“My mom used to take care of everything, and now it’s just me.” – Kiera
A lot has been made as of late about this generation of college students’ lack of self-sufficiency. We talk of over-structured childhoods and helicopter parents, and we lament that we have seemingly produced an entire generation of young adults who have never had to structure their time or take care of their responsibilities on their own. I think this cultural phenomenon is far from universal, but I do think there is some truth to it. I do see how students who are used to parents or other adults swooping in to “fix,” to “organize,” to “schedule” become existentially confused when the game suddenly changes. (I could also write a book about universities’ struggles to deal with parents who continue to try to exert this kind of control even after the child has left home for college.) I see students whose every waking moment has been scheduled by someone else from birth to the age of 18 struggle trying to handle a weekly schedule in which planned time for studying will go largely or completely unmonitored. But this is not completely new. I remember feeling some of these same things when I went to college, and that was in the ’60s! I distinctly remember realizing during my first semester that no one was going to wake me up and drag me out of bed to class. In large classes, in fact, my professors would probably never even know whether I was in the room! It was up to me and me alone to make sure I got myself to class, the library, or the practice room every day, which not infrequently involved trudging through snow while wearing a mini-skirt (again, it was the ’60s, and being self-sufficient doesn’t mean all your choices will be smart ones).
Then there’s the conversation regarding whether success coaching itself is just a continuation of this tradition of “coddling” students instead of throwing them into the pool until they learn to swim. Those who think it is decry success coaching as doing for students what they should be doing themselves, but if that were the case, the rate at which students in the success coaching program went from academic probation to a four-year degree would be 100%. I know from experience that that is, unfortunately, not at all the case.
Success coaching, in fact, can work wonders for students who come to school lacking the kind of self-sufficiency to excel in an academic environment (and subsequently, the working world) because we can be that lifeguard on the side of the pool. We aren’t doing the swimming for anybody, but we can try to save people from drowning. We provide the support and encouragement students need to feel safe enough to change their behavior, take risks, fall and get back up again- while also helping them build the tools to become truly self-sufficient (as much as any of us can be as social beings in an interconnected world).
With my students, it all starts with a conversation about what they’ve experienced thus far. When Kiera said to me, “My mom used to take care of everything, and now it’s just me,” I paused before asking, “why do you think she did that?” It was a question that Kiera had never considered. “Well,” she began, “I think she probably just wanted me to do well.” I nodded. “And she still does, but maybe it’s not such a good thing that she took care of everything for you.” This is always a tricky sentence because I need to convey that their parents are human beings while simultaneously making it clear that in no way am I knocking anybody’s mama. From that realization, my students can begin to figure out how they can do it on their own, reminding them that big changes like this don’t happen overnight. They’ve got to build up the skills of mindfulness and will power (I would love to hit up that room party, but I’ve got to get some reading done). They have recognize bad habits before they can change them (I guess I do procrastinate more when I’m not crazy about the class, even though I know the grade is going to matter just as much). They have to create a system of organization and planning that works for them (I need to schedule an exact time slot for going to the library, since every time I tell myself I’ll go “sometime today” I never seem to make it).
As success coaches, we can talk about these concepts with our students both practically and abstractly. We can help students both zoom out and see the patterns and holes in experience that cause them to stubble, and zoom in in order to get the next day’s work done.
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.