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The New School Year – Part 2

The New School Year – Part 2

It’s just over two weeks until the start of classes for the 2013 fall semester, which means my colleagues and I are hard at work making sure we are ready to go on Day 1. Right now, I am primarily working on making a final list of students with which we will either definitely be working (as in the case of new or returning students on academic probation or warning) as well as those “borderline” students who we will be offering an optional but highly recommended opportunity to participate in the program.

This semester, our roster includes 18 incoming freshmen who were admitted on probationary status, 25 students I culled from a freshman class of over 400 students who fall into the “borderline” category, and 25 returning students whose spring semester grades put them on either academic probation or warning. I am especially pleased with this last number, as it represents a huge drop from that of previous years. It’s a good feeling to have the personal knowledge that our program is effective (and only becoming more so) corroborated by data; after all, numbers do not lie.

I am also excited about the prospect of bringing these “borderline” students into the program. In order to make my final list, I went through the transcripts of every single freshman who will be walking onto our campus in two weeks, and looked for potential issues. Did a student do well overall but consistently struggled in a particular, core area? Were a student’s ACT or SAT scores significantly higher or lower than his or her classroom grades? Did a student have a chronic problem with tardiness or absenteeism? One girl on my list of 25, for example, missed nearly 20 days of school (and in one year she missed 24) every year of high school. This pattern could potentially speak to a lack of motivation, a chaotic home environment or one in which education was undervalued or simple immaturity, all of which could have a deleterious effect on her ability to succeed in college. As I went through these transcripts, I ranked students (1-3) according to how much or little they seemed at risk.

The 25 in my final list will be receiving a letter from our admissions director informing them that we would like to pair them up with a success coach for the fall semester. Participation in the program will not be required; however, we strongly recommend that they do participate. I am also going to talk to the athletic coaches to see if any of these students are on their teams. Our coaches are some of the most enthusiastic supporters of success coaching, and for those students who are on athletic teams; their coaches are going to personally request that they join the program.

Now that I have a complete list of the students who will (or who we hope will) be joining us, it’s time to assign students to specific coaches. Most of the time, this process is either random (as in the case of incoming freshmen about whom we know very little) or a continuation of the status quo. Most students who return to the program, and who have therefore worked with a certain coach before, choose to remain with the same coach. There are, however, cases in which we do match students with coaches based on perceived compatibility.

For example, sometimes a coach will recommend that a student receive a different coach for a second semester in the program. This decision can be based on the gender, age, or temperament of a particular coach or it can be based on the precept that a student may simply bond more naturally with someone else. For example, we had a female student last semester who did alright but who is still on academic probation this fall. In conversations with her coach, it became apparent that this young woman was in need of a strong, male role model in her life. Her coach and I both agreed that she might do better, therefore, with a male coach, and so this year we are pairing her with our very best.

Similarly, another student who struggled last year largely because she was dealing with a double dose of social isolation and homesickness, so this fall I have matched her with a coach who spent more than 20 years as a counselor in public schools. Yet another student, a football player whose coach left to take another job at the end of last year, is going to be working with a colleague of mine whose life has revolved around football for decades. Her husband and both of her sons played football, and her husband (as well as one of her sons) coaches professionally. I’m sure this student would do fine with anyone on our very capable team, but why not match him with someone with whom he has something in common?

There is still much work to be done before classes start for this brand new school year, but day by day my colleagues and I are doing our best to ensure that we will be ready.

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 New School Year – Part 1

The New School Year – Part 1

The beginning of a new school year has a distinct (and for those of us in education, an exhilarating) smell. Even as a little girl, I loved the aroma of new books and pencils, and, of course, that delightfully chalky smell of a blackboard- because these smells were all harbingers that a new term was beginning. Even these days, when chalkboards have largely been replaced by whiteboards, pencils by pens, and books by visually entrancing yet odorless tablets and laptops, I find that I can smell the onset of another fall semester. And these past few days, after two months of summer vacation has bestowed upon me its myriad gifts, I’ve started to smell it.

On August 21st, my colleagues and I will meet for the first time to discuss the upcoming school year, and I am looking forward to discussing the changes at the university as well as the ways in which we can improve the Success Coaching program specifically. In this first installment of a three-part blog, I would like to give an overview of what we are looking to accomplish in this first meeting.

First of all, there are a few changes going on university-wide that we will need to discuss. The one about which I’m the most excited is the complete revamp of our student instructor (which we call PAL: Peer Assisted Learning) program. I’m always an advocate of students learning from their peers, and I hope that this new model will be even more successful in helping those who are struggling in core areas like English and math.

In terms of the success coaching program in particular, I am very excited that we are currently in the process of hiring one to three new coaches. All three applicants are experienced former teachers- two are younger women who have been out of the workforce for a few years to stay home with small children, and one is a retired teacher with 32 years of experience in the public, K-12 school system. In general, our best recruits have almost always come from the “helping” professions- people who have previously worked in human resources or as counselors, social workers, and especially teachers- so I have high hopes that all three of these potential, new success coaches will be joining us on August 21.

I have asked all of our success coaches to come to the meeting with a few things. First is a list of their own personal goals for the semester. While we all think about what we can do better, I’ve found that it’s always more effective when we A) write these things down, and B) discuss them aloud in front of others. In addition to a list of personal goals, I’ve asked each coach to make a list of ideas as to how we can improve the program as a whole. I’d like a significant portion of the meeting to be a discussion of the question: how do we, as a group, better meet the needs of students? For example, last year we had a coach who began working with her students once a week via Skype. The experiment was a huge success, and we plan on doing more of this kind of coaching this coming year. We are also doing more to connect our students with one another as well as to attempt to catch at-risk freshmen before they fall through the cracks. We have tweaked our program every year since its inception, and positive gains have followed. This coming fall, I am proud to report, we have the lowest number of students on academic probation or warning than we’ve ever had. While there is an interconnected web of reasons and realities that have contributed to this exciting statistic, the success coaching program has certainly been a big part of the solution.

Next week, I will detail more specifically how my fellow coaches and I plan to improve our program for the coming year, but for now…I’m just enjoying the smell of anticipation.

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.

Success Coaching: The Boomerang Effect

Success Coaching: The Boomerang Effect

In my career spent success coaching I have realized the painful truth that sometimes students fail out of college. Sometimes they drop out. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to help a student turn his or her college career around, nothing seems to work.

It’s a reality that has made me frustrated, sad, and, at times, even defeatist. I thought, “If they’re just going to go back to bad habits, or continue with bad attitudes, or ignore my advice completely, what’s the point?” However, I’ve been at this job long enough to know that there’s another, equally true reality, and that’s what I call the boomerang effect. Sometimes, it turns out, being dismissed from school is exactly what students need in order to finally hear what you’ve been saying all along. Sometimes it is in these moments, when students are forced to re-assess their entire plan, that all of the conversations you had with them during success coaching sessions finally make sense. And sometimes, just like a boomerang, they come flying back. And when they do, it’s often their success coach that they call first.

Success coaches are, of course, only one kind of adult mentor for college students, as many become close with a favorite professor or athletic coach. However, the rapport that success coaches build with their students is often free from the outside expectations that can exist in other types of student/mentor relationship. A student can become close with an athletic coach, but at the end of the day, that student is still trying to prove to his or her coach that he or she can compete at the level the coach desires. Likewise, students can only be so open with a person who is responsible for their grades, even if they do have a friendly rapport. The relationship of a student to his or her success coach is a much simpler one, and that can enable students to open up their coaches more fully and freely.

ABBIE

Abbie just didn’t do anything anyone expected her to do. Everything had to be her way or the highway, and her way turned out to be a dead end road. I worked with Abbie during the spring semester of her freshman year, and despite the best efforts of his professors, her RA, and me, Abbie was dismissed at the end of the year. A year after that, I received a letter in the mail. “I know I don’t deserve this, and I know there’s no good reason you should help me now,” Abbie began, “but I realize now that I was wrong about so many things.” Abbie went on to apologize for a variety of things before asking if she could call me to start a conversation about figuring out how she might be able to come back to school. She did, and thus began Abbie’s Second Act.

MARCUS

Like many college freshmen, Marcus entered school at the age of 18- a young 18. He came to campus to play basketball, and that’s pretty much what he did…until his poor grades prohibited him from playing. We worked together for two semesters, and for the first one his grades improved enough to make him eligible for the following season, but then he took another nosedive and was dismissed at the end of his sophomore year. Two years later, out of the blue, I got a call from Marcus. Shortly after, he re-enrolled. It took him almost three years to finish his degree, but on graduation day this past May, there he was, handsomely “capped” and “gowned” and smiling from ear to ear as he enveloped me in a bear hug.

JONAH

I worked with Jonah not as a success coach but as a supervisor of student teachers; however, his story reminds me that sometimes students go forward even when they do not come back. Jonah was in the final, student-teaching phase of his education degree, but all was not well. Already he had been asked to repeat his student-teaching once, although I was not surprised when I heard the news, as I had seen during my observations that Jonah was anything but comfortable in front of a class. Not long into his second stint, I got a call from the cooperating teacher telling me that Jonah was in tears. When I arrived, I asked a question I’d asked Jonah a dozen times before: are you sure this is really what you want to do with your life? A dozen times before, Jonah’s answer had been the same, but this time he reversed course. “No, he said, tears still in his eyes, I really don’t want to do this. I don’t like teaching.” “That’s great news!” I replied, and then I began to explain to him how knowing for sure that a certain job is NOT for you can be just as informative as realizing what career path is. Once Jonah admitted that he no longer wanted to teach, we started an honest discussion about what he might want to do instead. A few months later, he came back to campus to tell me that he’d been accepted into one of the few programs in the country that teaches people to repair musical instruments. I had never seen him so elated, and it was immediately clear to me that he’d finally found his path…at least the next mile of it.

My interactions with Abbie, Marcus and Jonah have all made me realize that, even when I feel like my words are falling on deaf ears, and even when I feel like my best efforts have not been enough to save a student from dismissal…my students are listening, but some messages just need to incubate longer than others. And in the end, it’s always better late than never.

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.

Top 5 Characteristics of The Prepared Student

Top 5 Characteristics of The Prepared Student

Since I started blogging about my experience as a success coach, I have written a fair amount about the ways in which my students find themselves unprepared, in one or multiple ways, for college. However, another way to look at it is: what are the primary skills that students who are prepared for college life have that others don’t? In my experience, students who are most apt to succeed in a university environment, whether on campus or online, exhibit five common characteristics:

1. MATURITY

A student can only succeed once he or she realizes that the responsibility for an education falls solely on his or her shoulders. Without the basic maturity required to take control of one’s own decisions, students can find themselves floundering in a world where no one else is there to make sure they get up in the morning, go to class, or turn in assignments. In college, there is no longer an authority figure looking over students’ shoulders to ensure that they are staying on track or, conversely, there to ground them or send them to detention if they aren’t. With maturity comes the strength to ignore the chorus of peers imploring one to skip class just this once or put down the textbook and go out to that Thursday night party. It also gives students the confidence they will need to feel comfortable talking to professors, deans, or staff who know the answers to vital questions.

2. ADAPTABILITY

For most students, the transition from high school to college is a major one that can be simultaneously thrilling and daunting. For the first couple of semesters, especially, students can feel like strangers in a very strange land. That’s why the students who are the most prepared for this brave new world are those who have the capacity to adapt easily to new environments. This can mean ease making friends, asking questions, or being able to quickly recognize what one doesn’t know. Most students, for example, can discern how well or poorly their high schools prepared them academically for the rigor of college-level work within the first few weeks of classes. The most adaptable, and therefore the most successful, students take this information and immediately begin trying to fill the gaps in knowledge or ability. For some, that means seeking out tutoring upon realizing that they are behind the curve in core subjects. For others, it’s finding they lack experience in writing and then taking a seminar on writing research papers.

3. GENERAL ACADEMIC PREPAREDNESS

As much as we would like to think that all high schools’ “college prep” programs adequately “prep” students for “college,” this just isn’t the case. Some high schools are simply more rigorous than others, and two students can walk onto the same college campus with the same high school GPAs and even the same SAT or ACT scores, and yet their first semester work can reflect vastly disparate levels of academic preparedness. However, those students who come to campus underprepared can close that gap if they display (or learn) some or all of the other attributes common among successful students.

4. TIME MANAGEMENT

I’ve mentioned time management multiple times before on this blog, but I can’t stress its importance enough. Some students come to campus straight from college preparatory programs that emphasize student initiative and independence; these students may have a great deal of experience managing their own time, and completing writing-intensive or long term projects for which there is little day-by-day guidance. However, many students have not had these kinds of experiences, and even those who have can find themselves needing to become not just apprentices but masters of the craft of time management. College students need to learn how to successfully manage free time, and most college freshmen find themselves with more “free time” than ever before. I am not a mathematician, but even I know that the equation: more free time + assignments that may not be due until the end of the semester = PROCRASTINATION. Also, students often are not prepared for the amount of work they may have to do for a given assignment, and so they often give themselves far less time than they actually need to complete it.

5. ORGANIZATION AND STUDY SKILLS

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the students who come to college most prepared are almost always those who are the most organized. (Now, organized is in no way the same thing as “neat”- some of the most organized people I know have messy desks, but they all have a concrete system that works for them.) Organized students generally keep materials for a given class in the same place, have separate folders on their computers for different projects or courses, and work/study in a regimented fashion. For a paper, they keep checklists as well as a running knowledge of what they need to do first, second, third, etc. Organized students also find out what environments and times of day are best for them and plan their studying accordingly.

Students do not need to exhibit all five of these characteristics in order to be “prepared” for college life and work. I’ve seen students who are incredibly immature in certain ways yet are able to get work done efficiently and proficiently. I’ve seen others who are adaptable in some ways but not others, or who are academically very ready for college-level work if only they could find that darn syllabus they keep misplacing. As success coaches, we have strategies for helping students address their lack of preparedness in these areas, for the more that students learn to master these skills, the better positioned they will be for success in not just college…but life.

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.

Using Success Coaching To Connect Students With One Another

Using Success Coaching To Connect Students With One Another

Last week I wrote about some of the new strategies my success coach colleagues and I are working to implement in preparation for the coming school year. While much of it has to do with ways in which we can prevent students from falling behind in the first place, my job deals most directly and most often with those who already have.  When I look back through the years and ask myself what strategies for those students have worked best and most often, the answer is: it really depends on the student. However, one thing I have done in the past and plan to do much more of this year is to connect my students with one another in order to create small study groups led by one of our tutors, grad students, or professors.

While students can always walk over to the tutoring center and ask to be paired with a tutor, many who could benefit from these services do not seek them out. Some simply do not have the level of initiative required to take the first step. Others avoid them due to the often self-imposed stigma that comes with admitting to needing help. When I organize a small study group of my students, it addresses and redresses both of these possible roadblocks. First of all, the students themselves do not need to initiate the process, since that’s my job. Also, working in a group often removes any perceived notion that needing help in a particular class or subject makes one inadequate in any way. Students instead think: hey! I may be struggling, but at least I’m not the only one!

Last year, I realized after a few weeks that three of my students were all in the same math class, and they were all failing. The three couldn’t have been more different. One was a commuter student who, in addition to struggling with the material, was suffering from a lack of connectedness to campus life. He was on campus solely during class time, and thus he hadn’t really made many friends. The second student was a star soccer player whose problems included too much social activity. Even when not practicing or working out with the team, he spent nearly all his waking hours hanging out (and not over a textbook) with his soccer buddies. The third student was an international student who, much like the commuter, had spent most of his time on the periphery of campus life. He was from a conservative country, and because his very conservative family didn’t want him to become too “westernized,” he had been reluctant to make American friends of participate fully in American life on campus.

All three were struggling in math for academic reasons, but these environmental factors had made it difficult for them, up to this point, to help themselves improve. None of these young men would likely have gotten together on their own, but once I noticed that they were all in the exact same class, I organized a weekly study session for them. I brought in one of our very best math tutors, a woman who is as funny and friendly as she is intelligent, and they immediately started to improve. By the end of the semester, these boys had benefitted not only academically from the group sessions but socially as well. The commuter made more friends, the soccer player got to know people other than his fellow teammates and, after the international student revealed that he played soccer as well, the soccer player invited him to play in pick-up games with his friends. Soon they had organized an ongoing Friday afternoon game with American and international students alike.

Organizing this study group was not a magic bullet, obviously, but like most of the strategies that success coaches employ, it was just one more way in which I can act as a liaison between students and the resources they need. This coming year, I plan to find more opportunities to connect my student with one another, and I hope that these groups give students one more tool to help them succeed.

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.

Preventing At-Risk Students From Falling Through the Cracks

Preventing At-Risk Students From Falling Through the Cracks

It may still be early July, but I have been thinking a lot about the fall. As my colleagues and I prepare for next year’s crop of students, we have begun to implement some new ideas about which I am very excited. A big part of our strategy involves doing something I have spoken about in earlier posts: preventing at-risk students from falling through the cracks. As previously mentioned, my university assigns students a success coach only after they have gotten on academic probation or warning, and every time a freshman walks though my door the first week of Spring Semester after a disastrous Fall I think, “how could we have prevented this from happening in the first place?” Well, this summer, we are launching a pre-emptive strike. Over the course of the next six weeks, we are going through the transcripts of every incoming freshman to identify potentially at-risk students. That’s right, this summer I am no longer simply Susan Marion: success coach- I am Susan Marion: private eye.

So what, exactly, am I looking for? Well, first I look at a student’s SAT and ACT scores. Like most universities, my school does not admit students who score below a certain number on either the SAT or ACT, but some students are right on that number or perhaps 1 point higher on an ACT or ten to thirty points higher on an SAT. Any students whose scores fall into this range are potentially at risk. After I look at a student’s total score, I assess the breakdown. If either their English or math score is low, it could potentially mean that he or she will have trouble in that area. If their writing score is low, it could foreshadow trouble writing college-level papers. If a student’s GPA is high but his or her test scores are low, it could mean a few things. Perhaps this student suffers from test anxiety or has trouble performing under pressure. Perhaps his or her high school does not grade students rigorously, and therefore this high GPA could mask a fundamental deficit of comprehension in core areas.

While I’m looking at a student’s high school grades, I pay particular attention to core academics. Sometimes a student’s A’s and B’s are primarily in “non-core” academic classes such as art, music, and other electives. While these classes are important for a well-rounded education, students who struggle in core areas may have an especially difficult time during freshman year when so many of their required courses will be fundamental prerequisites in subjects like math and English. But it’s not just how a student’s grades break down by subject that can give me clues as to his or her potential chances for success in the first year of college. The arc of a student’s high school career is also important. If a student did poorly during freshman year (or perhaps just the first semester of freshman year) of high school, it could speak to difficulty with transitions. And if transitioning from middle to high school threw him or her for a loop, going from high school to college is apt to be even more disorienting and difficult. Sometimes, the grade arc goes the opposite way. If a student did well during his or her freshman and sophomore years but then started to struggle, this could mean that this particular student has trouble staying motivated once school has lost that new car smell. Or, it could mean that he or she struggles with more difficult subjects and a larger course load, which could spell trouble in the areas of core comprehension and time management in college.

As I comb through these freshman files, I am building a list of potentially at-risk students to whom we are going to offer the option of working with a success coach in the fall. They will not be mandated to meet with a success coach, as are our students on academic probation or warning, but we will strongly recommend that they do. Some may end up meeting with their coaches biweekly just as our regular students do. Some may only need to meet once a week, or twice a month. Others, especially those for whom transitions in general are hard, may only require a few meetings until they get their sea legs. Ideally, we will simply be one more point of contact for these students during their first few months in college- one more strip of caulking, for the fewer cracks there are, the harder it is to fall through them.

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.

Navigating the Waters of Student Financial Aid

Navigating the Waters of Student Financial Aid

If there is a 500 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to obstacles to student success at the university level, it can be summed up in one word: money. At this point, we are all aware that there has been a nearly-exponential increase in the cost of a four-year degree over the course of the last 30 years. There are also obvious and systematic problems with the ways in which students fund their educations through various types of financial aid. Many of these issues don’t knock on a student’s door until after graduation, when it’s time to start paying back loans in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but others accompany a student throughout his or her college tenure, and money problems can become a seemingly insurmountable boulder in a student’s road to achievement.

I am not an expert on financial aid and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to be. Federal aid regulations change so frequently that it can be difficult even for professional financial aid officers to keep current. So of course students become confused and overwhelmed by them- the language is as foreign as the stakes are high. Since part of my job requires me to act as a liaison between students and the resources they need, I make sure my students find then stay connected with someone in our financial aid office who they trust, and who can explain things to them in an accessible, effective way.

Often, especially at first, I even walk down to the office with them. That was the case with Louie, a student whose parents had been taking care of his financial aid paperwork (or so he thought) until one day Louie received a letter casually announcing that he owed $14,000. When he arrived at my office, letter in hand, he was nearly in tears- terrified by the reality that had just landed in his lap. I walked with Louie directly to the financial aid office and stayed with him as one of our diligent financial aid personnel helped him break it all down into manageable pieces.

After that, Louie didn’t need anyone to tell him that he needed to take control of his own financial aid. However, not all students realize just how high the stakes are. When I ask my students how they are paying for their education, many simply reply, “My parents are taking care of it.” For a lot of these students, that’s truly the case and all is well. Unfortunately, sometimes parents fall through, either due to factors within their control- like missing application deadlines or basic financial responsibility- or factors over which they have little to no control- like when a parent loses a job. One thing I try to get my students to really, really understand is that they are responsible for their own education. While their minds are the primary beneficiaries of that education, their feet are where all burdens and debts associated with that education will be laid. “Loans are taken out in your name,” I tell my students, “and failure to repay them can lead to difficulties when you want to buy a car, a house, or start a business.”

As a success coach, my job is not to solve the deeper problems associated with paying for college in the 21st century (though I applaud all who are diligently working toward that end). But by helping students better navigate the waters, ever watchful for icebergs ahead, I can do my best to ensure that financial stress doesn’t prevent hard-working students from getting the education they deserve.

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.

Family Matters

Family Matters

Remember the summer before you went to college? I remember it vividly. In addition to time spent with friends talking about how weird it was that high school was over, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what the next four years would be like. Soon, I would tell myself when to get up and when to go to bed and how late I could stay out. I could eat nothing but cookies if I wanted to! Though I loved my family dearly, I couldn’t wait to strike out on my own, to live by my own rules under my own (well, sort of) roof.

But moving away from home for the first time can be as strange and unmooring as it is exciting, and many college students are surprised at how difficult it can be to balance campus life with the tug of home and family. I’ve worked with more than a few students for whom that tug became a major boulder in their road to success. The reasons why students can sometimes get sidetracked by family issues range from the simple, such as fear of missing out on family events, to complex situations like divorce and domestic abuse.

One of the most difficult things that can happen to any student is to be far from home when a health crisis hits the family. While there have been anecdotes about the student whose grandmother, grandfather, two uncles, a great aunt, dog, and guinea pig all died within the span of his freshman year and all required his leave of absence, it is true that many students enter college at about the age when their grandparents’ health really does start to decline. The sense of fear of and/or guilt over “not being there” is even more acute when it’s a parent or sibling who falls ill. A few years ago, I worked with a young woman whose mother learned she had cancer at the same time that doctors were trying to save her husband’s life following a heart attack. My student, understandably, wanted to go home immediately. She went back for a weekend, after which her parents practically forced her to return to school.

Of course, some events in life are more important than any lecture on macroeconomics, and some students can afford to leave school for a week or more and be just fine, but for those who are already walking a razor’s edge between success and failure, these “should I stay or should I go” decisions can carry enormous weight. For example, I worked with a student whose family decided to book a cruise during the week of final exams. I tried to tell him that, as hard as it would be to miss something like that, it was in his best interest not to go on the trip. Unfortunately, there was no one in the world who would have been able to convince him not to go. In the end, he missed all of his finals, and his grades suffered tremendously because of it.

Often, when students struggle due to separation from their families, either because they feel sad that they are missing out on the good stuff or guilty that they are not there to help with or even fix the bad, I try to tap into the root cause of their worries. “Are you worried about your mom, or grandma, or brother?” I ask. They nod. “Well,” I say, “the best thing you can do for them is to work hard and do well. If you are not fully invested in your life and studies here, you’re just adding to the worries the person you are worried about is experiencing.” Put in those terms, students are better able to see how what can feel like abandoning the family is actually contributing to its long term good. That notion alone can assuage some of the guilt these students feel and enable them to re-focus on their goals.

I also know that when a student needs something that I, as a success coach, can’t provide, it is my job to connect that student with the resources and people who can. I have referred numerous students to our on-campus counselors- like my student Joseph, who was torn apart by the knowledge that every day he stayed at school was another day his mother’s boyfriend was likely abusing her, or Jessie, whose only family consisted of an aunt and uncle who, she felt, were just happy to be rid of the burden of caring for her. Their stories serve as a constant reminder that these boulders are real and can seem intransigent at times, but that my job as a success coach is to try to budge the un-budgeable. To bridge the unbridgeable. To do whatever I can to ensure that one more student has the tools, skills, and resources he or she needs to succeed.

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.

Talking The Talk: Teaching Students to Communicate Effectively and Professionally

Talking The Talk: Teaching Students to Communicate Effectively and Professionally

I could almost feel Amara’s nervousness grow as we made our way across campus. “Just tell your professor exactly what you told me,” I gently reminded her. She nodded, but kept her eyes forward. To witness this scene, you’d think Amara was on her way to confess that she had plagiarized or cheated on an exam- or that the professor in question was domineering or arrogant. None of this was the case. Amara was simply nervous about doing something with which she had very little experience- talking directly with a teacher about a problem she was having in class. Even in high school, she admitted, she had simply sat in the back and largely gone unnoticed. Now she was in college, and regardless of the personalities or seeming levels of approachability of her professors, their status and resumés intimidated her. Amara had been barely treading water in this particular class for awhile but had been unable to avail herself of the easiest solution: talking to her professor and asking for help.

While Amara’s case might be extreme, it’s not unusual. I have found that a huge boulder for many of my students is a lack of communication skills, especially when it comes to communicating with authority figures- from professors and coaches to deans, job recruiters, and internship advisors. Part of my job as a success coach has been to help students develop communication tools crucial for success in college but that are also transferable to the professional world. In addition to my work as a success coach, I also teach a course in business etiquette and interview skills to juniors and seniors at my university, and I often parlay the same advice to my freshmen and sophomores as it applies to their college careers. I remind them that it’s not just about being smart and working hard but about how they interact with classmates and professors.

In the real world, careers are made and lost on issues of etiquette, dress, trustworthiness, dependability, attitude, and ability to work as a member of a team. What is the umbrella that keeps all of these ideas warm and dry? Communication. So I help my students learn to communicate confidently and professionally. Sometimes we talk through a potential meeting with a professor as if I am that professor. I make sure they are specific when communicating the problem (“I need to get my grade up” or “I’m having trouble in the class” doesn’t cut it). I try to persuade them to sit in the ‘T’ or ‘Golden’ zone in class (front row and/or middle column) so they will be sitting where the professor is in a better position to make eye contact during class, something that may make initial contact easier for both the student and the professor.

Though it may come as no surprise (in the age of Facebook and twitter) that young people might need some guidance in the art of face-to-face communication, it came as a huge surprise, to me at least, that they would need help in the online arena, particularly as communication applies to the great and once-powerful use of “electronic mail.” I can’t tell you how many students of mine view email as an antiquated form of communication. The way they talk about checking their university email, you’d think they were standing on the roofs of their dorms waiting for carrier pigeons to arrive. Most students are so used to text speak that they simply don’t know that different rules apply when sending an email to a professor or anyone else who is not a peer. I ask my students, at least at first, write these emails during our meetings. We go over emails for grammar and spelling, obviously, but also for tone and clarity. How many of us have ever sent an email (either professionally or personally) that was received in a way other than we intended? It’s not a mistake you want to make more than once or twice.

In the end, communication basically boils down to knowledge and confidence. Students need to know the rules, however nuanced, regarding effective and respectful communication with professors, administrators, and eventually employers and/or employees. They also need the confidence to walk into a room with a professor and say exactly what they want to say. For my students, some of these lessons are learned across the desk from a success coach.

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.

Helping Students Find Their Niche

Helping Students Find Their Niche

It’s a fact that students who are more engaged with the campus community as a whole are more likely to stay enrolled through graduation. The primary reason for this seems obvious: students who are engaged in more than academics feel a greater social and emotional connection to their schools than those who are not. Some students have to search very little or not at all (in the case of student athletes) to find the club, team, or friend group that will become their social anchor. For these students, becoming involved is simply a matter of knowing what opportunities are out there. Our student center has a one-stop-shop website where students can find a full calendar of happenings on campus, from lectures and seminars that fill their co-curricular requirements to dodge ball games, trivia nights, and movie marathons. In addition we, like most colleges, have numerous religious and cultural clubs, performing groups, volunteer and community service organizations, fraternities and sororities, and professional associations. For the self-starting student, getting involved in extra-curricular activities can be as simple as walking through the door of a meeting.

However, those are not the students who generally walk through my door. Of course, not all students on academic probation or warning suffer from a lack of engagement in campus life. Not surprisingly, many students find themselves in academic hot water because of too much time spent on extra curricular activities and not enough on academics (and for some- “got a girlfriend or boyfriend”- is the name of their primary extra curricular). But for a notable few of my students, a lack of engagement in campus life has been a major contributing factor to their struggle with staying enrolled. Some are homesick, some are socially awkward or painfully shy, while others are experiencing culture shock for cultural or geographical reasons and have yet to find other students to whom they feel they can relate.

The first thing I do in these situations is to ask and inform. I ask about what kinds of things they were involved in back home as well as their current interests. I ask, “what gets you excited?” Once we hit on one or two things, I inform them about some of the opportunities that are available (always letting them know that, hey, if we don’t have it already, you can always start it yourself!). I will also make introductions between one of my students and others on campus who are involved in something in which he or she may be interested. I’ve even gone so far as to pretend to receive an important call in the middle of a meeting so the students can talk on a student-to-student level without me in the room. (For one of my students, a freshman girl who was so shy that she rarely left her room for any reason other than to attend class, I knew that this innocent bit of trickery was the only way I would ever get her to talk to other students on her own.)

In the end, the most important thing I can do for students who feel isolated on campus or who haven’t realized how important and rewarding getting involved can be is to lay out the facts for them. 1) They are more likely to graduate if they not only have a full class schedule but also a full campus life. 2) Many college friends become lifelong friends, and many college activities can lead to lifelong passions and even careers. 3) No matter what anyone tells you, ALL college students are somewhat nervous about putting themselves out there, making new friends, and getting involved; however, while trying new things and meeting new people can be difficult and awkward at first, sooner or later people realize that, without even knowing it, they’ve gotten comfortable, confident, and connected.

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.