In my career spent success coaching I have realized the painful truth that sometimes students fail out of college. Sometimes they drop out. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to help a student turn his or her college career around, nothing seems to work.
It’s a reality that has made me frustrated, sad, and, at times, even defeatist. I thought, “If they’re just going to go back to bad habits, or continue with bad attitudes, or ignore my advice completely, what’s the point?” However, I’ve been at this job long enough to know that there’s another, equally true reality, and that’s what I call the boomerang effect. Sometimes, it turns out, being dismissed from school is exactly what students need in order to finally hear what you’ve been saying all along. Sometimes it is in these moments, when students are forced to re-assess their entire plan, that all of the conversations you had with them during success coaching sessions finally make sense. And sometimes, just like a boomerang, they come flying back. And when they do, it’s often their success coach that they call first.
Success coaches are, of course, only one kind of adult mentor for college students, as many become close with a favorite professor or athletic coach. However, the rapport that success coaches build with their students is often free from the outside expectations that can exist in other types of student/mentor relationship. A student can become close with an athletic coach, but at the end of the day, that student is still trying to prove to his or her coach that he or she can compete at the level the coach desires. Likewise, students can only be so open with a person who is responsible for their grades, even if they do have a friendly rapport. The relationship of a student to his or her success coach is a much simpler one, and that can enable students to open up their coaches more fully and freely.
Abbie just didn’t do anything anyone expected her to do. Everything had to be her way or the highway, and her way turned out to be a dead end road. I worked with Abbie during the spring semester of her freshman year, and despite the best efforts of his professors, her RA, and me, Abbie was dismissed at the end of the year. A year after that, I received a letter in the mail. “I know I don’t deserve this, and I know there’s no good reason you should help me now,” Abbie began, “but I realize now that I was wrong about so many things.” Abbie went on to apologize for a variety of things before asking if she could call me to start a conversation about figuring out how she might be able to come back to school. She did, and thus began Abbie’s Second Act.
Like many college freshmen, Marcus entered school at the age of 18- a young 18. He came to campus to play basketball, and that’s pretty much what he did…until his poor grades prohibited him from playing. We worked together for two semesters, and for the first one his grades improved enough to make him eligible for the following season, but then he took another nosedive and was dismissed at the end of his sophomore year. Two years later, out of the blue, I got a call from Marcus. Shortly after, he re-enrolled. It took him almost three years to finish his degree, but on graduation day this past May, there he was, handsomely “capped” and “gowned” and smiling from ear to ear as he enveloped me in a bear hug.
I worked with Jonah not as a success coach but as a supervisor of student teachers; however, his story reminds me that sometimes students go forward even when they do not come back. Jonah was in the final, student-teaching phase of his education degree, but all was not well. Already he had been asked to repeat his student-teaching once, although I was not surprised when I heard the news, as I had seen during my observations that Jonah was anything but comfortable in front of a class. Not long into his second stint, I got a call from the cooperating teacher telling me that Jonah was in tears. When I arrived, I asked a question I’d asked Jonah a dozen times before: are you sure this is really what you want to do with your life? A dozen times before, Jonah’s answer had been the same, but this time he reversed course. “No, he said, tears still in his eyes, I really don’t want to do this. I don’t like teaching.” “That’s great news!” I replied, and then I began to explain to him how knowing for sure that a certain job is NOT for you can be just as informative as realizing what career path is. Once Jonah admitted that he no longer wanted to teach, we started an honest discussion about what he might want to do instead. A few months later, he came back to campus to tell me that he’d been accepted into one of the few programs in the country that teaches people to repair musical instruments. I had never seen him so elated, and it was immediately clear to me that he’d finally found his path…at least the next mile of it.
My interactions with Abbie, Marcus and Jonah have all made me realize that, even when I feel like my words are falling on deaf ears, and even when I feel like my best efforts have not been enough to save a student from dismissal…my students are listening, but some messages just need to incubate longer than others. And in the end, it’s always better late than never.
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.