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The Results Are In

The Results Are In

And…drum roll please…the results are in!

Just before I turned off my blackberry and turned on the oven in preparation for a marathon session of holiday cooking, I received the email containing the grades of my fall semester students. Just as I predicted, it was a mix of good and bad news. Some students sprinted through the finish line, a couple limped just across, and one, well…one didn’t make it. But let’s get to the good news first!

Rebecca and Tracy: Rebecca and Tracy are the homesick freshmen from my previous blog, and in that post I predicted that both would end up with a bell-curve mix of As, Bs, and Cs. Well, both girls finished strong, ending the semester with GPAs above a 3.0!

In addition to Rebecca and Tracy, both of my other freshmen did beautifully. And while this means that they will most likely not be with me next semester, I plan to keep track of their progress and help them in whatever way I can.

Jay: Jay is the sophomore who came to me on warning status. Math is the subject with which he struggles most, but I predicted that he would pass and make Bs and Cs on everything else. Well, Jay did indeed squeak by with a D in math; however, his grades in the rest of his classes were worse than I had predicted. In addition to the D in math, he received two more Ds, one C, and a B, leaving him with a GPA of 1.8 for the semester. He has worked tremendously hard and is still fighting his way through work that is, for him, exceptionally challenging, but this semester’s efforts probably won’t get him off of academic warning.

Allison: Going into finals, Allison had 2 Bs and 3 Cs, including one in English which she needed to maintain in order to pass the class. I had been so nervous thinking about Allison over the past two weeks that when I received the email containing the fates of all of my students, I made a visual bee-line straight to Allison’s results. And then I saw it, staring at me like the big, fat F that it was. Despite doing well in almost all of her other classes, Allison managed to fail the one class she needed to pass in order to retain full-time enrollment status. My heart sank and my mind raced to think of all of the things that could have possibly gone wrong. Did she not study hard enough for the final? Did she blow it off for some inexplicable reason? Did she buckle under the pressure or psych herself out? I don’t know what Allison’s status will be now. If she’s lucky, she may be allowed to return next semester just to take English. If not, she will probably be dismissed.

Marco: Unfortunately, I saw the writing on the wall with Marco weeks ago. He’d stopped going to class, stopped coming to our meetings, and did not answer texts. It seemed to me as if Marco had just given up. So I wasn’t totally surprised when I read that Marco had flunked out of school, but I was saddened. I know what a particularly tough year this has been personally as well as academically for Marco, and I feel for him. Perhaps he felt so underwater trying to deal with the other setbacks in his life that the idea of writing a paper  on the themes of guilt and the social contract in Crime and Punishment simply was unfathomable. Perhaps he used those personal disappointments to complete a self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps he’s just making bad choices right now and needs a few years to mature. I don’t know.

My Results

In addition to receiving a report of my students’ grades in the last week, I also received their feedback. As I have discussed in previous blogs, our students as well as the professors in whose classes they have been enrolled are asked to fill out surveys at the end of each semester. These surveys become my report card, as it were, and I take their thoughts and comments very seriously. I also look for patterns, and this semester I found that one comment came up in almost every survey. In their own words, almost every one of my students remarked about how much it meant to them that they had someone to whom they could come with any question or issue, big or small. Two of my freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, and these students were especially appreciative that they had a single point person with whom they could meet, who both knew them and could really spend time with them one-on-one, to ask questions about navigating this complicated, exciting, often life-changing thing we call the college experience. Of course, there are myriad resources for students at any university- from RAs to deans to mental health professionals, from orientation workshops to freshman seminars- which help students do just that. However, there is something about having a success coach that, especially for students at risk, can make a huge difference.

One of the comments I am most proud of is from Tracy, who remarked in her survey that she wasn’t sure she would have made it to the end of the semester had it not been for the support of her success coach. To quote Tracy, “she believed in me, so I believed in myself.” Tracy’s success coach just happens to have been me, but each and every one of our coaches has received comments like this one from students this past semester and over the years. That’s what I try to remember when I think about Allison or Marco or, for that matter, the next Allisons and Marcos that might walk through my door in January.  As higher education administrators, faculty, and staff, we would all like to see our students graduate from our particular universities; however, first and foremost, we want to see them graduate. If Allison decides to take English at a community college before returning to my university or any other 4-year school, I will count that as a success. If it takes Marco a year or two or ten before he gets his act together, I hope that a seed planted during our time together may give him the determination to try again.

Now the New Year is upon us, and I am reminded that nothing becomes cliché which isn’t fundamentally true. So as we close the book on the old and bring in the new, I think of my students. Some have tasted the fruits of hard work and are ready for more. Some are reveling in the knowledge that they can do far more than they ever thought they could and now, maybe for the first time, see limitless possibilities on the horizon. Some are re-assessing their choices and goals. Some are trying to wipe the slate clean and start anew. As for me, I am waiting to meet another crop of students. Some will be familiar faces and others will be brand new, but to all of them I will say, “Happy New Year. We’re not looking back because you’re not going that way. Now…let’s get crackin’.”

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 Mentor

The Mentor

As I continue to await the final grades for my students to come in, I have been thinking more and more about the specific challenges success coaches face and the particular roles we take on towards the end of the fall semester. Even outside the realm of academia, this season can bring on challenges to productivity and motivation, (let’s see…I could get a bunch of work done today, or eat another Christmas cookie and get some online shopping done from my desk….hmmm…), but especially for college students, many of whom may have spent their first weekend home all semester at the Thanksgiving table, this final stretch can be an uphill battle. Students get a taste of home and are eager to return. This mental shift is only exacerbated by the myriad holiday events- from concerts to parties to decorations- that spring up all around campus. This is the time when I am talking, calling, texting, cajoling, cheering on my students 24/7 in an effort to prevent them from losing the momentum they’ve built throughout the fall.

Then, it’s time to become the mentor. It is in this period that we celebrate small victories, like when Allison made a 98% on her last sociology paper, her best grade in college to date. I remind students how hard they have worked- how they made it through a class they didn’t particularly like or will likely move from academic probation to academic warning, or off academic probation entirely. Even something like taking a 1.0 GPA to a 2.0 can be a huge victory. But mentorship is not all cheerleading; it’s also about teaching life lessons and helping these new adults learn how to deal with reality.

At the beginning of each semester, I always ask my students what GPA they would like to have by semester’s end based on a realistic assessment of their courses and current GPA. We then make plans based on this goal (some of which need to be adjusted after mid-term), and go from there. However, since the majority of graded assignments, like big projects and exams, occur in the second half of the semester, this is the time when we really have to look at the numbers and figure out exactly what needs to happen in these last few weeks in order for a student to accomplish his or her desired GPA. If it looks like a student is going to make a D in one class, I explain that, in order to get off of probation, he’s got to make a B in this other class to offset the D. We go through best and worst case scenarios, and it almost always comforts students when I explain to them that fully understanding the worst case scenario means that any result better than that with which they came in will be a net positive.

But what if the worst case scenario actually happens? This is when my role as “success coach as mentor” is perhaps the most difficult, but also the most crucial.

Dylan is a student in our program who is most likely going to be dismissed after grades come in. Throughout the first half of the semester, he told his success coach that all his classes were going well and he was doing everything he was supposed to do, while in reality he was attending only two of his classes regularly while putting in appearances at the other three exactly once. In the classes he was actually attending he was making an A and a B respectively, but he was failing the classes in which he’d been MIA since Day 2. His success coach and I took a look at college transcript and noticed that this was a pattern. One semester he would do well and the next he would tank. Wash, rinse, and repeat. When presented with reality, he continued to lie, going so far as to tell a professor to her face that he’d been attending her class when she knew for a fact he hadn’t. For this student, the best case scenario may just be this dismissal if, as I hope, the experience shakes him up and makes him realize that the way he’s been doing things is not going to work anymore.

One of my current students, Chelsea, has the opposite problem. Chelsea works harder than almost any student I’ve seen walk through my door, but college level work is extremely difficult for her. She badly wants to succeed, but her ability in core academic subjects such as reading and math are simply very low. As a mentor, I have been trying to help Chelsea think about the big picture of her life. Would it help her to attend community college for a couple of years, do some remedial work, and then try again at a 4-year institution? Is there a career path in which she is interested that might not require a 4-year degree? I know that, while I would love for Chelsea to graduate from my university, in the end it’s her whole life that she’s got to think about, and the best thing that I can do is to steer her in a direction that gives her every possible chance to succeed.

I have mentioned previously that, while most of my students are freshmen and sophomores, I have a few students who keep coming to me throughout their college years regardless of their academic status. I have found that, in these cases, it is usually my role as mentor that keeps them coming back. I think about the conversations I have been having recently with one of my seniors, a football player named Thomas. While Thomas is going through many of the uncertainties brought on by senior year and that scary first look into the future, he is also coming to terms with the end of his football career. Football has been such a part of his life- part of his identity- for almost his entire life, and though there is a small chance that he might be drafted into the NFL, in all likelihood he has played his last game. Over these last few weeks, Thomas and I have spent a lot of time talking about how, while this feels like an end- and while it is an end in some regards- it’s really the beginning of a whole new chapter in his life.

It is in conversations like these that I know unequivocally what my favorite role as a success coach is; it is as a mentor. It is when I get to step out of the trees with a student and help him or her look at the forest- at the whole, complicated, mysterious, frustrating, beautiful life they have in front of them- that I really love my job.

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.

Finals Week

Finals Week

Well, it’s that time of year again, but you can put down the eggnog because I’m not talking about the Holidays. While most people out there are trimming trees, lighting menorahs, and wondering why that hard-to-shop-for person on the list won’t ever just tell people what she wants, those of us in academia are going through a different December tradition: final exams.

This can be a stressful time for everyone, including success coaches, who have to anxiously await results that they no longer have any hand in shaping. This is the time when we cross our fingers, ask ourselves if we did everything we could have for our students, and hope for the best. Last week, at our final success coach meeting before the end of the semester, one of our newest success coaches raised a tentative hand. “This may be a silly question,” she began, “but I am feeling unsure about how things are going to turn out for a few of my students, and it’s making me really anxious. Do any of you feel that way too?” Heads bobbed up and down in unison.

To give you a little window into this experience of waiting, watching, and hoping, here’s a brief summary of the journeys a few of my students have been on this fall, and where I think they might end up when the grades come in.*

Rebecca and Tracy: Rebecca and Tracy are both freshmen who came to school already on academic probation. (My university admits 10-15 of these students a year, and they are all paired with success coaches for fall semester.) They also both found themselves paralyzingly homesick as of their second day on campus. During the first few weeks, not a meeting went by entirely tear-free. Rebecca was having roommate drama, Tracy wasn’t making friends, and both of them were beginning to think that this whole “college” idea had all been a big mistake. Rebecca, who had been recruited for the softball team, knew that she had to get off academic probation in order to play, but sports were her only true passion. Tracy simply had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, and she switched majors three times in two months. As of our meetings last week, both girls have adjusted beautifully, and I predict they will both end up with a few As, more Bs, and one or two Cs. But it’s not only their grades that are important. Before Tracy walked out of my office after our final meeting, she gave me a huge hug and said, “I would not be here at the end of this semester if you hadn’t talked me through my homesickness and anxiety.” I asked her what she had learned about herself in these past few months. “I learned that I can handle harder work that I thought I could,” she replied before adding, “and…I learned not to be so afraid of new things.” With that, she walked out the door and into finals week. Now I wait.

Jay: Jay came to me spring semester of last year after ending the fall semester of his freshman year with a GPA of 0.5. He is also an athlete, and due to his dismal showing that semester, he became ineligible to play. During spring semester, he made a 2.5, which brought him from academic probation to academic “warning” status. This fall, Jay has done everything that has been asked of him. Math is the subject with which he struggles most, but I think he is going to pass and will probably get Bs and Cs on everything else. Unless he doesn’t. Now I wait.

Allison: Remember Allison? If not, you can check out Five Keys to the First Meeting. Well, Allison is a sophomore now, and she’s another semester closer to graduating. I think she’s going to make it, but she still struggles. I don’t doubt how much she wants it or the depth of her understanding of what this opportunity is costing other people in her life. During one of our meetings she told me, “I want to do this. I have to do this; my mom is mopping floors just so I can even be here.” However, while she made a 96% on her last paper, she apparently didn’t attend her math class at all last week. I know that, at this point, she has an A in math; nevertheless, missing classes is not acceptable. I think there is a very good chance that she will have over a 3.0 for the semester, but one thing I’ve learned is never to assume. So I wait.

Marco: Marco is a junior who has been meeting with me off and on for three years. He came to school on probation, went from probation to warning after his first fall semester, and by the end of the school year he was doing very well. His sophomore year went pretty smoothly (he was doing well enough not to have to see me anymore), but by October of this semester, it was clear that something had gone very wrong. Marco had three Fs by midterm. He didn’t show up to class. He didn’t show up to our meetings, and when he did, it was clear that he didn’t want to be there. He seems to have given up, and I still can’t figure out exactly why. I know that there have been some recent disappointments in his personal life, as well as a few bad choices on his part, and my best guess is that he has come to the conclusion that none of the things he’s been working toward are worth it anymore. I don’t know. But he is one of the students for whom I am most concerned as this semester ends. I wait.

I nodded my head with every other success coach in the room when our “success coach rookie” asked if the uncertainty of not knowing how it’s all going to turn out can get to us because I’ve seen it “turn out” in so many different ways. Sometimes a student turns around his or her whole life/attitude/GPA in one semester, but with others success comes in fits and starts. Some students leave the university, and I never hear from them again, while others are dismissed and return a year or two later more mature and determined than ever before. I think about one student, a senior who most likely will graduate with honors in the spring, who as a freshman, when asked about his goals replied, “My goals? What goals? I’m just eighteen!” His journey has been rocky at times but he has stuck with it and is now reaping the rewards.

So as finals week goes into full swing, I will be thinking about those students at my university (the vast majority) who are doing just fine, as well as those I will meet for the first time in January when they walk in my door. But mostly, I will be thinking about Rebecca, Tracy, Jay, Allison, Marco, and my four other students- waiting, hoping, cheering on. So stay tuned! As soon as I know, I will be blogging about how it all “turned out.”

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of students.
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 Trail Guide

The Trail Guide

“It couldn’t be simpler!” chirped James’ college advisor. “You just fill out your FAFSA form with your SSN, DLN, any W-2s you may have, your FITC (IRS 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ), FTR, or TR for PR, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, or Palau (if applicable!). Also make sure to include your parents’ FITR (if a dependent student), their current bank statements, business and investment mortgage information, business and farm records, stocks, bonds, and other investment records. Oh! And remember that the AY and the FFY begin at different times of the year. (Obviously!) Then, take your FAFSA to the Bursar’s Office, and the Bursar will send it off to the CPS!” Suddenly, James’ advisor’s face started to become twisted, morphing before his eyes into some kind of half-serpent, half-alien monster. “As I said, it couldn’t be sssssimpler!” hissed the monster. “Muhahaha! Muhahahhaha!!!” Suddenly James shot up, his eyes bulging, sweat pouring down his face. He looked around his bedroom, inhaled, and gave a sigh of relief. It was just a nightmare, he told himself. Although, he had to admit that, without the snake-alien-monster, the nightmare did contain some unsettling parallels to his first week at college.

When students arrive at college, they not only enter a world of exams, all-nighters, roommate drama, and (gasp!) laundry but also one of Registrar’s Offices, insurance paperwork, loan applications, and yes…acronyms. (And BTWs, while most freshmen are intimately familiar with acronyms, they’re generally more of the TTYL variety. (LOL!) And just as it is for many of us in the adult world, most of the time, it’s not the big things that overwhelm us but the minutiae. These are the insidious details that are the paper cuts of life- small, but always frustrating, often confounding, and at times painful. It is with these issues that success coaches best serve the students with whom they work by acting as trail guides. Just as a trail guide can decode symbols on a map, point out where to find potable water, or demonstrate how to build a fire, so a success coach can provide the small, practical explanations that can make the big, important things (like graduating or, to continue the metaphor, not getting eaten by a bear) that much easier.

Some things students know they are supposed to do but don’t know how and are often reluctant to ask for fear of looking dumb. When someone tells them to “go to the Bursar’s Office,” they mechanically nod their heads without asking what’s really on their minds: “Uh…is ‘Bursar’ actually a word? If so, what is a Bursar? And where is that office? And, oh yeah, what do I need to ask the ‘Bursar’ once I get to his or her office? And, um….do you think I’ll be okay if I just ignore the whole issue because it scares me and I’m hoping that by not addressing it, it will simply go away? ‘Cuz that’s my Plan A right now.”

Again, just like many of us (show me a person who hasn’t put off calling their insurance company/bank/doctor for at least a week because they were intimidated by the bureaucratic headache that just dealing with the automated menu was sure to create), young people entering into the adult world sometimes shy away from these unfamiliar experiences. For most, it’s the first time they’ve had to do everything for themselves, and it takes time to get used to the idea. One of the first things I say to my students is, “Get over the fear of looking dumb and ask the questions you need to ask!” A) The benefit of getting the information you need far outweighs the risk of looking dumb, and B) you actually won’t look dumb because nobody can be expected to magically know this stuff right away!

Often, however, it’s the “unknown unknowns” that trip students up. It’s the questions they don’t even know should be asked. Students might know that they need to apply for aid, but they have no idea that they have to “accept the award” before the aid goes through. Athletes may know that they have to maintain a certain GPA in order to remain NCAA eligible but may not know that they must go through the NCAA Clearing House before being able to play.

A few years ago, I had a student named Brenton. Brenton was a sophomore business major, but he was really struggling in his math classes. I talked to Brenton about why he had chosen business as a major, and he admitted that he hadn’t really known what he wanted to do with his life at the time he chose the major, so he just went with something that seemed popular and respectable. I showed Brenton how many math-related courses he would need to complete in order to graduate, and he turned pale. Then I asked, “Have you ever thought about changing your major?” Brenton looked stunned. “You can do that?!” By the time he left my office, Brenton had the biggest smile on his face I’d ever seen. He had settled on a major he was excited about (and one that required less math), and he was heading toward the Registrar’s Office to file the paperwork.

As a “trail guide,” I regularly explain all the things we at the University have come to take for granted as common knowledge. Students are provided with much of this information by RAs or during orientation, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily retain it all. As success coaches, we try to fill in the blanks such as, “How do I Add/Drop a class? How do I activate my student account card? Wait a minute, did you say that I can download movies from a university database directly to my computer?”

I certainly did.

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 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.

Riiiiight….

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.

Paying Attention to Retention

Paying Attention to Retention

Not long ago we met with a prospective client whose enrollment management team was nimble at recruiting students, but these efforts were akin to plugging the Titanic with a wad of chewed-up Trident: a breathtaking 48% of freshmen hadn’t returned for their sophomore year. The advice we gave to this university, and the crux of this post, addresses the dividends, both for institutions and for students, of paying attention to retention.

While academe loathes comparisons with the business world, a company with built-in repeat business opportunities that lost nearly half of its customers would not have a sophomore year. According to the National Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis, the national freshman-to-sophomore retention rate for the class of 2010 was 77.1%. This means that 23%, nearly a quarter, of students drop out. What happens to the students who leave? Do they immediately transfer to another institution? Or do they take time off, decreasing the likelihood of ultimately earning a degree? What about the money they borrowed to finance their education? They now have to repay borrowed funds with little or nothing to show for it, which may lead to defaulting and years of financial hardship. Common wisdom, not to mention common sense, suggests that everyone benefits from keeping students enrolled and engaged.

Colleges and universities, especially tuition-dependent private, non-profits, have a laser-like focus on incoming students. A 2011 Noel-Levitz report suggests that private universities spend $2,185 to recruit an undergraduate student, which may include printing glossy brochures, buying advertising airtime, improving the web site, and the like. To attain a solid return on this investment, not to mention improve students’ lives, paying attention to retention is a win-win situation.

But how can we ensure their initial and long-term success so that we’re recruiting future alumni instead of one-termers? The research suggests numerous, cost-effective ways to better serve students with the goal of keeping them engaged, satisfied, and enrolled. Examples include improving academic advising; implementing early-warning systems to detect and reach at-risk students; teaching them about time-management and study skills; and letting them know what services are available, such as tutoring in the Writing Center or assistance from the Counseling Center.

Institutions can take other steps to protect both their $2,185 investment and their students by monitoring and reporting on important retention-related tasks.  Tracking which students have registered for the upcoming semester and identifying those with outstanding financial aid issues are just a couple of examples.  Leveraging technology to identify students in these situations and to communicate with them effectively can help institutions keep students enrolled.

Aviso Coaching helps institutions deploy both technology and people—a captivating combination that helps retain the students in whom you’ve invested so heavily. Ensuring that students have a success plan is paramount, and colleges and universities, likewise, should have a plan in place to protect the investment they’ve made in each enrolled student. In the end, both the institution and the student will benefit greatly from paying attention—not lip service—to retention.

To learn more about how you can use the Aviso Coaching software to help pay attention to retention at your institution, give us a call or email us to learn more.

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.