“How would you like your change?” the woman at the check-out asked me, but all I heard was, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?” Which made sense, since the grocery store I happened to be patronizing at the time was in Lisbon, Portugal, but unfortunately for me, I don’t speak Portuguese. This brief encounter (and many like it) in a country where I didn’t speak the language reminded me that the freshmen who will walk into my office in a few weeks and I are not so different. It reminded me that college is a language. And if you don’t speak the language, even the most basic acts can seem like insurmountable obstacles.
So how do we help students become fluent in the language of college? I find that a good place to start is, well, actual language. Acronyms, for example. We can forget that when we say, “you just need to make sure you have filed your FAFSA and go to the FAS office on north campus right between SPAC and the PLEX!” an incoming freshman may hear, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?” (You’ll know by the deer-in-headlights look similar to the one I gave the Portuguese cashier.) That’s why one of the first things I do with new freshmen is go over acronyms, even the most basic, seemingly no-brainer ones. (I learned this when I began working with a student who did not know what a GPA was nor how one was determined.) In addition to learning the names of the “whos” and “whats” on campus, we will often explore the “wheres” together. And it’s amazing what a little familiarity will do. Even if students know where something like the financial aid office or tutoring center is, and even after you assure them that the people working inside are regular humans without claws or fangs or malevolent intent, many won’t feel comfortable going in for the first time on their own. So we take a little field trip, and I introduce them to the people that can help get them the resources they need. Suddenly, what seemed daunting and strange is a gathering of fast friends, and now the student is way more likely to be able to follow up on his or her own. They’re not fluent yet, but they’re starting to speak “conversational college.”
Which is good because they’re gonna need it. They are going to need to engage in conversations of all kinds- with registrars, bursars, tutors, career counselors and, most importantly, professors. And this, once again, can be scary for a new student. (And I get it. I may have managed to eke out an “obrigada,” or “thank you,” to the Portuguese cashier, but I didn’t sing her the national anthem!) Again, a little familiarity is key. Often the issue is that even when students muster up the courage to talk to a professor or administrator, they don’t know what to say. So we role play. If they ask me as the mock professor, “I don’t understand this,” I encourage them to get specific. What exactly don’t they understand? If they have questions about a financial aid form, we break it down until they understand exactly what they need. We talk it out until they are comfortable asking the questions they need to ask, and that’s one more step toward fluency.
As with learning any language, it’s all about practice. And we are much more likelier to practice something once we see we are making some headway. That’s my job. To help a new student get to that first breakthrough where he or she realizes…hey — now I know how to ask for my change!
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.