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.