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Author: Susan Marion

The Detective

The Detective

As discussed in one of my previous blogs, “The Many Faces of the Success Coach“, the first and most crucial job a success coach has is as detective. Just as a doctor cannot proscribe a course of treatment until he or she has diagnosed the patient’s particular malady, I, as a success coach, cannot begin to help a student turn his or her college career around until I have figured out what is really going on. In some situations, this can be a relatively simple task. Some students come in as open books. They both know and are willing to talk candidly about the issue/s holding them back; some may have even brainstormed a few possible solutions on their own. But these, of course, are the easy cases. More often, a success coach will have to do at least a little digging before hearing the clang of shovel upon rock- ah, the satisfying sound of finally hitting that boulder in the road. To better illustrate this point, I’ve opened up a few of my most interesting case files. (Warning: Top secret success coach intel! This message will self-destruct in 3….2….1….)

Case #2317
Name: Owen Doyle
Age: 18
Status: Freshman entering college on academic probation

Clue 1: Owen’s High School Transcript- When I examined Owen’s high school transcript, I discovered that he had made straight As for the first two years, but then his grades dipped in his junior year and plummeted in his senior year. Hmm…I thought. So Owen clearly has the ability to do well, as evidenced by his first two years in high school. What could have happened during those last two years? Family problems? A girl? Did he start hanging out with a bad crowd? Clearly this wasn’t enough evidence to make a confident assessment.

Clue 2: The Human Brain BookThe day Owen first walked into my office, I was in the middle of reading the book, The Human Brain Book. I put the book aside when I heard the knock on my door, but it was still visible on my desk. Almost immediately, Owen remarked, “Oh! I’ve read that book! I loved it!” Now, The Brain is a fairly academic, non-fiction book explaining in-depth the many functions of…well…the brain, so the fact that he had read it for pleasure told me that Owen was intellectually curious. So why was he struggling?

It wasn’t until our third meeting that I was able to put clue 1 and clue 2 together in a way that led me to a key question. “You come from a pretty small town, right?” Owen nodded and rolled his eyes. “Verrrrrrrry small.” I continued, “So I’m assuming you’re high school was pretty small, too.” Again, Owen nodded.” I paused then asked, “Did you feel challenged in high school?” Then, Owen’s eyes lit up and the flood gates opened. “No! I was so bored! I was so bored all the time and….I guess…it made me feel like school was just a waste of time. It made me hate school.”

After that, Owen and I looked at every course in which he was enrolled as well as every professor and worked out a schedule that provided him with the greatest level of challenge and intellectual stimulation. Eventually, Owen decided that he wanted to become an engineer and transferred to a school with an engineering program (ours does not have one), but he may never have gotten to that point without the fundamental change in perspective he underwent in my office.

CASE #1145
Name: Meredith Biddle
Age: 20
Status: Sophomore soccer player put on probation after fall semester 

Clue 1: Interview with Meredith’s professors- By talking to Meredith’s professors, I learned that her biggest problem during the fall term had been turning in incomplete or late assignments. Okay, I thought, this could be an issue of time management, study skills, or simple immaturity, so I had Meredith experiment with different study techniques, and we created detailed, weekly schedules to aid in time management. Still, Meredith’s grades did not improve. Then, one day when Meredith had a make-up assignment to complete, I told her she could work on it in the empty office just next to mine. I checked in on her every ten minutes or so, and soon I noticed that half of the time she would be looking at her phone, doodling, or simply staring into space. So, she was having trouble focusing?

Clue 2: Interview with Meredith’s soccer coach- I went to Meredith’s soccer coach and asked if he had noticed any difficulty with Meredith’s ability to focus. “She’s all over the place,” he acknowledged. Aha! Meredith was an absolute soccer fanatic, so if she was also having trouble focusing on an activity she loved, the problem wasn’t just about interest in the material.

After the conversation with the coach, I felt confident enough to broach the subject with Meredith. When I asked if she’d ever thought she might have ADHD, she answered, “since 7th grade, but my parents don’t want me to go on medication.” I didn’t try to push her in one direction or another regarding the issue of medication, but I did connect her directly with our point person for students with special needs.

CASE # 3172
Name: Gina Zappala
Age: 19
Status: Freshman cheerleader put on probation after fall semester

Gina, on paper, should have been thriving. She seemed happy and well-adjusted; she was a cheerleader, said she loved school, and didn’t seem to have any obvious academic weak spots, having made average to above-average grades throughout high school. But Gina’s first semester grades were dismal, and thus she ended up in my office.

Clue 1: Attendance- Gina was missing classes. And during our first few meetings, all I got were plausible excuses cheerfully executed. She had missed class because she was sick, she would say with a smile, but she was feeling much better now. Or she had been up late the night before and had slept through her alarm. I could tell that Gina wasn’t trying to be deceptive, but I could also feel that there were things she wasn’t telling me.

Clue 2: Gina’s high school transcript- Once I learned that Gina had an attendance problem in college, I went back to her high school record. Sure, her grades were fine, but I discovered that Gina had missed 28 days of school in her senior year alone. Something didn’t add up, and I knew that only Gina knew the real story.

Most of the time, students know the real story, but they’ve also got to trust their success coaches enough to actually talk about it. I could never have gotten to the bottom of Gina’s issues had I not been able to forge a relationship with her based on mutual trust. Once I did, this is what I learned: Gina came from a family of nine children- eight boys and Gina, who was in the middle. In high school, her parents started fighting. Gina became the sounding board for her mother, and at times Gina would feel obligated to miss school in order to say home and console her. By the fall that Gina started college, one of her brothers was showing signs of deep mental illness, another was addicted to drugs, her parents were in the middle of divorce proceedings, and Gina’s mother was using Gina, once again, as her only source of emotional support. She would call Gina at all hours, crying, begging Gina to come home. Basically, while trying to navigate her first year as an independent adult, Gina was simultaneously parenting her own mother.  I convinced Gina to talk to a counselor, and after a few weeks I could tell that she was starting to realize that trying to “fix” her family was impeding her ability to live her own life. By the end of the semester, Gina had moved up from probation to warning status, and she is now half-way through her junior year.

Finally, the best success coach detectives are those who realize when the best way to solve a mystery is by removing themselves from the equation. Just as in Gina’s case, it was only once she knew she could trust me with these vulnerable truths about her life that she revealed them to me. And she was only able to trust me once she felt confident about three things: 1) that I was really there for her no matter what, 2) that I wasn’t judging her, and 3) that I truly “got” her. However, I have had students with whom I knew, despite my best efforts, that I was never going to pass that threshold of trust, and in those situations I have tried to set them up with a success coach who might be a better fit. I had a student for a few weeks named Brenna who, with her blue hair, piercings, and sleeve tattoos, took one look at me- a 62-year old woman with a southern accent and a fresh manicure- and simply did not believe that I could ever understand where she was coming from. Even though I know that I’m as hip as all get out (at least in my own mind), I thought Brenna might open up more easily to a coach with whom she felt she had more in common. As the coordinator of the success coach program, I find it imperative to know the strengths, personalities, and coaching styles of all the coaches, and I try to match students with coaches accordingly.

Alright, gumshoes, that’s all the top secret intel I’m willing to show you today. Now put on your fedoras and trench coats, and get out there and change some lives!

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.

The Success Coach Skeptic

The Success Coach Skeptic

Remember the good old days? You know, simpler times when men wore hats to work, no one cursed on television, and children always obeyed their parents? Those were the days when people talked to their friends in person instead of responding to their texts by Instagramming their Facebook posts. And yes, those were the days when all college students were responsible, mature self-starters who achieved academic success purely through individual effort and drive.


Though the success coach program at my university has grown in popularity and esteem every year since its inception, I still occasionally come across a professor or administrator who remembers history this way and thus remains dubious of the whole idea of success coaching. Conversations with these “Success Coach Skeptics” usually begin with the phrase, “In my day…” and end with the word “coddling,” such as, “In my day, we had to sink or swim on our own. We didn’t have any of this ‘success coach’ hand-holding. It’s just plain coddling!”

Times Have Changed

In some ways, they’re right. Times have changed. For one thing, fifty or even thirty years ago, fewer career paths required a college degree. In 1960, fewer than one in ten adults had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, and that was okay- many high school graduates found gainful employment in careers that didn’t require one. Today, however, college educated workers make on average 40% more than those who only have a high school diploma.  Our 21st century economy requires more highly educated workers, and as of 2012, fully one in three adults aged 25-29 is attending or has attended college (NYTimes, 11/5/12).

Since today’s pool of college students is larger, it just makes sense that some of these students will struggle harder to achieve academic success than the more self-selecting, smaller pool of yesterday. Should we tell those students who arrive at college lacking a skill like time management to drop out and find a good job that doesn’t require a college degree, such as the manufacturing job that left town for China ten years ago and isn’t coming back? Or do we provide these students with an extra resource to help better prepare them for the economic opportunities of the 21st century?

Cultural Changes Too

In addition, changes in family size as well as cultural attitudes toward parenting have changed the way many children are raised. When you grow up as one of five, as I did, you learn from an early age how to do many things yourself. But the majority of kids today come from families of one or two kids instead of four or five, and that means children get all the benefits as well as all the drawbacks of greater parental attention. You know what I’m talking about, that’s right… if you ever want to win the award for scariest costume at a student affairs Halloween party, come dressed as a “helicopter parent.” However, while we should have a serious, culture-wide discussion about whether parents are doing too much for their kids these days, it’s certainly not the fault of the student who shows up freshman year with a deficit of perfectly-honed life skills. At the other extreme lay students who come to college having had next to no parental or family support system. These students have, in some cases, basically raised themselves, and they come lacking life skills for an entirely different reason.

Coaches Are Teachers First

I know that these skeptics just want, as do I, to best serve our students’ long-term interests. They feel that if students are hand-held or “coddled” through college, they will fail to gain the self-sufficiency necessary for achieving success in the real world. Fortunately, that’s not what we do! Success coaches, much like athletic coaches, are first and foremost teachers. A tennis coach doesn’t play the game for the athlete, but he does do his best to make sure that, when that player walks onto the court, she has all the tools she needs to win the match. And if her skills are lacking in one area or another, he teaches her how to improve.

An Open Door

But let’s say the skeptic (or skeptics) at your institution are still shaking their heads. For those skeptics, I’ll walk out of this philosophy class and into a science lab. (Oooh…Bunsen burners, nice touch!) Let’s talk evidence. Every year since our success coaching program was instituted, the faculty has been asked to fill out progress reports on students in their classes who are also in the success coach program. We know that we are asking already busy professors to do even more paperwork, so we focus on six questions we feel are the most important (another blog, another day.)  The first year, we received a few responses, the next year a few more, and now, the vast majority of professors regularly give us their feedback. Professors routinely call me to request that one of their students be given a coach. Many want to know from Day 1 if any of their students are working with success coaches already so that they can give that student all the help he or she needs. Word has gotten around the student body as well. While, initially, some students thought needing a success coach meant getting singled out for being behind, now students contact us directly asking to get in on the action. Most of the success coaches in our program are women, and just this past September, two athletes went in to their coach and asked, “can we have one of those ladies? You know, those ladies that help you get your GPA up?” I’ve even had multiple students ask me if they can keep coming in even after they’re no longer mandated to do so. The answer is always the same: my door is always open.

And if any Success Coach Skeptics out there want to continue the discussion, I can’t pay for the plane ticket but…my door is always open.

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.

Five Keys to the First Meeting

Five Keys to the First Meeting

Allison’s Last Chance premiered in August of 2011, and by early October the reviews were in. Here’s what the critics had to say:

“Allison has a terrible attitude in class.” – Allison’s Math professor

“Allison failed my class because she plagiarized.” – Allison’s English professor

“Allison doesn’t just have a ‘problem with truthiness,’ she down right lies.” – Allison’s Psychology professor

By the time I scheduled my first meeting with Allison, I knew a lot about her, and none of it was good. It was little more than a month into the school year and already she’d had multiple problems, in multiple classes, with multiple professors. Not only that, but she’d already been dismissed from and then let back into the University twice, and one more dismissal would mean the unequivocal end to Allison’s tenure at the school. Three strikes, and Allison would be out.

I knew I had two choices as to how to proceed with our first meeting. I could let her know right away that I knew everything, lay it all out in front of her, and try to get her to understand the reality of her situation. I could sit down across from her and say, “Okay, Allison. This is what I’ve heard, this is what I know, and we both know this is your last chance. I could give her the “this is your reputation on the line” speech, or the old classic: “I think we can both see that your way of doing things hasn’t gotten you where you want to be.” I knew I could conduct the meeting like a no-nonsense cop (with a great moustache) trying to get a suspect to roll on his accomplice by pointing out the bleak alternative to cooperation. “Look kid, I wanna help ya, I really do, but you’re looking at twenty-five to life here.” Or, I could pretend to be ignorant of everything that I had heard about Allison up until the moment she walked in the door. I could simply smile, introduce myself, and see what happened.

I have seen both versions of this kind of first meeting work, so the answer wasn’t entirely self-evident. Not all students who meet with success coaches are in such make-or-break moments in their college careers, of course, but for those who are, it’s even more important to get the first meeting right. I contemplated my choice until five minutes before Allison walked into my office.

She came in looking like she could kill. She looked suspicious and defensive, until I smiled and said, “I think this is going to be the best semester you’ve ever had.” For a moment, she looked utterly confounded, like someone who has been vigilantly scanning the ground for hidden traps only to be caught in a net thrown from above. Then, she softened…a little.

Looking back, I see that there were five key things I did with Allison that are key to making the first meeting with any student a success:

1. I made it crystal clear that I would be there for her, no matter what, and that we would do whatever it took to turn her ship around…together.

I use “you” but also a lot of “we” with students, especially at the beginning. Of course “you” are going to sit at that desk in the classroom, but “we” are going to make sure “you” are ready for the final. Though I didn’t make it all about me, I made it clear that Allison was not alone, that that this would be a team effort. It’s amazing how rapport with a student can flourish once they know- really know- that you actually care. And although this kind of trust is almost impossible to accomplish in the first meeting you can, at least, lay the foundation.

2. I asked questions.

What do you think has gotten you to where you are right now? What do you see as the primary boulder in your road? What do you think might be good goals to set for the future? Students usually know the answer to these questions, though some can be reluctant to admit that they do.

3. I highlighted her past successes.

Allison had made good grades in high school, and I brought out her transcript as evidence. We both knew she had the ability to do well because she’d done so previously- the evidence was right there in front of both of our faces!

4. We made an action plan.

When my students walk out the door after the first meeting, I want them to feel confident that they have clear, actionable goals. Whether it’s: “complete one assignment and turn it in, talk with someone at the financial aid center about the bill you’ve been worrying about, or write one page of the research paper that’s due at the end of the semester” (AND bring it to the next meeting), students are more likely to accomplish short and long-term goals if they feel that those goals are manageable and that there is someone to whom they must be accountable.

5. I showed interest in something in which she was interested.

Allison revealed to me in the first few minutes of our conversation that she was currently obsessed with her new iPad. I decided to forgo the usual warm-up questions and instead start asking her about it. I also professed to be a bit of an ignoramus when it came to my own iPad and asked if, later, she could help me figure out a thing or two. She readily agreed.

Allison and I finished our meeting by laying out easy, concrete goals for the next few days, and she was packing up to leave when she remembered something that I had actually forgotten. “Hey!” she exclaimed, eyes bright, “you want me to show you something about the iPad?!” I certainly did.

Just after the midterm, Allison ran into my office beaming. “I got four Bs, one A, and a C! Now I can surprise my mom with my grades!” I remembered what one of my former students had done for his mother and whispered conspiratorially, “what if you don’t tell your mom how you’re doing…keep it all a big secret until the end of the semester…then wrap those good grades up in a box and put it under the Christmas tree.”  Now, not only did Allison have good grades at midterm, she had an incentive to keep them up all the way to the end of the semester.

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.

The Boulder on his Shoulder: Understanding Students with Learning Disabilities

The Boulder on his Shoulder: Understanding Students with Learning Disabilities

What’s harder than trying to make friends, navigate bureaucracy, manage time well, get good grades, and become an adult all at the same time? Doing it all with a learning disability!

The good news for students with learning disabilities is that colleges have become better and better equipped to deal with students for whom the primary boulder in the road is not laziness or a lack of ability but simply a brain that’s wired a little differently than most. The bad news is that the system is still far from perfect. Not all professors are experts in learning disabilities, and even for those who are, the sheer number of disabilities that are now being diagnosed make expertise in every one of them a statistical impossibility.

Additionally, some students may arrive at college with undiagnosed learning disabilities. A student like this may have had trouble in a particular subject in high school but chalked it up to simply being “bad at math” or “a slow reader.” These students have often made up for deficiencies in one area by excelling in others, which can work beautifully once a student is employed in a career that suits his strengths but can be detrimental when it comes to something like fulfilling core requirements.

That’s exactly what happened with Andy, a student of mine who entered college with undiagnosed dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is basically the numbers version of dyslexia, a common reading disability, and while Andy was one of the best writers I have ever seen, math was incomprehensible to him. However, in order to graduate, Andy had to pass two math classes. When he came to me, he was despondent. He had already failed his first math class twice, and despite making As in all of his other courses, his math professor had told him point-blank that perhaps he was not “college material” after all and should probably just leave the University. Andy and I brainstormed possible solutions, and I told him I would talk about his problem with some of the other math professors. Professor Kalinsky, a brilliant man who had worked with students with dyscalculia before and professed to have a bit of a learning disability himself, immediately recognized Andy’s symptoms as classic signs of dyscalculia. He agreed to take Andy on for two semesters as an independent study, thereby fulfilling his graduation requirement in math. Andy graduated with a 3.65 GPA.

According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Learning Disabilities, these disabilities fall into broad categories based on the four stages of information processing used in learning: input, integration, storage, and output. (NICHY, 2004.)

A brief tutorial…

Input: This, not surprisingly, is the process by which a person receives sensory information. Students who have difficulty with visual perception may have trouble processing certain words or shapes, and those with difficulties in auditory perception may have trouble screening out competing sounds in order to focus on one of them, such as the sound of a professor’s voice.

Integration: This is how information entering the brain gets interpreted, sequenced, and labeled. Students with disabilities related to integration may have trouble understanding how a piece of information connects to a broader concept; in other words, they tend to miss the forest for the trees.

Storage:  And the layperson’s term for “storage” is…remembering things! These are the students who might write A+ papers all semester but fail the final exam, or who may thrive in courses that emphasize discussion and creative output but suffer in those in which memorization of terms or formulas is key.

Output: We send information out of our brains and back into the world through words, as when we speak, and muscle activity, as when we write. Students with disabilities related to output can be like locked treasure chests: the educational gems they’ve accumulated are all there inside, but they have trouble communicating what they know. A student like this may go blank when asked to answer a question on demand, or she may speak easily but have trouble turning her thoughts as spoken into words on a page.

Sometimes, as with Andy, the solution lies in finding a professor familiar with a specific type of learning deficiency, but there are many ways in which success coaches can help students with learning disabilities get the resources they need to succeed. And when students succeed, everybody wins. Students realize that all those times they had been judged (or had judged themselves) to lack the intellectual capacity for higher-level work or to be simply lazy are now forever behind them, and coaches remember that with a little detective work and a lot of passion, this “success coaching” thing really does change lives.

An early Apple slogan once said, “Think Different.” Many of our best students already do.

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.

The Telescope and Microscope of Student Motivation

The Telescope and Microscope of Student Motivation

“He’s a really smart guy, if only he’d GO TO CLASS!”

“She leaves my office full of confidence that she can ace this paper, and then a week goes by, and she STILL HASN’T STARTED IT!”

How many times have we rooted for students only to come up frustrated time and again with their lack of follow-through? They’ve got the intelligence, they’re working on the study skills, and yet they STILL seem to be struggling with the most basic tasks: showing up, finishing assignments, and turning things in on time. What, aside from pulling our hair out, are we to do?

It turns out that at the root of all achievement lies one frustratingly amorphous concept: motivation.

We all know what motivation is – it’s that internal force that makes us get up and do something when we could be watching another episode of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. And we know that even the most “self-starters” among us have had to deal with a lack of motivation at times. I’ve certainly had the experience when, at the end of a long day trekking back and forth across campus under a chilly, gray sky, I realize that I can either a) go home, light the fire, and crack open a good book, or b) go to the gym. At that moment, thirty minutes on a treadmill suddenly seems like a Herculean, near-impossibility!

So we all understand the psychological complexities of getting and staying motivated, but the question remains: how do you teach motivation? How do we help motivate our students to face those boulders in the road when even the simplest tasks can seem insurmountable?

I tend to favor the “telescope and microscope” approach. Get the student to understand the big picture, but also try to break down the task at hand into tiny, manageable pieces.

The Motivation Telescope

Some students, even those who struggle, get the big picture pretty easily. Jeremy, one of my former students, is a bright, capable athlete. He also comes from a poverty-stricken, inner-city neighborhood. Coming to college on an athletic scholarship was the turning point in his life; he has made great strides throughout his time in college and will soon graduate. I saw him a few days ago and I asked him, “Jeremy, what keeps you motivated?” He paused thoughtfully and then, as if the truth lived deep down in his bones, replied, “because I know where I come from, and I don’t want to go back.”

Understanding the big picture, as Jeremy does, can provide a philosophical foundation for students who may have few role models of post-college success. And while, “this assignment has to be finished on time because it could mean the difference between you achieving the American dream or not” can seem heady, the more a student is able to internalize this philosophy, the more he or she will be able to push his or her way through difficult experiences, academic or otherwise.

But we must also look through our own telescopes and continually ask ourselves why this particular student lacks motivation in this particular endeavor. There are plenty of us who are incredibly motivated when it comes to certain tasks but just as unmotivated when it comes to others. But why? Sometimes we are afraid of failure; sometimes, ironically, we are afraid of success. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the seeming magnitude of the task at hand, and sometimes, yes, we just do not want to do it. We don’t like it, it isn’t fun, and we JUST DON’T WANNA!!!!

As success coaches, it is our job to try to get to the root of the reason for a student’s lack of motivation, and to guide him or her to a solution that fits.

The Motivation Microscope

Clearly the big picture is important, but big pictures can become overwhelming. As I pulled out from the parking lot after one of those long, chilly days, aching to dive into my book while feeling the warmth of the fire on my toes, I realized it was my fixation on those thirty minutes on the treadmill that was stopping me. Then I realized that, at this moment, I didn’t have to do thirty minutes on a treadmill. At this moment, all I had to was turn left, towards the fitness center, instead of right towards home. Then all I had to do was park the car. Then all I had to do was change clothes. And before I knew it, I was at home, in front of the fireplace, with a good book…after having spent forty-five minutes on the treadmill. All efforts to jazz myself up for an evening at the gym paled in comparison to just starting to do it, for it is in the doing that we can find the motivation to finish and, eventually, to reap the rewards.

This lesson, of course, is nothing new, but it reminded me of what my students go through when the idea of writing something like a whole paper seems so daunting. I love seeing the relief wash over a student’s face when I tell her that, right now, she doesn’t have to write a single word. All she has to do right now is brainstorm topics. Then all she has to do is a little bit of research, then identify key points, write a thesis, an introductory sentence, and after a few days she will be looking at a completed paper with a sense of wonder at her own accomplishment. This, by the way, is why we don’t start a paper the night before it’s due!

Okay, I’d love to continue this conversation, but there are some dishes in my sink that are beginning to stare at me judgmentally. I’m going to start by washing the first one, and see where it goes from there.

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.

The Many Faces of a Success Coach

The Many Faces of a Success Coach

Being a success coach means that you often have to play many different roles with your students.  This post identifies some of the various roles a coach must play in order to help students achieve their educational objectives.

The Detective

Though I have yet to practice success coaching while dressed in a trench coat and fedora, the first and most crucial job a success coach has is as detective. Within the first few meetings, you must try to figure out what is the underlying boulder in the road that is blocking this student’s success. Is it primarily procrastination, family and/or personal issues, or a lack of motivation? Are they under-prepared for college material and rigor? Do they lack the maturity or experience to manage the new freedoms and responsibilities of college life? And yes, sometimes I have to do more than a little sleuthing. I’ve had to search for clues, interview witnesses, and wade through red herrings, but it is always a great victory when my colleagues and I finally solve the mystery and are then able to begin turning around a student’s college career.

The Mentor

This title, to me, always floats somewhere along the spectrum of “the parent/older sibling/friend who has been there.” Where you find yourself on that spectrum often depends on the personal chemistry between the student and yourself.  I’m in my 60s, so I don’t think many of my students view me as an older sibling, but I do try to tap into whatever version of the “mentor” relationship will work for this particular pairing of myself and another human being.

The Therapist

While most success coaches are not licensed therapists or counselors, there are times when students do not have the desire or money to see a professional, and sometimes the situation doesn’t require it. Sometimes, they just need someone with whom to talk over an issue, and a success coach can be a great sounding board. Is this student afraid of failure? Is this student afraid of success? Is this student struggling because she is constantly thinking of home, worrying that things might not be okay and she is no longer there to fix them? Is this student letting his social life keep him away from the things he needs to accomplish academically? Does this student simply have a professor with whom she doesn’t get along, and she doesn’t know how to get past that in order to still succeed in the class? Is he insecure about his abilities? Is she deeply, deeply homesick? Is he in love for the first time and in that moment where nothing else matters? There are so many things that can keep a student from achieving, and as success coaches, our job is to figure out why. And obviously, in situations in which a student truly should see a professional psychologist or psychiatrist, we steer them towards those resources.

The Trail Guide

Think of this as your ability to give students practical knowledge with which they can more easily navigate the terrain. Some students can write a 20 page paper without breaking a sweat, but ask them to fill out a form and return it to the Dean’s office and they look at you like you’ve asked them to perform open heart surgery. How do they drop or add a class? When and how is it appropriate to contact a professor? What are office hours? Which building, which office, which person do they need to speak to if they face a problem with tuition? What forms do they need to fill out in order to apply for another loan? And where do they deliver the paperwork once they’ve completed it? Remember, most students’ dreams of what college life will be like don’t include trips to the Bursar’s office, and for many, college is their first foray into the wonderful world of bureaucracy. Just wait until they discover how magical it is to navigate an automated telephone menu when calling the insurance company!

The Boxing Coach

Why a boxing coach and not a football coach? Or a tennis coach? There’s something intimate about the relationship between a boxer and his or her coach. That person, aside from training his athlete, aside from giving him tactical advice, is literally in his athlete’s corner. He helps him stay focused every time he comes back, pumps him up, and then sends him back out there to fight another round. And for some of these students, making it through college can be a fight. It can be a fight to stay motivated, and to master material they might have never thought they could even understand. It can be a fight to block out influences in their lives that are fighting just as hard to keep them from succeeding. The boxing coach is part cheerleader and part drill sergeant, and he knows when to offer his athlete a hug and when to make him “drop and give me twenty.”

The Polygraph Machine

To be a great success coach, you’ve got to have a pretty impeccable ability to tell truth from fiction. I know that my forty plus years in education in addition to being a mother helped me greatly in this department. By the time I became a success coach, I really had heard it all, and I watched students’ best attempts at getting things by me the way a lion must watch a gazelle trying to pass itself off as a tree. It was not their fault, for they did not know they were dealing with a lie detecting ninja. If you don’t feel like you possess this particular skill, stay informed. Call the professor. Talk to the coach. Trust but verify. But first: trust. Many of these students might be in the situation in which they find themselves in part because they have done things to lose trust- with parents, with teachers. Some of them have been treated like “the bad kid” and have put walls up to protect themselves. Their alarms go off at the first sniff of suspected judgment on the part of an authority figure, and it’s hard to regain trust after a student has already pegged you as just another one of those adults.

The Newspaper Editor

For some, what they really need is just someone for whom they must remain accountable. They’ve got the intelligence, they’ve even got the motivation even, but they are simply people who fare better with more structure. For these students, your main job is to be their newspaper editor. “Did you turn that paper in?” “Remember the deadline for that study abroad application!” “You said last time you were going to schedule a meeting with Professor X- what’s the status of that meeting?” Please feel free to wear suspenders and chomp on a fat cigar during these conversations.


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.