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Month: June 2013

Family Matters

Family Matters

Remember the summer before you went to college? I remember it vividly. In addition to time spent with friends talking about how weird it was that high school was over, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what the next four years would be like. Soon, I would tell myself when to get up and when to go to bed and how late I could stay out. I could eat nothing but cookies if I wanted to! Though I loved my family dearly, I couldn’t wait to strike out on my own, to live by my own rules under my own (well, sort of) roof.

But moving away from home for the first time can be as strange and unmooring as it is exciting, and many college students are surprised at how difficult it can be to balance campus life with the tug of home and family. I’ve worked with more than a few students for whom that tug became a major boulder in their road to success. The reasons why students can sometimes get sidetracked by family issues range from the simple, such as fear of missing out on family events, to complex situations like divorce and domestic abuse.

One of the most difficult things that can happen to any student is to be far from home when a health crisis hits the family. While there have been anecdotes about the student whose grandmother, grandfather, two uncles, a great aunt, dog, and guinea pig all died within the span of his freshman year and all required his leave of absence, it is true that many students enter college at about the age when their grandparents’ health really does start to decline. The sense of fear of and/or guilt over “not being there” is even more acute when it’s a parent or sibling who falls ill. A few years ago, I worked with a young woman whose mother learned she had cancer at the same time that doctors were trying to save her husband’s life following a heart attack. My student, understandably, wanted to go home immediately. She went back for a weekend, after which her parents practically forced her to return to school.

Of course, some events in life are more important than any lecture on macroeconomics, and some students can afford to leave school for a week or more and be just fine, but for those who are already walking a razor’s edge between success and failure, these “should I stay or should I go” decisions can carry enormous weight. For example, I worked with a student whose family decided to book a cruise during the week of final exams. I tried to tell him that, as hard as it would be to miss something like that, it was in his best interest not to go on the trip. Unfortunately, there was no one in the world who would have been able to convince him not to go. In the end, he missed all of his finals, and his grades suffered tremendously because of it.

Often, when students struggle due to separation from their families, either because they feel sad that they are missing out on the good stuff or guilty that they are not there to help with or even fix the bad, I try to tap into the root cause of their worries. “Are you worried about your mom, or grandma, or brother?” I ask. They nod. “Well,” I say, “the best thing you can do for them is to work hard and do well. If you are not fully invested in your life and studies here, you’re just adding to the worries the person you are worried about is experiencing.” Put in those terms, students are better able to see how what can feel like abandoning the family is actually contributing to its long term good. That notion alone can assuage some of the guilt these students feel and enable them to re-focus on their goals.

I also know that when a student needs something that I, as a success coach, can’t provide, it is my job to connect that student with the resources and people who can. I have referred numerous students to our on-campus counselors- like my student Joseph, who was torn apart by the knowledge that every day he stayed at school was another day his mother’s boyfriend was likely abusing her, or Jessie, whose only family consisted of an aunt and uncle who, she felt, were just happy to be rid of the burden of caring for her. Their stories serve as a constant reminder that these boulders are real and can seem intransigent at times, but that my job as a success coach is to try to budge the un-budgeable. To bridge the unbridgeable. To do whatever I can to ensure that one more student has the tools, skills, and resources he or she needs to succeed.

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.

Talking The Talk: Teaching Students to Communicate Effectively and Professionally

Talking The Talk: Teaching Students to Communicate Effectively and Professionally

I could almost feel Amara’s nervousness grow as we made our way across campus. “Just tell your professor exactly what you told me,” I gently reminded her. She nodded, but kept her eyes forward. To witness this scene, you’d think Amara was on her way to confess that she had plagiarized or cheated on an exam- or that the professor in question was domineering or arrogant. None of this was the case. Amara was simply nervous about doing something with which she had very little experience- talking directly with a teacher about a problem she was having in class. Even in high school, she admitted, she had simply sat in the back and largely gone unnoticed. Now she was in college, and regardless of the personalities or seeming levels of approachability of her professors, their status and resumés intimidated her. Amara had been barely treading water in this particular class for awhile but had been unable to avail herself of the easiest solution: talking to her professor and asking for help.

While Amara’s case might be extreme, it’s not unusual. I have found that a huge boulder for many of my students is a lack of communication skills, especially when it comes to communicating with authority figures- from professors and coaches to deans, job recruiters, and internship advisors. Part of my job as a success coach has been to help students develop communication tools crucial for success in college but that are also transferable to the professional world. In addition to my work as a success coach, I also teach a course in business etiquette and interview skills to juniors and seniors at my university, and I often parlay the same advice to my freshmen and sophomores as it applies to their college careers. I remind them that it’s not just about being smart and working hard but about how they interact with classmates and professors.

In the real world, careers are made and lost on issues of etiquette, dress, trustworthiness, dependability, attitude, and ability to work as a member of a team. What is the umbrella that keeps all of these ideas warm and dry? Communication. So I help my students learn to communicate confidently and professionally. Sometimes we talk through a potential meeting with a professor as if I am that professor. I make sure they are specific when communicating the problem (“I need to get my grade up” or “I’m having trouble in the class” doesn’t cut it). I try to persuade them to sit in the ‘T’ or ‘Golden’ zone in class (front row and/or middle column) so they will be sitting where the professor is in a better position to make eye contact during class, something that may make initial contact easier for both the student and the professor.

Though it may come as no surprise (in the age of Facebook and twitter) that young people might need some guidance in the art of face-to-face communication, it came as a huge surprise, to me at least, that they would need help in the online arena, particularly as communication applies to the great and once-powerful use of “electronic mail.” I can’t tell you how many students of mine view email as an antiquated form of communication. The way they talk about checking their university email, you’d think they were standing on the roofs of their dorms waiting for carrier pigeons to arrive. Most students are so used to text speak that they simply don’t know that different rules apply when sending an email to a professor or anyone else who is not a peer. I ask my students, at least at first, write these emails during our meetings. We go over emails for grammar and spelling, obviously, but also for tone and clarity. How many of us have ever sent an email (either professionally or personally) that was received in a way other than we intended? It’s not a mistake you want to make more than once or twice.

In the end, communication basically boils down to knowledge and confidence. Students need to know the rules, however nuanced, regarding effective and respectful communication with professors, administrators, and eventually employers and/or employees. They also need the confidence to walk into a room with a professor and say exactly what they want to say. For my students, some of these lessons are learned across the desk from a success coach.

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.

Helping Students Find Their Niche

Helping Students Find Their Niche

It’s a fact that students who are more engaged with the campus community as a whole are more likely to stay enrolled through graduation. The primary reason for this seems obvious: students who are engaged in more than academics feel a greater social and emotional connection to their schools than those who are not. Some students have to search very little or not at all (in the case of student athletes) to find the club, team, or friend group that will become their social anchor. For these students, becoming involved is simply a matter of knowing what opportunities are out there. Our student center has a one-stop-shop website where students can find a full calendar of happenings on campus, from lectures and seminars that fill their co-curricular requirements to dodge ball games, trivia nights, and movie marathons. In addition we, like most colleges, have numerous religious and cultural clubs, performing groups, volunteer and community service organizations, fraternities and sororities, and professional associations. For the self-starting student, getting involved in extra-curricular activities can be as simple as walking through the door of a meeting.

However, those are not the students who generally walk through my door. Of course, not all students on academic probation or warning suffer from a lack of engagement in campus life. Not surprisingly, many students find themselves in academic hot water because of too much time spent on extra curricular activities and not enough on academics (and for some- “got a girlfriend or boyfriend”- is the name of their primary extra curricular). But for a notable few of my students, a lack of engagement in campus life has been a major contributing factor to their struggle with staying enrolled. Some are homesick, some are socially awkward or painfully shy, while others are experiencing culture shock for cultural or geographical reasons and have yet to find other students to whom they feel they can relate.

The first thing I do in these situations is to ask and inform. I ask about what kinds of things they were involved in back home as well as their current interests. I ask, “what gets you excited?” Once we hit on one or two things, I inform them about some of the opportunities that are available (always letting them know that, hey, if we don’t have it already, you can always start it yourself!). I will also make introductions between one of my students and others on campus who are involved in something in which he or she may be interested. I’ve even gone so far as to pretend to receive an important call in the middle of a meeting so the students can talk on a student-to-student level without me in the room. (For one of my students, a freshman girl who was so shy that she rarely left her room for any reason other than to attend class, I knew that this innocent bit of trickery was the only way I would ever get her to talk to other students on her own.)

In the end, the most important thing I can do for students who feel isolated on campus or who haven’t realized how important and rewarding getting involved can be is to lay out the facts for them. 1) They are more likely to graduate if they not only have a full class schedule but also a full campus life. 2) Many college friends become lifelong friends, and many college activities can lead to lifelong passions and even careers. 3) No matter what anyone tells you, ALL college students are somewhat nervous about putting themselves out there, making new friends, and getting involved; however, while trying new things and meeting new people can be difficult and awkward at first, sooner or later people realize that, without even knowing it, they’ve gotten comfortable, confident, and connected.

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.

Deficiencies in Student Preparedness for College Coursework

Deficiencies in Student Preparedness for College Coursework

In my experience, the main deficiencies in student preparedness for college coursework include:

A) inadequate knowledge in core areas

B) little experience in proactive learning (i.e. not just following directions but taking initiative and forging one’s own educational path)

C) misguided expectations.

Many colleges and universities do a great deal to help students with the first two of these issues, but what about the third? And what do I mean when I refer to students’ “misguided expectations”? Well, take my student Samantha. Sam came to me second semester her freshman year after a dismal fall. Before we met, I looked at her high school transcript and found she had made A’s and B’s all four years. She was a model student, so why had she fallen so far in one semester of college? When we met, I realized that while I was surprised by Sam’s poor showing, Sam herself was stunned. “I don’t understand?!” she kept saying, “I did everything just like I did in high school!”

Aha! After a little digging, it became apparent that Sam had done very little rigorous work in order to earn above a C in most of the high school classes. “Attendance counted for 30% of my grade,” she said proudly, “and I never missed a day.” So I started asking Sam more specific questions. How many hours of reading and writing homework did she have in any given week? How much did her teachers grade her on exams, papers, and long-term projects and how much on worksheets, open-note quizzes, and participation? In her academic classes, were A’s and B’s difficult to come by or given out pretty freely to those who at least put some thought into the assignment and turned it in on time?

Sam’s answers to my questions were simultaneously depressing and illuminating. It made me want to shake the entire education system by its shoulders, shouting “this is not working!” It also, however, really cracked the nut of why Sam had done so poorly. She had worked moderately hard in high school in order to meet expectations, and so her experience-based conclusion seemed sound at the time she entered college. “I will work moderately hard at a moderately difficult task,” she told herself, “and I will get a good grade.” Until her seemingly sound expectation was met with a different reality…

I wanted to know more about the rigor (or lack thereof) of coursework for high school students in 2013, so I called my daughter. My daughter lives in one of the largest cities in America and has taught students in public, private, and charter schools, from the most underfunded to the most well-off, and everything in between. I asked her: in her experience, how much do “college prep” tracks really prepare students for college?

The short answer, she told me, is that it varies tremendously but that there are clear ways in which some schools get it right and others get it wrong. The schools in which students seem the least prepared, according to my daughter, are those in which time is heavily structured for them, most assignments are short-term, there is a lack of emphasis on assignments that involve writing, and grading is inconsistent (i.e.- students are either unclear on what is expected of them in order to receive a particular grade, or they find that grading does not always match up with expectations, leading them to believe that this is just another thing outside of their control). The best schools, she said, are structured more like college, or at least become more so in the students’ junior and senior years. These schools turn over a lot of the responsibility for scheduling and time management to students, expect them to complete both short and long-term assignments, many of which involve writing five to twenty pages, and grade students in a tough but consistent, fair manner.

Now we, as success coaches, cannot turn all mediocre high schools into excellent ones, but we can talk to our students more right at the beginning of their college careers about expectations. Had Samantha understood right away that she would have to work much harder than ever before to make the same grades, she might have avoided academic warning. Most students want to be pushed and challenged. Most want to be given an opportunity to show that they can achieve. Once we fully understand how high the bar has been raised, almost all of us want to prove to the world as well as ourselves that we can reach it.

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.