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Month: April 2016

Plan B, C……and D.

Plan B, C……and D.

Straight lines do not occur in nature. It’s true. So why should we be surprised that our own life paths twist, wrinkle, and veer as they do? For success coaches and students, this means learning how to navigate roadblocks, and sometimes even failures, successfully. What should we tell students who have failed one or more courses, lost their athletic eligibility due to academic standing, or been asked to leave the university?

First, I remind my students that roadblocks are opportunities in disguise. This can seem like facile, Pollyanna-ish advice, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less true. Failures force us to turn a magnifying glass on ourselves. They make us ask questions. Re-assess. Recalibrate. And it is this kind of introspection that gives us the new information that will help us move forward more successfully in the future.

For example, over the holidays I got a call from a student I worked with over two years ago. We had worked together for the entirety of his freshman year, and while he had maintained that progress his sophomore year, during his junior year he slipped back into an academic hole and was eventually asked to leave school. I hadn’t heard from him in a long time, but when I answered the phone, it was the same smiling baritone on the other end. “Mrs. Marion,” he began, “I just wanted to call and say thank you for all you did for me back then.” One of the things he’d had trouble with in the past was organizing his work time. It just took him longer to get the work done than many other students, and with four or five classes at a time in addition to his sport, he often found himself overwhelmed, and once he got overwhelmed, it was hard not to want to throw up his hands and just stop doing anything. He told me over the phone that he had been enrolled in community college for the past two years, taking only one to two courses at a time in order to give each the focus and time he needed to pass the class. And had he been passing, I asked? Straight As and Bs, he reported! Failure had made him really look at his work process. Certainly he also needed a little time to learn how to multi-task, but by recognizing that his pace might just be a little slower than a five-course schedule allows, he was able to set himself up for success at his new school.

When my students fail a course or are asked to leave school, we first look back. What was the issue? Time management? Interest in the material? Difficulty level of material? Too much time in the frat house and not enough in the library? Then we look at options. Knowing what we know now, what is the best way to move forward? Should a student take the class again or not? Perhaps a change in major is on the table. Can a student enroll in community college for a while and then return to a 4-year university? Some students simply need more time to figure out what they truly want from a college education? Every student’s path is different. Straight lines do not occur in nature, and there is more than one way through the forest to the castle.

The Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns

Last month I wrote about helping first-year students begin to speak the “language of college,” and in that discussion I was reminded of the many things we take for granted that students must know when they arrive, but don’t. Before doctors can treat an illness, they must first diagnose it, just as before any of us can solve a problem, we must first identify it. At times this can be relatively easy: if a patient walks into a hospital with a broken leg, well, he’s probably going to need a cast. But other problems are not so easy to diagnose.

The most difficult situation, of course, is when we don’t know what we don’t know. These unknown unknowns prevent us from even understanding where to start problem-solving, and this is the reality many of my students find themselves facing when they first walk in my door. So one of the first questions I always ask is, “why do YOU think you have ended up on academic probation or warning?” The answer is usually the most obvious one: “my grades weren’t very good.” I see this response as a portal, an entryway into a discussion that can go quite deep as students explore the real, foundational causes of their academic troubles.

Take Bryce, a student I began working with after his disastrous first semester at school. Bryce had come in as a freshman business major with grades good enough not to have been immediately placed in the Success Coaching program. However, his fall semester grades had been dismal. So when we met, I asked him the question: “why do YOU think your fall grades were what they were?” Bryce punted at first, but eventually he got around to what I already knew from talking to some of his professors. “Well, he finally admitted, “I guess I missed a lot of classes.” That was an understatement. According to my informal investigation, Bryce had simply not gone to pretty much any of his classes. Ever. This, of course, got us closer to the issue, but there were still layers upon layers yet to discover. Why hadn’t he gone to class?

The reasons why students make the decisions they do, of course, are varied and complex. Sometimes they are not even fully aware of why they do what they do, for late adolescence is a veritable cornucopia of unknown unknowns. Thankfully with Bryce, we eventually got to the bottom of it. It turns out that he had decided to major in business because he thought that would be the most effective way to help his family out financially once he graduated, but once he got into business courses, he found them both painfully boring and not at all well-suited to his skill set and strengths. The fact that he hated the classes caused him to lose motivation, and in the vacuum left behind crept in the fear and the shameful thought, “what if I just can’t hack it even if I wanted to?” So he didn’t go to class. He couldn’t go. And once he had missed enough class, the reality of his failure made finding a way out seem impossible.

None of this, of course, Bryce realized consciously while it was happening. He was too consumed by bigger, scarier questions: “If not this, then what? If not the future I planned, then what kind of future will take its place, especially if I’m not cut out for college?” But once we got to the root of it, once we diagnosed the problem, we were in a position to start fixing it. Soon we were having discussions about what Bryce really liked to do. What was he good at? What interested him? It turns out he had never really considered the idea that he could match his skills and passions with a college major. By the next week, Bryce had changed his major, and seemed to waltz into my office like a great weight had been taken off of him. He liked his new courses (except for the prerequisite math class that I reminded him everyone was suffering through just as he was), and even felt like he could contribute in class. Did he still have a pretty big mountain to climb given his first semester grades? Yep. But now Bryce felt set up for success instead of failure. And better than that, he had started to learn to be self-reflective when confronted with a problem.

It is skills like these- the ability to diagnose your own problems and even start to recognize patterns of behavior- that will be essential to a student’s success during and far beyond their college days. As success coaches, our primary job is to help students’ graduate, but if we can help them cultivate the skills that will last them a lifetime…it’s not a bad day at the office.