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.