It is when I get to step out of the trees with a student and help him or her look at the forest- at the whole, complicated, mysterious, frustrating, beautiful life they have in front of them- that I really love my job.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Finals Week

Finals Week

Well, it’s that time of year again, but you can put down the eggnog because I’m not talking about the Holidays. While most people out there are trimming trees, lighting menorahs, and wondering why that hard-to-shop-for person on the list won’t ever just tell people what she wants, those of us in academia are going through a different December tradition: final exams.

This can be a stressful time for everyone, including success coaches, who have to anxiously await results that they no longer have any hand in shaping. This is the time when we cross our fingers, ask ourselves if we did everything we could have for our students, and hope for the best. Last week, at our final success coach meeting before the end of the semester, one of our newest success coaches raised a tentative hand. “This may be a silly question,” she began, “but I am feeling unsure about how things are going to turn out for a few of my students, and it’s making me really anxious. Do any of you feel that way too?” Heads bobbed up and down in unison.

To give you a little window into this experience of waiting, watching, and hoping, here’s a brief summary of the journeys a few of my students have been on this fall, and where I think they might end up when the grades come in.*

Rebecca and Tracy: Rebecca and Tracy are both freshmen who came to school already on academic probation. (My university admits 10-15 of these students a year, and they are all paired with success coaches for fall semester.) They also both found themselves paralyzingly homesick as of their second day on campus. During the first few weeks, not a meeting went by entirely tear-free. Rebecca was having roommate drama, Tracy wasn’t making friends, and both of them were beginning to think that this whole “college” idea had all been a big mistake. Rebecca, who had been recruited for the softball team, knew that she had to get off academic probation in order to play, but sports were her only true passion. Tracy simply had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, and she switched majors three times in two months. As of our meetings last week, both girls have adjusted beautifully, and I predict they will both end up with a few As, more Bs, and one or two Cs. But it’s not only their grades that are important. Before Tracy walked out of my office after our final meeting, she gave me a huge hug and said, “I would not be here at the end of this semester if you hadn’t talked me through my homesickness and anxiety.” I asked her what she had learned about herself in these past few months. “I learned that I can handle harder work that I thought I could,” she replied before adding, “and…I learned not to be so afraid of new things.” With that, she walked out the door and into finals week. Now I wait.

Jay: Jay came to me spring semester of last year after ending the fall semester of his freshman year with a GPA of 0.5. He is also an athlete, and due to his dismal showing that semester, he became ineligible to play. During spring semester, he made a 2.5, which brought him from academic probation to academic “warning” status. This fall, Jay has done everything that has been asked of him. Math is the subject with which he struggles most, but I think he is going to pass and will probably get Bs and Cs on everything else. Unless he doesn’t. Now I wait.

Allison: Remember Allison? If not, you can check out Five Keys to the First Meeting. Well, Allison is a sophomore now, and she’s another semester closer to graduating. I think she’s going to make it, but she still struggles. I don’t doubt how much she wants it or the depth of her understanding of what this opportunity is costing other people in her life. During one of our meetings she told me, “I want to do this. I have to do this; my mom is mopping floors just so I can even be here.” However, while she made a 96% on her last paper, she apparently didn’t attend her math class at all last week. I know that, at this point, she has an A in math; nevertheless, missing classes is not acceptable. I think there is a very good chance that she will have over a 3.0 for the semester, but one thing I’ve learned is never to assume. So I wait.

Marco: Marco is a junior who has been meeting with me off and on for three years. He came to school on probation, went from probation to warning after his first fall semester, and by the end of the school year he was doing very well. His sophomore year went pretty smoothly (he was doing well enough not to have to see me anymore), but by October of this semester, it was clear that something had gone very wrong. Marco had three Fs by midterm. He didn’t show up to class. He didn’t show up to our meetings, and when he did, it was clear that he didn’t want to be there. He seems to have given up, and I still can’t figure out exactly why. I know that there have been some recent disappointments in his personal life, as well as a few bad choices on his part, and my best guess is that he has come to the conclusion that none of the things he’s been working toward are worth it anymore. I don’t know. But he is one of the students for whom I am most concerned as this semester ends. I wait.

I nodded my head with every other success coach in the room when our “success coach rookie” asked if the uncertainty of not knowing how it’s all going to turn out can get to us because I’ve seen it “turn out” in so many different ways. Sometimes a student turns around his or her whole life/attitude/GPA in one semester, but with others success comes in fits and starts. Some students leave the university, and I never hear from them again, while others are dismissed and return a year or two later more mature and determined than ever before. I think about one student, a senior who most likely will graduate with honors in the spring, who as a freshman, when asked about his goals replied, “My goals? What goals? I’m just eighteen!” His journey has been rocky at times but he has stuck with it and is now reaping the rewards.

So as finals week goes into full swing, I will be thinking about those students at my university (the vast majority) who are doing just fine, as well as those I will meet for the first time in January when they walk in my door. But mostly, I will be thinking about Rebecca, Tracy, Jay, Allison, Marco, and my four other students- waiting, hoping, cheering on. So stay tuned! As soon as I know, I will be blogging about how it all “turned out.”

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of students.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.







The Trail Guide

The Trail Guide

“It couldn’t be simpler!” chirped James’ college advisor. “You just fill out your FAFSA form with your SSN, DLN, any W-2s you may have, your FITC (IRS 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ), FTR, or TR for PR, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, or Palau (if applicable!). Also make sure to include your parents’ FITR (if a dependent student), their current bank statements, business and investment mortgage information, business and farm records, stocks, bonds, and other investment records. Oh! And remember that the AY and the FFY begin at different times of the year. (Obviously!) Then, take your FAFSA to the Bursar’s Office, and the Bursar will send it off to the CPS!” Suddenly, James’ advisor’s face started to become twisted, morphing before his eyes into some kind of half-serpent, half-alien monster. “As I said, it couldn’t be sssssimpler!” hissed the monster. “Muhahaha! Muhahahhaha!!!” Suddenly James shot up, his eyes bulging, sweat pouring down his face. He looked around his bedroom, inhaled, and gave a sigh of relief. It was just a nightmare, he told himself. Although, he had to admit that, without the snake-alien-monster, the nightmare did contain some unsettling parallels to his first week at college.

When students arrive at college, they not only enter a world of exams, all-nighters, roommate drama, and (gasp!) laundry but also one of Registrar’s Offices, insurance paperwork, loan applications, and yes…acronyms. (And BTWs, while most freshmen are intimately familiar with acronyms, they’re generally more of the TTYL variety. (LOL!) And just as it is for many of us in the adult world, most of the time, it’s not the big things that overwhelm us but the minutiae. These are the insidious details that are the paper cuts of life- small, but always frustrating, often confounding, and at times painful. It is with these issues that success coaches best serve the students with whom they work by acting as trail guides. Just as a trail guide can decode symbols on a map, point out where to find potable water, or demonstrate how to build a fire, so a success coach can provide the small, practical explanations that can make the big, important things (like graduating or, to continue the metaphor, not getting eaten by a bear) that much easier.

Some things students know they are supposed to do but don’t know how and are often reluctant to ask for fear of looking dumb. When someone tells them to “go to the Bursar’s Office,” they mechanically nod their heads without asking what’s really on their minds: “Uh…is ‘Bursar’ actually a word? If so, what is a Bursar? And where is that office? And, oh yeah, what do I need to ask the ‘Bursar’ once I get to his or her office? And, um….do you think I’ll be okay if I just ignore the whole issue because it scares me and I’m hoping that by not addressing it, it will simply go away? ‘Cuz that’s my Plan A right now.”

Again, just like many of us (show me a person who hasn’t put off calling their insurance company/bank/doctor for at least a week because they were intimidated by the bureaucratic headache that just dealing with the automated menu was sure to create), young people entering into the adult world sometimes shy away from these unfamiliar experiences. For most, it’s the first time they’ve had to do everything for themselves, and it takes time to get used to the idea. One of the first things I say to my students is, “Get over the fear of looking dumb and ask the questions you need to ask!” A) The benefit of getting the information you need far outweighs the risk of looking dumb, and B) you actually won’t look dumb because nobody can be expected to magically know this stuff right away!

Often, however, it’s the “unknown unknowns” that trip students up. It’s the questions they don’t even know should be asked. Students might know that they need to apply for aid, but they have no idea that they have to “accept the award” before the aid goes through. Athletes may know that they have to maintain a certain GPA in order to remain NCAA eligible but may not know that they must go through the NCAA Clearing House before being able to play.

A few years ago, I had a student named Brenton. Brenton was a sophomore business major, but he was really struggling in his math classes. I talked to Brenton about why he had chosen business as a major, and he admitted that he hadn’t really known what he wanted to do with his life at the time he chose the major, so he just went with something that seemed popular and respectable. I showed Brenton how many math-related courses he would need to complete in order to graduate, and he turned pale. Then I asked, “Have you ever thought about changing your major?” Brenton looked stunned. “You can do that?!” By the time he left my office, Brenton had the biggest smile on his face I’d ever seen. He had settled on a major he was excited about (and one that required less math), and he was heading toward the Registrar’s Office to file the paperwork.

As a “trail guide,” I regularly explain all the things we at the University have come to take for granted as common knowledge. Students are provided with much of this information by RAs or during orientation, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily retain it all. As success coaches, we try to fill in the blanks such as, “How do I Add/Drop a class? How do I activate my student account card? Wait a minute, did you say that I can download movies from a university database directly to my computer?”

I certainly did.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.