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.

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