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Plan B, C……and D.

Plan B, C……and D.

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

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

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

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

The Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship Retention

Relationship Retention

Okay, perhaps this is my Andy Rooney moment (and perhaps that reference alone dates me), but it seems like these days everyone is falling head over heels for Big Data. Algorithms will help us all lose weight and find a mate! We count on apps to help us walk more and sleep better! And when we talk about college retention, we flock right to the numbers and conclude that we think we know everything that we need to know. Not that data isn’t very powerful, in fact, it can assist in letting us know how to direct our retention efforts most effectively.  However, if our teams don’t have the appropriate training, it can also mask the more complex, more nuanced, dare I say more human factors that can make the difference between a student graduating college and dropping or failing out.

Today I talked to a fellow success coach, and she reminded me just how relationships- that bonding between a student and the peers, professors, mentors, and coaches he or she finds in his or her college environment- can influence retention. Most of the time, it turns out, relationships are the whole ball of wax. Sure, there are students who cannot academically swim in college waters, but these students number far fewer than those who do not graduate for other reasons. For example, the success coach with whom I spoke today told me of a football player named Oscar, she had been working with since his freshman year. That year, he had been a star prospect but had gotten injured in the second game of the season. He was red-shirted and could start anew the next year, but for the rest of that year he found himself at sea- stripped of the structure of an athlete’s life as well as the meaning and satisfaction he found in doing something he loved. Add to that the fact that he was homesick and you can see how, amidst such circumstances, many students like Oscar would go home. Fortunately, he had his success coach to help him get through the year. Bring his grades up. Begin to see himself as more than just a football player.

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Oscar’s grades were good enough to get him off of academic warning, so he no longer needed to regularly report to a success coach. He was healthy and back on the team, and everything looked like it was coming right around…until the third football game of the season, when Oscar was injured again. The next morning, his first call was to his success coach.

Success coaches aren’t the only people who can mentor students and help them stay in school when so many factors seem to be pulling them farther away. But Oscar’s story is a reminder that retention is all about relationships. When students feel like they belong somewhere- when they encounter people on a daily basis who really see them- when they know that at least one person in this brave new world is always in their corner- they are more likely to endure the difficulties and disappointments that can accompany any great endeavor.

The Inner Critic of the Success Coaching Student

The Inner Critic of the Success Coaching Student

I’d like to make a confession. I cannot do a roll up.

A little clarification: a “roll up” is a Pilates exercise where, using only your abs, you go from lying flat on your back to sitting straight up with your legs out in front of you. And I cannot do one. I couldn’t do one a year ago, I can’t do one today, and I probably won’t be able to do one a month from now. So I shouldn’t have been surprised a few days ago in my Pilates class when I failed to do a rollup yet again. And, to be fair, I wasn’t surprised, but I was angry. Frustrated. Embarrassed. “You should be able to do this by now!” a certain voice I know well said. “This is pathetic!” it continued. “And look how much one-on-one time the teacher is giving you because of it. I bet everyone else is annoyed with you for hogging attention and slowing the class down!” Now, I don’t know if that is what the other students in the class were thinking, but I do know a thing or two about the voice speaking to me for, you see, it has lived with me a long time. It is my inner critic or, as I like to call it, simply “mean voice.” Mean voice loves to tell us that we’re not good enough or smart enough or strong enough. I’ve got one. You’ve got one. And you better believe that success coaching students have one.

My “mean voice” incident during Pilates class reminded me just how pernicious this inner critic can be, especially when a student is struggling to overcome real obstacles to their college goals. Mean voice is quick to take any small setback as proof that- “see? I was right! You can’t do it after all!” The problem comes when students are unable to see mean voice as just one of the contributors to the ever-convening city council meeting in all of our heads. When we see mean voice as simply “reality,” we don’t realize that there are other valid perspectives to consider.

I had a student a few years back whose academic struggles during her first semester at school seemed insurmountable. “I just can’t do the work,” she would tell me time and time again. And she was not wrong. But I also knew that she had come from a high school that had not prepared her very well for college.  Because few of us understand things outside our realm of experience, she didn’t realize how poorly her high school programs had served her. So when she got to college and found herself underwater, she just assumed it must be a fundamental problem with her own brain, with her mean voice always including a dangerous (and dangerously convincing) because at the end of the sentence. “You can’t do the work because you’re not smart enough,” it told her, when in reality she was fighting uphill against a lack of preparedness that was largely not her fault.

So how do any of us, including success students, deal with our mean voices? All but the few truly enlightened among us lack the power to completely eliminate them, so how do we live with these voices without giving them the power and influence they crave? The first step, I tell my students, is to recognize the voice for what it is: one perspective of many. Once you’ve recognized your mean voice, give it a good sizing up. That way, the next time you get a poor grade on a paper and that same old refrain comes along…”of course you failed! You always fail! This just confirms everything I’ve told you about how worthless you are.”…you can say, “Hey, Cool it, okay? I’ve heard this song before.”

Once you’ve quieted the mean voice, listen for the other voices in the room. In that space you might find Logic, who says, “well, we failed that one, but we’ve got to admit we didn’t study as much as we probably should have.” Or perhaps Gentle, who reminds us, “hey. This was a bad one, but this stuff is hard and we’re making progress, even if it’s slow.” You may even find Real Kindness in there somewhere, I tell them. And once Real Kindness’ voice is heard, you’re really on the road to positive change.

Transactional vs. Transformational

Transactional vs. Transformational

For many, February encompasses various important and historically significant days; for my family, February holds an additional, especially incomparable day. This particular day holds the weight of endless hours away from home, on the phone, late nights and countless conversations. It is known around the college coaching world as Signing Day. Every year on this day, future college athletes declare where they intend to spend the next few years of their life, and to which football staff they will entrust a significant amount of their college experience. This decision is often also linked to the potential opportunity to move beyond college football and play on Sundays.

When thinking about the interactions leading up to this day, it is critical that the relationship between an athlete and college coach has moved beyond “Hi, what is your name, and what would you like to major in?”.  The coach has to become an advisor, a confidant, an expert, and a friend. Often, this trusting relationship will also need to extend to other stakeholders in the athlete’s life. The buy-in from the entire support system is crucial.

These conversations must transition from a simple transaction to the idea that being with this team, this coach, and this institution will transform this athlete’s ability to be successful in whatever he/she decides to pursue after college. The same can be said for every student heading into their collegiate experience. As institutional professionals, are we simply performing transactions with our students? Are we doing everything we can to ensure that every interaction aids in transforming their future?

Our days can become overwhelming. When walking into our offices, we are immediately hit with reports, agendas, state mandates, and that same one or two students, who always seem to be waiting for us in the lobby.  Every moment can be multi-faceted. Knocks on the door are endless, and while our office’s uphold an “open-door” policy, the moments when you can close it, to take a breather (even if a breather means ensuring that reports are submitted on time) feels like a little bit of advising heaven.

We love our students and what we do. In fact, we are passionate about helping them, progress. It’s very likely that we, ourselves, had an impactful college professor or staff member who really made a difference in our college experience. That very experience is what made us want to work in higher education. When thinking about our own experiences, we can still name those staff or faculty members that made a difference. To dive deeper, when thinking about the interactions we had with these impactful people, often times, they transformed our thinking or experience. Too often, college students become accustomed to transactional communication in higher education. “Go to the registrar’s office and give them Document A. They will then send you to the business office to turn in Document A and give you Document B. Once you have Document B, go online and type in your user name and password so that you can sign-up for classes. If you have forgotten your user name or password, please call IT, and they may pick up.” During this process, do we ever ask our students anything other than their last name and student ID number?

While some of these transactions are imperative to their progress, the transformational conversations will be what leads to their success. Although those one, two (or fifteen) students who always seem to be waiting for us, can be a bit daunting, these same students are being transformed because of what their advisor, success coach, or faculty member is doing for their college experience. The same student who continued to wait outside your office to report unrelated information or change their schedule, just ONE more time, will also be transformed because of the support provided.

‘Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.’

Light, R.J. (2001) Making the most of college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

Sarah Hood is the Client Success Manager for Aviso Coaching LLC, in Columbus, Ohio. She has played and instrumental role in the successful retention efforts for multiple collegiate campuses.  This experience has guided her to provide a platform for institutions and departments to voice their retention goals, establishing the first link to the Aviso team’s ability to assist in reaching and sustaining those endeavors.

The Language of College

The Language of College

“How would you like your change?” the woman at the check-out asked me, but all I heard was, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?”  Which made sense, since the grocery store I happened to be patronizing at the time was in Lisbon, Portugal, but unfortunately for me, I don’t speak Portuguese. This brief encounter (and many like it) in a country where I didn’t speak the language reminded me that the freshmen who will walk into my office in a few weeks and I are not so different. It reminded me that college is a language. And if you don’t speak the language, even the most basic acts can seem like insurmountable obstacles.

So how do we help students become fluent in the language of college? I find that a good place to start is, well, actual language. Acronyms, for example. We can forget that when we say, “you just need to make sure you have filed your FAFSA and go to the FAS office on north campus right between SPAC and the PLEX!” an incoming freshman may hear, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?” (You’ll know by the deer-in-headlights look similar to the one I gave the Portuguese cashier.) That’s why one of the first things I do with new freshmen is go over acronyms, even the most basic, seemingly no-brainer ones. (I learned this when I began working with a student who did not know what a GPA was nor how one was determined.) In addition to learning the names of the “whos” and “whats” on campus, we will often explore the “wheres” together. And it’s amazing what a little familiarity will do. Even if students know where something like the financial aid office or tutoring center is, and even after you assure them that the people working inside are regular humans without claws or fangs or malevolent intent, many won’t feel comfortable going in for the first time on their own. So we take a little field trip, and I introduce them to the people that can help get them the resources they need. Suddenly, what seemed daunting and strange is a gathering of fast friends, and now the student is way more likely to be able to follow up on his or her own. They’re not fluent yet, but they’re starting to speak “conversational college.”

Which is good because they’re gonna need it. They are going to need to engage in conversations of all kinds- with registrars, bursars, tutors, career counselors and, most importantly, professors. And this, once again, can be scary for a new student. (And I get it. I may have managed to eke out an “obrigada,” or “thank you,” to the Portuguese cashier, but I didn’t sing her the national anthem!) Again, a little familiarity is key. Often the issue is that even when students muster up the courage to talk to a professor or administrator, they don’t know what to say. So we role play. If they ask me as the mock professor, “I don’t understand this,” I encourage them to get specific. What exactly don’t they understand? If they have questions about a financial aid form, we break it down until they understand exactly what they need. We talk it out until they are comfortable asking the questions they need to ask, and that’s one more step toward fluency.

As with learning any language, it’s all about practice. And we are much more likelier to practice something once we see we are making some headway. That’s my job. To help a new student get to that first breakthrough where he or she realizes…hey — now I know how to ask for my change!

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

There are situations in life that require us to make carefully considered decisions about tactics. Whether you’re dealing with your boss, your child, or the TSA agent who seems to have a real problem with the amount of shampoo you’ve chosen to bring on an airplane, we are daily answering the question (whether consciously or not), “do I more effectively get what  I want if I play good cop…or bad cop?” As a success coach, I know this dilemma all too well, for most of my students need me to be both at different times. Learning how to become a master of the good cop/bad cop routine is an art, and I don’t always get it right. However, for the most part, I am able to make those decisions by synthesizing both the micro and the macro; in other words, I pay attention to both to the specific circumstances of the present moment and larger patterns of behavior.

Griffin is a student of mine who just finished his sophomore year. While most of my students who find themselves in academic trouble are glad to finally shed the burden of trying to pretend like they’ve been on top of it all along, Griffin resisted letting go of the façade. The reasons for his situation were either someone else’s fault or something that he now had totally under his control. Any “bad cop” energy I tried to put forth was met with defensiveness and digging in. There was simply no way he was going to do it any other way than his own, I soon discovered, so I gently opened the door and let good cop in. Would he like a cup of coffee? So sorry we even had to bring him down to the station at all….there are just a few, minor things we need his help with. For one…where was he on the night in question? I let Griffin try doing it his way for awhile, and when we would meet, I let him discover the ways in which that plan was not working as well as he had hoped. I treated it as an intriguing experiment, the way a math teacher might respond to a student who was clearly going about a problem the wrong way. “Oh, what an interesting way to think about doing it! Can you show me step by step how you plan to solve the problem your way?” Then, you slowly watch as the student himself figures out that his way is leading him to the wrong solution. “I’m glad you showed me that. That was a really out-of-the-box way to think about the problem, but I think we now both see that it needs tweaking. Let me show you another way we might approach it…” Manipulation? Only if you truly refuse to consider that the student may indeed prevail doing it the way you see as “wrong.” Perhaps Griffin would be the first student ever to ace a class by never showing up and not turning in any work! In a universe full of infinite possibility, I couldn’t say that it was impossible, right?  And it was perhaps because of this openness on my part that Griffin eventually let me show him other ways to approach the problem.

Tim, however, needed a different strategy. Tim needed a drill sergeant combined with a mom who does not put up with nonsense. Tim needed a bad cop. Tim was one of those students who was always looking for a loophole, a soft spot, a chink in the wall through which he could tunnel his way out. And Tim was pretty good at finding them. He had gotten things past adults all his life- sometimes due to privilege and sometimes due to sheer will- and he came to college believing that a few well-placed excuses combined with an innocent, “aw-shucks” attitude would allow him to coast through university just as he had high school. So, I admit, it must have surprised him when I called him on his b.s. However, much as seems to be the case with your average criminal mastermind on  Law & Order, Tim came to respect me and actually listen to me precisely because I had seen through his act.

Most students need both bad cop and good cop from time to time, as well as a variety of other things. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of my job is figuring out what tactic will get through to the student most effectively. Sometimes I follow my well-trained instincts; sometimes, it still takes a great deal of trial and error to figure it out. But most importantly, I remind myself that one size does not fit all. My best decisions are always made when I put in the time to really get to know the person staring back at me from the other side of my desk. Only then can I most accurately discern when to convince my student that her accomplice has already spilled the beans in the other interrogation room…and when to offer her a cup of coffee. 

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 Next Generation – Student Support

The Next Generation – Student Support

It can be difficult to remember exactly where and when you learned something. When a job is new, you are learning something new every day, but once you’ve been at it for awhile, you simply do what you know works without much thought about the process by which that wisdom was gained. Since I have been working as a success coach for more than a few years now, I thought I’d ask one of our first-year coaches, a woman named Ellen who had worked as a staff member at two other colleges prior to joining the team at my university, about her experience this year. What did she learn? What surprised her? What are some of the most crucial take-aways that will help her be an even better coach in year two? Here are some of her thoughts:

The most important theme Ellen kept coming back to again and again was that of variety in…well….variety of forms. Based on her work with mostly freshmen who were on either academic probation or warning, it became incredibly apparent to her the extent to which not all high schools are alike. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to academic rigor, even when you only look at college prep programs from school to school. A student with a 3.0 GPA from one area can be vastly more prepared than a student having graduated with the same GPA from a different school. However, Ellen was also surprised by how many of her students’ primary challenges were not academic at all, and she figured out that in order to address students with vastly different obstacles- from organization to motivation to family issues to mental health problems- she had to come up with as many strategies as there were barriers to a student’s success.

Ellen also learned things that will help her work more effectively with certain kinds of students. For example, she had not fully realized just how much of a student athlete’s time is dedicated to his or her sport, and what incredible organization and time management skills it takes to be both student and athlete at the college level. She also came to some interesting insights regarding international students, namely just how real and difficult culture shock can be to navigate.

Although one of the biggest lessons Ellen learned was there is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to working with students, there were some commonalities. On the whole, she said, the challenges her students faced often stemmed from a lack of problem solving skills and support. Many of her freshmen were not used to making decisions for themselves or solving their own problems, and she found she nearly always had to give them a crash course in Problem Solving 101.  She also observed how quickly her students came to trust her and tell her what the problem really was and, for many, this trust was born from her students’ viewing her as a campus mom, a second mom, or the mom they never had. One of the truths Ellen discovered that I, too, find difficult is that, for many of the students who end up walking through our doors, the success coach is the only person in his or her life who supports them and always has their back.

At the end of our conversation, Ellen paused and said, “You know, I’ve worked at colleges before, but even so, I really experienced a learning curve this year.” I asked her what, if anything, was the main take-away. “I love being a success coach,” she said, “and I think if every school did this, we could raise graduation rates nationwide.”

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.

Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

The other day I had the privilege of meeting with two women who work in the academic support center at our local community college. These women have been wanting to start a success coaching program for some time, believing that, especially on the community college level, where students have an even more diverse range of needs and challenges than at a typical four-year institution, a success coaching program could provide huge benefits to their students. We had a great conversation about how we launched the success coaching program at my university, how it works, and what we’ve learned in the years since its inception. I’d like to share a few of the highlights here.

SELLING THE PROGRAM

As we learned first-hand at my university, the reasons why a school needs or could benefit from a success coaching program are not always immediately apparent to administration, faculty and staff. Often, this is because many people simply don’t know what success coaching programs do. Students already have access to academic advisors, counselors, and tutors, they say. How would this be any different? Wouldn’t success coaches be at best redundant and at worst interlopers stepping on the toes of those who are already doing these jobs? In order to garner support for any nascent success coaching program, it is essential to communicate to faculty and staff that success coaches work as partners with professors, coaches, and counselors, and that the primary job of a success coach is to act as a singular point person who helps students pinpoint and navigate any challenges that might arise, academic or otherwise. Success coaches also act as mentors and role models to students, some of whom have few (if any) others to look to. Sure, some students find mentor/mentee relationships with a particular professor or coach, and those relationships can be incredibly gratifying, but not all students are so lucky.

Perhaps the most persuasive way to get a university on board when starting a success coaching program is simply to share the numbers. Our success coaching program has unequivocally improved retention while vastly reducing the numbers of students who have been dismissed from the university. In fact, the retention rates of students in our success coaching program, who are statistically most at risk of dropping out or being dismissed, are just as good or better than those of the general population. Math! She tells no lies.

HIRING

Just as most organizations thrive or fail on the effectiveness of their human resources, so it is with success coaching programs. Hiring the right people is essential, and over the years we have found a few types of people who generally make the best coaches. Probably the largest percentage of our coaches are retired educators, but that is not the only model that seems to work. We have hired coaches from the business world who have experience mentoring others, former social workers, HR directors, and people who have spent time in student affairs. Regardless of their career origins, all of our best coaches seem to have one thing in common: experience building one-on-one relationships which focus on the needs of others.

GIVING THE PROGRAM A MISSION

Finally, a successful success coaching program must have a clear understanding of the job at hand. We are not professors. We are not counselors. We are sounding boards, detectives, friends and, more than anything, facilitators. We connect students to the resources they need to succeed, for we know that their success helps not just the students themselves but all of us. The more well-educated our workforce and citizenry, the better off we all are, and success coaches know that our primary goal is to help facilitate that success in any way we can.

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.

Tales from the Trenches of a Success Coach

Tales from the Trenches of a Success Coach

Regardless of your line of work, every once in a while it’s nice to talk shop. It just feels good to compare notes, swap stories, celebrate or, at times, commiserate with the other people who truly understand what you do because they do it too. A couple of days ago, my fellow success coaches and I got together for a shop talk session, and the conversation centered around stories of students present and past. So this month I’m going to forgo the larger thesis and just relate a few of these anecdotes. These are snapshots of individual lives- brief glimpses into moments, both large and small, on a few individual students’ paths to a college education.

Aaron is a soccer player who came to college two years ago on a full athletic scholarship. Aaron is good. I mean, really good. So good, in fact, that our soccer coach recruited him as a freshman and basically built the entire team around him. Fall is soccer season, and with the demands of the sport combined with the dual challenges of coursework and adjusting to college life that all freshmen face, Aaron’s grades suffered. He ended the semester with the bare minimum GPA he needed to remain eligible to play. However, it seemed reasonable to assume that in the spring, when he would be practicing but not traveling or playing competitively, he would have the time to focus on his studies and bring his grades up. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened, and by second semester midterms, Aaron had Fs in five classes. That’s when his coach stepped in and got him a success coach, who immediately went into full triage mode. She got him organized. She kept him accountable, even when that meant walking over to his dorm and physically escorting him to her office when he failed to show up for a meeting. It was a herculean task, but it worked. Aaron got out of the hole and was ready for another fall season. Case closed, right? Lesson learned and the rest is history? Not exactly. Aaron’s sophomore year was a mirror image of his first, and by then his coach had realized something of a common, if counter-intuitive, phenomenon among student athletes.

While one would assume it would be harder to keep one’s grades up when one is so busy with a sport in season, sometimes the exact opposite is true. Sometimes it’s the structure of an on-season that helps a student organize the rest of his or her time effectively. It’s the immediacy of being able to connect how you are doing in school right now to your eligibility to play the sport you love. For Aaron, the loss of that structure and immediacy in the spring was a major drawback. Luckily, with the help of his success coach, he was able to break the pattern this year and has been doing well in class as well as on the field. When I spoke to his success coach, she told me of one particularly wonderful moment. She had gone to a game to see Aaron play, and had, without realizing it, sat next to his mother and grandmother in the stands. They spent most of the game simply sitting side-by-side, until Aaron scored a goal and all three women jumped to their feet and began cheering. After a moment of surprise, Aaron’s mother and grandmother looked over and asked, as if they already knew the answer, “are you the success coach?” When Aaron’s success coach answered in the affirmative, hugs and words of gratitude were shared all around.

Madison is a freshman this year, and her story, while still largely unwritten, has been less inspiring. An extremely bright young woman with excellent test scores and high school grades, Madison, nevertheless, managed to get on academic probation during her fall semester. She started meeting with a success coach at the beginning of this semester, but by midterm she had been dismissed from two of her five classes for lack of attendance. Lack of attendance, it seems, is the name of the game for Madison. She is simply not going to class. When pressed, she has revealed to her coach that there is a set of issues she is dealing with, but so far she has not been willing to talk about what they are. Clearly there are deep and stormy seas churning underneath Madison’s nonchalant exterior, and hopefully she will listen to her coach’s advice and utilize the psychological counseling resources on campus. However, if she doesn’t do something to turn her ship around, she is likely to be asked to leave. Madison’s story reminded all of us success coaches of students we’ve had who just weren’t able to make it. Either their grades were just too low to be turned around, they had underlying family or personal issues that were simply too big to surmount in the time they were here, or some combination of both. Perhaps the unwritten chapters of Madison’s college career will be happier ones. Perhaps the last chapter ends with Madison, beaming from ear to ear, crossing the stage in cap and gown to receive her diploma. In the meantime, we will hope, we will help, we will facilitate…and we will keep our fingers crossed.

Cody is another freshman in his second semester of college, and another student who did not work with a success coach initially but whose fall semester grades put him on academic warning, and so he was given a success coach for spring. (This trend, by the way, is why I strongly believe all freshmen should receive a success coach for their first semester.) Cody is the only child of parents who for a long time believed they would be unable to have children. This does not necessarily account for the amount which they doted on their miracle child, but Cody readily admitted to his coach that his parents basically did everything for him and let him do pretty much whatever he wanted. He certainly is a smart, charming person, but it seems he learned to use his powers of charm and manipulation mainly in order to get out of things or to get other people to do things for him that he really should have done himself. Unfortunately for Cody, his college professors have not been quite as easily charmed, and this paradigm shift in the way of the world seems to have thrown Cody for quite a loop. He’s confident enough to admit he’s gotten away with a lot in the past and smart enough to know that’s not going to work anymore, but he needed someone to help him figure out just how to do things differently. He needed help learning skills like time management, organization, and work ethic, and that’s where his success coach came in. Cody is still not out of the woods, and sometimes his coach describes getting him to do things as “like pulling teeth,” but he is working on it. Little by little, the way we all break old habits and forge new pathways, he is working on it.

Statistics about retention, performance, and graduation rates on college campuses often focus on the abstract- the composite. And yes, composite data is important. But amidst all the data, we must remember that there are trees in this forest! There are as many stories as there are acceptance letters, desks in a classroom, and piles of laundry waiting patiently…for Summer break.

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.