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Month: April 2013

How To Help Students Find Their Place On Campus

How To Help Students Find Their Place On Campus

Last week’s blog about first generation college students got me thinking about something that affects all college students regardless of age, socioeconomic status, or previous life experience, and that’s connectivity. We know that students who participate in college athletics, student organizations, and/or social groups are more likely to stay enrolled through graduation than those who do not. This is partially because students know that they must maintain good grades in order to participate in many on-campus activities, but it’s also because students who feel connected, who feel like they really “belong,” are almost always happier than students who don’t, and happy people are, on the whole, harder working and more productive than unhappy ones.

While a lack of connectedness is rarely the primary boulder in a student’s road to success, it can exacerbate those more fundamental problems. For example, a student might be struggling academically due to a learning disability or lack of skills in a certain area, but if that student has something else going on at school that is exciting and meaningful to him or her, he or she is more likely to push though the tough stuff and persevere. However, if that same student is less invested in life on campus because of a lack of either friends or extra-curricular activities, it becomes easier and, at times, more tempting to cut his or her losses, pack up the t-shirt sheets, and go.

This can become especially problematic when a student’s academic status prohibits him or her from participating in the very thing that might bring him or her that sense of belonging. For example, this past fall I began working with a freshman named Lauren. Although she was in school on a music scholarship and had been recruited for our most elite singing ensemble, she entered school on academic probation and was therefore unable to participate during her first semester. Lauren already felt like a stranger in a strange land, intimidated by her coursework and desperately homesick. Singing was the one thing that made her feel successful; not just her confidence but her very sense of self was inextricably linked with singing and being a part of a performing group, and it was the one thing she was not allowed to do. During our first few sessions, Lauren told me outright that she didn’t think she would make it. While she knew that if she managed to get off of academic probation, she would be singing her heart out in only a few months, next semester seemed like a lifetime away. For Lauren, I knew that I needed to do two things at once- get her to see both the forest AND just the tiniest baby sapling right in front of her. Over the next few weeks, Lauren and I talked some about the big picture, about how every moment she spent slogging through difficult homework, every hour she spent studying for a test, brought her one more moment, one more hour, closer to the day she would be back on stage. However, most of our conversations involved the here and now- the very here and now. For, as we all have experienced at some point, “it gets better” advice only goes so far. People tell us, “you’ll eventually get over this career disappointment, illness, loneliness, divorce….” and we think, “Yes, but I feel bad NOW. I feel lonely NOW. I feel lost NOW.” So with Lauren, I would remind her, “you don’t have to make it through the week; you just have to make it through the day- or even the hour.” And hour by hour, day by day, she made it through. Two weeks ago, I went to a concert given by a few of our small ensembles. Lauren was the star of the show. I mean, it was a complete movie moment- there was Lauren standing center stage, smiling from ear to ear after having finished a solo, while the crowd was on its feet- stomping and cheering.

While some students know that they want to participate in sports or music and just need the motivation to get back on track, others don’t know where to begin. One thing I have found is a direct correlation between how much time students spend on campus and how connected they feel. It can become a chicken and egg argument at times- is this student going home every weekend because they feel disconnected and isolated, or do they feel more disconnected and isolated because they’re going home every weekend? Therefore, with students who are struggling to find their place in the crowd, I recommend that they double down rather than pull back. I inform them of groups they may not know exist, put them in touch with people with whom they have common interests and, as always, make sure that they know that there is always one person on campus who very much cares.

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.

Talkin’ About First Generation…Boulders in the Road

Talkin’ About First Generation…Boulders in the Road

A few weeks ago, I came across an article by Jason DeParle of the New York Times ‘For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall‘ that chronicles the struggles, both on campus and off, of three low-income students vying to be the first ones in their families to earn a college degree. Since roughly 60% of the college students enrolled at my university are first generation college students, the stories of these three young people echoed tales that I have heard over and over again throughout my tenure as a success coach. With such a high percentage of first generation students at my university, I have, of course, seen many students who have been able to overcome the obstacles that this status confers upon them, but I’ve also seen students fall victim to the myriad pressures and challenges of being the first person in a family to attend college.

How can we better understand the unique challenges faced by these students? And what can we, as success coaches, do to ensure the retention and graduation of first generation students? It’s important to understand that first generation college students experience challenges both off campus and on. Off campus challenges can at times seem paradoxical. Some students struggle with the pressure of having families and even whole communities who are behind them 100%, cheering them on, praying for their success. But this support can be so much more complicated than a “go get ‘em tiger” slap on the back. A student who is the first in his or her family to attend college has, in effect, become “the chosen one.” The one who will “make it” and then bring everyone else along. Thus, these students feel like they have a duty to succeed, not just for themselves but for the whole family. They become responsible for lifting up all the loved ones in their lives who were not given this special opportunity. They become like Atlas, and what would Atlas do if and when those who are working so hard to give him this opportunity discover that he is faltering, or failing English 101?

However, while some students feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, others struggle from the lack of support from family and community. I’ve had multiple students tell me of going home for a weekend only to face taunts of, “oh, here comes college boy! You think you’re better than me just because you go to college?!” And some students face both a surfeit and a lack of support simultaneously! A few years ago, I worked with a student named Devon. Devon was a first generation college student from a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. After we had met a few times, he began to open up to me about his family. “My mom and my aunt,” he said, “are so supportive. They want me to be the one to succeed so much.” At this point Devon’s GPA was abysmal, and as we talked about ways to improve academically he added, “but my dad doesn’t think I should go to college at all. He says that I’m not better than he is, and he never went to college. He tells me I am going to fail anyway, so I might as well start saving now to pay back my loans.”

Regardless of how much or little support they get at home, first generation students can sometimes experience feelings of guilt that they are in college at all. They worry that they are abandoning their families or inadvertently losing a connection to their communities. All college freshman enter school hoping to be changed and bettered in some way by the experience, but many first generation students fear that change as much as they desire it. And when they arechanged, as we all are by new experiences, they can, at times, feel caught between two worlds.

First generation college students also face on-campus challenges. For one, there are the nuts and bolts of navigating the terrain that all new students face. How do I register? What in the world do all of these terms mean on my financial aid form? How do I apply for extra grants or loans? Can I resell this $200 textbook I needed for exactly ten weeks of my life? However, unlike students whose siblings or parents have walked this road before, first gen-ers A) have no one back home to advise them and B) sometimes don’t know that these questions are confusing and intimidating for every new student, so they keep mum, try to “fit in,” and don’t ask the questions to which they most need answers.

Thus, one of the biggest services mentors like success coaches can provide is to be an open forum for questions and uncertainty. It is so important for these students, much like it is for international students and veterans, to feel like they have someone to talk to, whether that’s a coach, an RA, a success coach, or even an older student who has been in their situation before, who they trust. With my first generation students, I help them navigate financial aid forms, the registration process, and work study options. I inform them about tutoring programs and other resources. I give them information on ways to connect to the campus at large through clubs and organizations, since we know that a sense that one has found one’s place in the campus community is perhaps the single best predictor of whether or not a student will stay enrolled. But more than anything, I try to provide them with a support system, a home away from home. I make sure they know that no question is too “dumb,” and no issue to seemingly insignificant to discuss.

America’s greatest asset has always been its people- its dreamers, its adventurers, its pioneers.  For many first generation college students, stepping foot on a college campus for the first time is no different from disembarking off a gangplank at Ellis Island, or catching a first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from the back of a conestoga wagon. It is the moment when one realizes that, while a seemingly impossible dream has been realized, the real journey has only just begun.

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.

Creating the Four Year Plan

Creating the Four Year Plan

It’s registration time again, and while much of the registration process is about the prosaic- the nuts and bolts of dates, times, and requirements- over the last few days I’ve found myself waxing existential. Registration, at its core, is about students building the road, brick by Macroeconomics 210 brick, that will lead them into the bigger, scarier forest of “the real world” and career. Yes, they will strive to build careers that will provide for them financially, but as we all know, what we chose to do in life affects so much more than how many dollars are in our bank accounts. It affects how we engage with the world, the language we use, the philosophies we claim and discard, how many sunrises we see. “What we do” becomes an inextricable part of “who we are” whether we like it or not. (If you don’t believe me, eavesdrop on the conversation at any dinner party and count how many times the question “what do you do?” is asked between new acquaintances.)

Because of this, I help all my students create a four year plan. Some students enter college with a clear idea of what they want to do in life and what field of study they would like to pursue, and for these, the primary benefit of the four year plan is that it provides a sense of scope and perspective, like seeing the box top of a jigsaw puzzle on which the finished image is revealed before diving in to a sea of strange, unconnected pieces. With these students, we can usually create a comprehensive four year plan during their first semester, and barring a change of direction, they can use it as a roadmap all the way through their senior years. Other students, however, come to college having little to no idea what they want to do, and for these the conversation can span a couple of years. First, I always remind my students who have yet to declare a major that they have time.

Freshman year is mainly about fulfilling core requirements as well as exploring introductory courses in fields of study that might appeal to them, so I encourage students to take courses that will serve them regardless of the major they eventually choose. However, at some point students do have to declare, at which time I start to dig a little deeper. I ask them to start by thinking about their skills, likes, and dislikes in the abstract. If you had the choice, do you prefer to be indoors or outdoors? Do you like your daily or weekly schedule to be pretty structured, or do you prefer to manage your own time? Do you thrive on routine, or do you need new and varied challenges in order to stay interested? If you had to do a puzzle in the newspaper, would you choose the crossword or the soduku?  Do you like being part of a group or working solo? When you think about the show The Office do you think, A) “I’d hate to work in that office,”  B) “I’d love to work in that office,” C) “I’d love to be in/work on the set of the television show The Office,” or D) “I’d love to have so much money that I never had to work and could spend all my days in my massive mansion watching re-runs of The Office”?

As with all students, even those for whom the path seems straight and clear, I remind them of the fundamental truth that, no matter what they choose now, no choice is irreversible. In fact, I had a student just last semester who is a perfect example of how a change in major can have a huge impact on a student’s academic success. Brad didn’t come to me until midway through his sophomore fall semester, and he was not doing well, particularly in a course on business finance. I looked at Brad’s high school as well as his college grades and quickly discovered that nearly all of his poor grades were in classes that involved math. Okay, I thought, math is just not Brad’s strong suit. Soon after Brad came to me, it was time for him to register for his next semester, and before we talked about specifics, I asked him a few questions. “So why did you choose business as a major?” I asked.  After a few moments of deer-in-headlights blank staring, his face furrowed. “Well,” he began slowly. “A bunch of my friends were choosing business, and I don’t really know yet what I want to do, so I figured that would be as good as anything.” I assured him that he was very much not alone in his uncertainty, and then I walked him through what the next three years as a business major would look like. Sophomore year = math. Junior year = math. Senior year = math math math. “Now,” I said. “Having looked at these classes, thinking about your strengths as well as where your interests lie, is this something you want to do?”  The answer was no. “Well,” I continued, “then I think you might be happier and more successful if you changed your major.” Brad’s eyes got big. “You can do that?!” he exclaimed. Yup. That was a year ago, and now Brad is doing well as a criminal justice major. His grades have improved significantly, and he is actually interested in his classes.

I also remind students who struggle with choosing a major that many people end up doing something in life that has absolutely nothing to do with their college majors, or who change careers throughout their lives. I think about a friend from college who majored in theatre and was an absolute tour de force as an actor but who is now a veterinarian- or of one of my high school classmates who spent twenty years as a nurse before going to law school and eventually becoming a judge. Life is an adventure, I have learned, and you never know what kind of opportunities may come along. Therefore, the most important thing is that you learn how to learn, so that when those opportunities arise, you can say “yes” with confidence, competence, and curiosity.

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.

Faces of a Success Coach: The Boxing Trainer

Faces of a Success Coach: The Boxing Trainer

Beyond knowing that Muhammad Ali “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” and having watched most of the Rocky films (life is just to short to spend two hours on Rocky V), I don’t know a lot about boxing. Even so, there’s something about the idea of the boxing trainer as someone who’s always in your corner that just rings true to me as a success coach. Today was one of those days where it rang out loud and clear.

The day, however, didn’t begin with a revelation; it began with a trio of soccer players and Death of a Salesman. You see, Ian, my first student of the day and a member of the soccer team, hadn’t read it. Which isn’t necessarily a big deal. Lots of people haven’t read Death of a Salesman. In fact, I predict that the majority of humans on the planet haven’t read Death of a Salesman, and the world keeps on spinning on its axis. Reading Death of a Salesman is not necessary for living a successful and happy life unless, of course, you register, of your own volition, for a course in which you are required to read…you guessed it…Death of A Salesman. And it turns out that Ian had registered for just such a course! What are the odds!

When Ian revealed to me that he still hadn’t read the play, weeks after it was assigned, I played the athletic coach card. “Okay, so do you want to head to the library right now to read or do you want me to call Max to tell him that you can’t go to practice today?” I asked. Ian knows that Max and I are a united front when it comes to academics AND that no practice today basically means no playing time this weekend. Ian headed to the library. The next student to walk in my door was another soccer player named Kenny who, as it turns out, also needed a verbal refresher on the Riot Act of 2013. As Kenny left and my third soccer player, Deke, walked in the door, Kenny gave him a look that said, “man, I wouldn’t want to be you right now.”

It was not even lunchtime, and already I was feeling exhausted, frustrated, and annoyed. “Why can’t these guys just get their acts together?!” I wondered. “Are these meetings with me even useful for them?”

In other words, I was not in the zen-like, open-hearted mindset in which I’d like to have been, even after a walk across campus to the music building where, in addition to success coaching I also teach piano lessons,  when my mid-day piano student arrived ten minutes late. This wasn’t the first time that Calista was late, and just as I heard the door open and was preparing my, “this isn’t gonna fly anymore,” speech, Calista entered in the middle of an apology. But before she got very far, she halted in mid-syllable and burst into tears. Calista comes to me for piano, but she also works with another one of our success coaches for academic purposes, and after a conversation about feeling overwhelmed and underwater, I asked her if she felt her success coach was helping. “Oh yes!” she said. “Since I’ve been working with him, I’ve been doing much better but…” “But?” I asked. “But…he always seems so busy,” she said. I asked her to elaborate. Other students were constantly knocking on his door during their meetings, she said. (Her coach works part time in student affairs.) She felt like he was doing five other things in his head while he was talking to her. She wasn’t resentful, but she clearly didn’t feel like her success coach’s focus was completely on her during their sessions. In response, she had instinctively backed off, loosened the bond of trust that connected them. She simply no longer felt that, after an exhausting round of boxing her way through a day or week of college life, she could count on her success coach to be there, in her corner, with a bottle of water and her best interest at heart.

I spoke with her coach, a new addition to our team who was very glad to get the feedback. She had been doing so much better, he had reasoned, that she didn’t need as much help from him anymore. Furthermore, he realized that his current office set-up was not as conducive to success coaching as he would have liked, and he decided to move his meetings with Calista to a quieter area of campus.

But the thing that struck me most of all while speaking to Calista was how much those 30 minutes twice a week meant to her. Recently, she has been dealing with multiple deaths in her family and financial as well as academic concerns. Sure, she is doing better academically, but that is partially because the time with her success coach has been so valuable. Sometimes, at success coach meetings, we have thrown around the idea of meeting only once a week with our students who are getting As and Bs at midterm, but this conversation with Calista made me realize that the feeling of missing that 30 minutes twice a week -where someone was completely focused on her- made her anxious, made her more likely to fall back into the old habits that got her on academic probation, made her more likely to go back to thinking, “nobody cares about me, so it doesn’t matter if I fail or not.”

I thought again about Ian, Kenny, and Deke. I remembered a conversation Ian and I had had on a previous occasion about why he was here and what he really wanted. “That’s the first time anybody has asked me that,” he remarked thoughtfully. I remembered how Kenny and Deke had joked about how I must be psychic, since I’d texted them both for results of a test literally a minute after the professor had returned the tests. I could tell by the way they told the story that they liked knowing that I would ask. They liked being accountable to someone and knowing that that someone was always going to be in their corner. Ian, Kenny, and Deke will eventually get it and be able take the ball and run with it themselves, but right now they need someone to help them see the long game. They need someone to be accountable to. But mostly, they need to know that, after an exhausting round of boxing their way through a day or week of college life, they can count on their success coaches to be there, in their corner, with a bottle of water and their best interests at heart.

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.

Faces of a Success Coach: The Polygraph

Faces of a Success Coach: The Polygraph

Human beings lie for many reasons, some of them more excusable than others. On the indefensible end of the spectrum, people lie to cheat, steal, manipulate, and control. However, human beings also tell lies both big and small to protect themselves, sometimes from the negative consequences they actually deserve due to bad behavior, but also from mundane, human experiences like feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, and insecurity. It’s as universal a human impulse as rain in Seattle, and it takes experience and moral education to learn to control these impulses for the greater benefits gained by taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes.

However, as a success coach, my first job is to convince students who have a problem with “truthiness” of the sheer futility of lying. As a mother and teacher of over forty years, I’m like a double black belt in lie detecting. There’s just not much I haven’t yet heard. I’m like a veteran cop who, after nearly half a century of interrogations, has become his own polygraph machine. Most students are generally honest with me from the get-go, but even the vast majority of those who are not figure this out pretty early on. I may look like a small, sweet lady with a faint Southern accent, but it doesn’t take much to see that I’m more “steel magnolia” than “shrinking violet.”

But…some students learn the hard way.

An extreme example is that of Eddie, a freshman who came once or twice at the beginning of his first semester and then just stopped coming. He would say he would come but then wouldn’t. Then all communication from Eddie went dark. After about a week, I called the RA and asked him to keep me on the phone while he knocked on Eddie’s door. The RA went to Eddie’s room and gave him the phone, at which time I made it clear to him that, at this point, he was required to see the director of retention services. He didn’t go. So the director called me back and together we contacted the director of campus housing to bring him in. (For students to truly come to understand that lying is futile, it’s important that they know that A) I am constantly working with/sharing information with other administrators and educators on campus, and B) I know where you live… muhahahaha!) As it turned out, this young man’s story was one of bad choices in a difficult, even sympathetic situation.  Eddie had been living in California in an abusive home, and when his stepfather kicked him out of house, he figured he could get into college in Ohio where his grandmother lived, utilize the need-based aid that made it nearly free for him to attend, then use his dorm as a hotel for an extended vacation.

Eddie’s case is an example of clear abuse of the system; however, more often a case comes along like that of a sophomore named Keith who was on Academic warning and had a brand new (very competent –but not yet experienced with coaching) success coach. At the beginning of fall semester, Keith went to all his classes the first week. From then on, he only ever attended two. While he had perfect attendance in those two classes, he attended the other three a grand total of zero times. He was, however, telling his coach that all was well, that he was going to class and turning in all assignments. During the fifth week, his coach got word from Keith’s English professor letting the coach know that she hadn’t seen Keith since day one.  Math and Info Tech? Same story- they hadn’t seen Keith at all since first week. When his coach confronted Keith directly, instead of admitting that he hadn’t been to any of these classes in a month, he doubled down. He pleaded and asked incredulously, “why is no one believing me? I’ve been to class! I’m doing well!” Next, Keith and his coach met with the dean of students. He tripled down, perhaps believing he was too “far in” his own lie to back out now.  “Nobody believes me!” he would cry. “I can’t believe this is happening to me!” I was in the loop with this situation and Keith’s performance was so convincing that we did take a moment to reconsider. It seemed unlikely, but maybe this was a case of mistaken identity. So we made an appointment with his English professor, where he repeated the same story. He insisted that she had him confused with someone else. Then…the smoking gun. She pulled up a folder with his photograph on it. “Is this you?” she asked. He nodded, trapped. “Well,” she continued, “this is the folder where I keep the work that students in my class have turned in to date. Your folder is empty. You have turned in nothing and you have not been to class.” With the presentation of this evidence, Keith’s house of cards collapsed.

This semester, Keith is working with me. On the first day, we talked about what had happened last semester as well as ways to turn it around.  I scheduled a meeting between Keith and the dean of the school of criminal justice (do you see the irony here?) to discuss Keith’s potential success. During the meeting, the dean was honest and blunt. He told Keith that when job recruiters in the field of criminal justice come to campus, they ask the dean of the school or a faculty member, “would you hire this student?” If a professor even hesitates, the recruiter marks that student off the list.

Right now, Keith has 2 Bs, an A and a C. He is attending classes (I check – trust but verify) bringing papers and written assignments to me before turning them in (trust but verify), and we are discussing topics in criminal justice which he has to explain to me in a way that I (knowing nothing about the subject) will understand it. I think I could do pretty well on the next test in Justice 220. As a result, we’ve had some really good conversations about public policy, the justice system, and American society. We are four weeks until the end of the semester and so far so good.

Oh…and Keith has learned that it’s no use lying to a polygraph.

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.