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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.

Deficiencies in Student Preparedness for College Coursework

Deficiencies in Student Preparedness for College Coursework

In my experience, the main deficiencies in student preparedness for college coursework include:

A) inadequate knowledge in core areas

B) little experience in proactive learning (i.e. not just following directions but taking initiative and forging one’s own educational path)

C) misguided expectations.

Many colleges and universities do a great deal to help students with the first two of these issues, but what about the third? And what do I mean when I refer to students’ “misguided expectations”? Well, take my student Samantha. Sam came to me second semester her freshman year after a dismal fall. Before we met, I looked at her high school transcript and found she had made A’s and B’s all four years. She was a model student, so why had she fallen so far in one semester of college? When we met, I realized that while I was surprised by Sam’s poor showing, Sam herself was stunned. “I don’t understand?!” she kept saying, “I did everything just like I did in high school!”

Aha! After a little digging, it became apparent that Sam had done very little rigorous work in order to earn above a C in most of the high school classes. “Attendance counted for 30% of my grade,” she said proudly, “and I never missed a day.” So I started asking Sam more specific questions. How many hours of reading and writing homework did she have in any given week? How much did her teachers grade her on exams, papers, and long-term projects and how much on worksheets, open-note quizzes, and participation? In her academic classes, were A’s and B’s difficult to come by or given out pretty freely to those who at least put some thought into the assignment and turned it in on time?

Sam’s answers to my questions were simultaneously depressing and illuminating. It made me want to shake the entire education system by its shoulders, shouting “this is not working!” It also, however, really cracked the nut of why Sam had done so poorly. She had worked moderately hard in high school in order to meet expectations, and so her experience-based conclusion seemed sound at the time she entered college. “I will work moderately hard at a moderately difficult task,” she told herself, “and I will get a good grade.” Until her seemingly sound expectation was met with a different reality…

I wanted to know more about the rigor (or lack thereof) of coursework for high school students in 2013, so I called my daughter. My daughter lives in one of the largest cities in America and has taught students in public, private, and charter schools, from the most underfunded to the most well-off, and everything in between. I asked her: in her experience, how much do “college prep” tracks really prepare students for college?

The short answer, she told me, is that it varies tremendously but that there are clear ways in which some schools get it right and others get it wrong. The schools in which students seem the least prepared, according to my daughter, are those in which time is heavily structured for them, most assignments are short-term, there is a lack of emphasis on assignments that involve writing, and grading is inconsistent (i.e.- students are either unclear on what is expected of them in order to receive a particular grade, or they find that grading does not always match up with expectations, leading them to believe that this is just another thing outside of their control). The best schools, she said, are structured more like college, or at least become more so in the students’ junior and senior years. These schools turn over a lot of the responsibility for scheduling and time management to students, expect them to complete both short and long-term assignments, many of which involve writing five to twenty pages, and grade students in a tough but consistent, fair manner.

Now we, as success coaches, cannot turn all mediocre high schools into excellent ones, but we can talk to our students more right at the beginning of their college careers about expectations. Had Samantha understood right away that she would have to work much harder than ever before to make the same grades, she might have avoided academic warning. Most students want to be pushed and challenged. Most want to be given an opportunity to show that they can achieve. Once we fully understand how high the bar has been raised, almost all of us want to prove to the world as well as ourselves that we can reach it.

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.





Student Coaching in College Produces Better Retention and Graduation Rates

Student Coaching in College Produces Better Retention and Graduation Rates

In March of 2011, researchers at Stanford released a study titled, The Effects of Student Coaching in College: An Evaluation of a Randomized Experiment in Student Mentoring.  After much study, authors Eric Bettinger and Rachel Baker concluded that, according to Bettinger, “coaching not only works, but it appears to be one of the more cost effective ways to produce better retention and graduation rates.”   According to the study, students who were coached were 10-15% more likely to graduate than those who were not, and these numbers were seen across all age and gender demographics  (though the researchers found some evidence that the effect was greater for males than for females, a result which tells me that success coaching could do something to remedy the current disparity between male and female rates of college completion).

The study was a quantitative affirmation of the work in which my colleagues and I have been engaged for years, but more than being pleased that what I have come to know anecdotally has been affirmed by science, I am intrigued by the questions the study leaves unanswered. The study confirms that success coaching proved effective in the sample of students studied, but it acknowledges that there are still questions as to why. Likewise, while the study confirms that coaching can be both effective for students and cost-effective, it is hopeful that more research will be done to identify specific characteristics of coaches, types of services, and strategies that work best.

I am intrigued by these questions because they are the questions my colleagues and I discuss frequently. And just as I hope researchers continue to investigate which specific traits and practices make success coaching so effective, my colleagues and I will continue to utilize our first-hand knowledge to contribute to the conversation. For example, yesterday I finally received the results of the success coach survey we administer to our students at the end of each semester. For me, the most informative part of these surveys is always the part where students give feedback in their own words. Often, a majority of the comments echo the same themes. Students say their success coaches enable them to stay or get back “on track” by helping them plan, organize, and manage time. They appreciate our ability to help them with not only academic but also social/personal issues. They like having someone to whom they must be accountable who they also respect, trust, and feel a personal bond. Here are a few excerpts from this semester’s evaluations:

“My coach really took an interest in me even though I was not having a good semester. She was always very supportive and inviting, willing to help me with whatever I needed. I went through a rough patch this semester and she was one of two people I felt I could talk to without being judged.”

“My coach is a great person, and he did not only help me with school, but with personal issues. That, more than anything, is what kept me focused.”

“I concentrate more when I have a success coach.”

“My coach really helped me to become a student as opposed to just going to class.”

“My coach was like my mom. She treated me as her son, which gave me motivation to do my work.”

“I would like to thank my coach for his care and the time that he gave to me to succeed in my education. I learned not only how to organize my education, but I learned how to organize my life in total.”

What traits in these success coaches made them better at their jobs? Empathy? Tenacity? An ability to wear multiple hats at the same time? Simply the time and resources that a full-time success coach has as opposed to a part-time student or faculty advisor? I have my suspicions that all of these things are crucial traits for a successful coach, but I’m also happy that colleges and universities are now studying and giving credit to programs like ours as we work day-by-day to change the futures of one or six or several hundred students at a time.

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.

Leveraging the Benefits of the Tutorial Center

Leveraging the Benefits of the Tutorial Center

Most, if not all, institutions of higher learning have some kind of tutorial center where students can get help specifically in English, writing, and mathematics, but services may extend to cover science, technology, foreign language, law, or other difficult subject matter. Online institutions have tutors available also.  These vast differences really bring to mind two key questions.  How does the general student population use these services and as success coaches, how can we better motivate at-risk or academically high risk students to utilize the services that are already in existence on college campuses across the nation?  I asked one of our graduate assistants in the Tiffin University Student Success Center for her thoughts on the subject.

The first thing that college students need to understand about tutorial centers is that there is nothing wrong with seeking additional help for concepts, assignments, or papers.  The purpose of higher education is to challenge our thoughts and expectations, so it is realistic to assume that we will not always immediately understand the new ideas, theories, or models placed before us.  Offering peer mentoring can alleviate the concern of feeling overwhelmed or unworthy because the perception is that peers will traditionally have more empathy than someone who has been out of college for some time.  As success coaches, we know and understand that perceptions are not always reality and we have found that students appreciate help from numerous sources. The imagined stigma can often be minimized or eliminated by publicizing the services heavily on campus, all faculty encouraging students to frequent the tutorial center, and also by offering a wide variety of services that don’t always force students into a one-on-one situation.

Most students can feel defensive or self-conscious if they feel like they’ve been singled out.   Offering group tutoring sessions in one subject can be an effective way to encourage communication between students while still featuring a peer mentor or tutor.  Even group study sessions (like open study hours in one classroom) that are not focused in one subject can foster a sense of camaraderie if questions are encouraged by the tutor.  The Tiffin University SSC hosted several sessions like these and received good feedback from the students in attendance, especially those who were required to complete so many hours of supervised study for sports, extracurricular activities, or due to academic probation.

It all boils down to a few different factors.  How easy is it for students to make an appointment or get help with their questions?  How convenient are the times or hours for sponsored study sessions?  How effective are peer tutors when they haven’t completed their own degrees?  If students feel inconvenienced at all in making an appointment, chances are that they will not take the time and effort to do so.  Each tutorial center should offer several different methods for scheduling appointments, such as email, phone, or walk-in, but should also have a wide variety of hours throughout the entire day and include time on the weekends.  Tutor training is vital in making sure that tutors are capable of answering any questions that are posed to them during tutoring sessions.  Being familiar with the subject material is often not enough; tutors need to be able to break down the theories and ideas in several different ways to ensure that comprehension is maximized. Every student will learn in his or her own way, so it is important that the tutor can offer several different teaching styles.

Tutors should also be placed in positions to share knowledge about subjects that they are passionate about. A student is far more likely to learn from someone who is excited about, or enjoys talking about, say- forensic psychology, law, statistics, or research.  Here at Tiffin University, we had seven of our graduating tutors receive an Excellence in Field of Study (which is awarded to the top candidate in each major of the graduating class).  It is also important that tutors continue to train throughout their time at the tutorial center.  Training sessions covering teamwork, teaching, or even specific software programs or issues should be offered at least once or twice a month in order to be most effective.  Students who utilize the tutorial center should also be asked for feedback to see how and where improvements could be made.

As success coaches, we strongly encourage our students to make use of the services provided at our SSC.  We have students call to set up appointments while they are meeting with us and we are able to follow up with a call to the center to see if the student showed up for the appointment, how the appointment went, and also get basic feedback about the student’s performance.  We continually search for new and better strategies to encourage and entice students to use the many resources already in place on college campuses.  Basically, we need to know how to get them 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.

Standing Guard at the Edge of the Cliff

Standing Guard at the Edge of the Cliff

I may have mentioned in previous blogs that one task I want to complete this summer is that of scanning every high school transcript and scrutinizing ACT or SAT scores for all of our incoming freshman.  I want to see if there are red flags that might indicate a student’s need for a Success Coach before that individual enters the first class.  Is there a particular subject that constantly shows low achievement?  Are grades fine in ninth grade but slide downward until the end of senior year, or vice versa? Are grades or scores all over the place?  How is the student’s attendance record for every year of high school?  Did the student try AP courses or do the minimum needed to apply for college?

I know this task is easier with 400 new freshmen than with 4,000, but perhaps it is information that our success coach program needs to help new students avoid a scary first semester GPA.  Having a low GPA first semester is just too close to the cliff.  If we could assign a coach to a freshman student who has one, two or more red flags, for one-on-one meetings twice a week, could we help that student start off strong academically and get into a pattern of good time management and study habits?  First semester freshman year retention rate is something every institution strives to increase.  It is critical for graduation rates.

About three years ago during fall freshman orientation, I was asked to speak to parents about our student success program.  At the end of my talk, a couple came up to tell me that their daughter would most definitely benefit from having a success coach.  She was an excellent softball player and had applied to college basically to continue playing her sport.  During her high school years she had done only the minimum amount of work necessary to apply to play sports in college.  Her motivation for achieving academically was low.  She had no idea what she wanted to do in life and no desire to think about it.

I explained to the parents that we only assign coaches to students who are already on academic warning or probation and that we had many resources for all freshmen including a semester of classes with other freshmen about adjustment to college and the rigor of college academics.  The mother seemed satisfied with my answer but the father said to me quietly as he walked away. “You’ll see my daughter second semester.”  He was exactly right.  I was assigned this young lady for spring semester and saw in our first meeting her lack of motivation for college studies.  Her interest in taking more math and English, history and science after having just taken those same classes in high school was nil.

All of our professional degrees have a strong underpinning in the liberal arts.  These courses are prerequisites for upper level courses.  A typical freshman takes math, English, sociology, psychology, etc. along with an introductory class in a field of their choice during their first year.  My student (Miss A) needed a jolt or coursework in something that she had never studied before.  She needed a class to be excited about and happy to be attending each week.  So after getting permission from several deans, the registrar and other people in authority on campus, we changed Miss A’s schedule to include not one but three introductory classes in three different fields of study leading to professional degrees, with the stipulation that she take two core knowledge classes during the summer.

I definitely saw a tiny spark in Miss A’s eyes as we changed her schedule and quickly enrolled her in the new classes.  That spark continued to grow into a small fire and then a blaze in tow subjects as the semester progressed.  She got off academic warning that spring, did well in summer school, and long story short, will graduate next May.  She wants to be a Federal Marshall.  She and I text now and then to talk by phone but when I see her now, it is usually on the softball field – her true passion.

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.

Online Education and Online Success Coaching

Online Education and Online Success Coaching

Over the last ten years, online education has become an integral part of the higher education landscape. While there are unique benefits to an on-campus college experience, online education has opened the doors of higher education to millions of people worldwide who might otherwise, for one reason or another, have been unable to earn college a degree.

Earlier this week I met with a group of success coaches who work with online students to compare and contrast our jobs as well as to share strategies and advice. There are, of course, many similarities. First of all, we all share a universal goal: to help students successfully navigate the college landscape in order to achieve their goals. It is just as important, if not more so, for an online success coach as it is for an on-campus coach to establish a good rapport with students as well as a bond of trust that can facilitate open and honest communication between a student and his or her coach. I also discovered that online coaches teach many of the same skills time and time again as we do- skills ranging from time management and studying techniques to tenacity and perseverance.

Some of the major differences between on-campus and online success coaching are, of course, logistical. While I primarily meet with my students in person, most online coaches communicate exclusively through the use of technology (email, phone, Skype). While my biweekly sessions last thirty minutes each, the amount of contact these online coaches have with their students varies. I learned from our discussions that one of the first things online success coaches ask their students is, “how often would you like me to contact you?” The coaches I spoke with are required to contact their students by email or phone twice a week, but many students, it turns out, desire more. One coach told me that she had a student who requested that her coach contact her every day at the beginning. The coach obliged, and the two communicated at least once a day for four months before the student decided she felt she was doing well enough to reduce to twice a week.

Logistical differences between the jobs of online and on-campus coaches are in many ways about numbers. Because the number of students a typical on-campus coach can work with at any given time is limited by the number of thirty minute blocs in a day, my university currently only provides success coaches for students on either academic probation or academic warning. However, the school at which these coaches worked assigns each incoming student a success coach with whom they work for the duration of their enrollment. That means that, while I may have six to nine students at any given time, the average online coach’s caseload can be more like 125.  The thought of working with that many students at the same time seemed almost Herculean to me, but I was amazed at the way these coaches used state-of-the-art software programs to help them keep track of each student effectively.

This software enables coaches to keep up with students’ grades, know which assignments a student has or has not turned in, and whether that student has logged-in to class or participated in a threaded discussion. It tells a coach if a student needs to register for next semester or if he or she is on financial hold. It even allows professors to contact coaches directly about their students. Another difference is the average age of our respective students. The average age of an on-campus student at my university is twenty, but the average age of an online student is thirty-four. Many of these students are attending college while simultaneously working full-time jobs, raising children, or both.

While the mentorship part of my job sometimes involves trying to get an immature 19-year old to see that sleeping through class and then copying the notes from a classmate is not going to fly, online success coaches have many more conversations about how to juggle school and a full-time, off-line life. They have more conversations with older students who might be apprehensive about attending school in this unfamiliar format…or about going back to school at all after years away. They have all kinds of questions about getting a college education hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their professors or closest classmate, and their success coach is their number one source for answers.

As I talked more and more with success coaches from the online world, I became almost envious of their seeming ability to bend space and time. While all of the success coaches with which I spoke are based in the midwest, the students they serve are literally all over the country. I learned that these coaches often work from early morning, when their east coast students are beginning their days, to late at night when their west coast students are getting to that discussion thread after a long day at the office or having just put the kids to bed. However, these success coach ninjas did discuss some unique challenges to the job. For example, I know (as do my students because I don’t let them forget) that I have multiple ways to contact them. If a student who is supposed to meet me doesn’t show, I can not only call, text, or email him but also I can contact all my other resources (professors, coaches, student affairs) in order to locate him and then physically walk over. (And as I tell my students: “I won’t be trying to embarrass you in front of your friends/girlfriend/roommate but…”)

Online success coaches do not have this luxury, so it becomes even more important, as one of the coaches said during our meeting to “forge a real-life bond in a virtual world.” This task requires more art than science, as online success coaches must forge this bond without the benefit of face to face contact. As anyone who has sent a text or email with one intended tone only to have had it interpreted completely differently can attest, it turns out that facial cues and body language do more heavy lifting in the communication department than many of us previously thought. That’s why online coaches have to be even more clear and precise in their tone of voice on a phone call or in the language they choose to use in an email. “That’s why,” according to one coach with whom I spoke, “we try even harder to communicate things in a positive way and to focus on solutions.”

Ultimately, as I said at the beginning of this blog, there are more similarities than differences in the work that on-campus and online success coaches do. At the end of the day we are facilitators, cheerleaders, mentors, and trail guides. But as online education expands its reach as well as its influence on the higher education landscape, we will need more and more good coaches to ensure that these students are just as successful in achieving their goals as all the rest.

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.

How To Help Students Find Their Place On Campus

How To Help Students Find Their Place On Campus

Last week’s blog about first generation college students got me thinking about something that affects all college students regardless of age, socioeconomic status, or previous life experience, and that’s connectivity. We know that students who participate in college athletics, student organizations, and/or social groups are more likely to stay enrolled through graduation than those who do not. This is partially because students know that they must maintain good grades in order to participate in many on-campus activities, but it’s also because students who feel connected, who feel like they really “belong,” are almost always happier than students who don’t, and happy people are, on the whole, harder working and more productive than unhappy ones.

While a lack of connectedness is rarely the primary boulder in a student’s road to success, it can exacerbate those more fundamental problems. For example, a student might be struggling academically due to a learning disability or lack of skills in a certain area, but if that student has something else going on at school that is exciting and meaningful to him or her, he or she is more likely to push though the tough stuff and persevere. However, if that same student is less invested in life on campus because of a lack of either friends or extra-curricular activities, it becomes easier and, at times, more tempting to cut his or her losses, pack up the t-shirt sheets, and go.

This can become especially problematic when a student’s academic status prohibits him or her from participating in the very thing that might bring him or her that sense of belonging. For example, this past fall I began working with a freshman named Lauren. Although she was in school on a music scholarship and had been recruited for our most elite singing ensemble, she entered school on academic probation and was therefore unable to participate during her first semester. Lauren already felt like a stranger in a strange land, intimidated by her coursework and desperately homesick. Singing was the one thing that made her feel successful; not just her confidence but her very sense of self was inextricably linked with singing and being a part of a performing group, and it was the one thing she was not allowed to do. During our first few sessions, Lauren told me outright that she didn’t think she would make it. While she knew that if she managed to get off of academic probation, she would be singing her heart out in only a few months, next semester seemed like a lifetime away. For Lauren, I knew that I needed to do two things at once- get her to see both the forest AND just the tiniest baby sapling right in front of her. Over the next few weeks, Lauren and I talked some about the big picture, about how every moment she spent slogging through difficult homework, every hour she spent studying for a test, brought her one more moment, one more hour, closer to the day she would be back on stage. However, most of our conversations involved the here and now- the very here and now. For, as we all have experienced at some point, “it gets better” advice only goes so far. People tell us, “you’ll eventually get over this career disappointment, illness, loneliness, divorce….” and we think, “Yes, but I feel bad NOW. I feel lonely NOW. I feel lost NOW.” So with Lauren, I would remind her, “you don’t have to make it through the week; you just have to make it through the day- or even the hour.” And hour by hour, day by day, she made it through. Two weeks ago, I went to a concert given by a few of our small ensembles. Lauren was the star of the show. I mean, it was a complete movie moment- there was Lauren standing center stage, smiling from ear to ear after having finished a solo, while the crowd was on its feet- stomping and cheering.

While some students know that they want to participate in sports or music and just need the motivation to get back on track, others don’t know where to begin. One thing I have found is a direct correlation between how much time students spend on campus and how connected they feel. It can become a chicken and egg argument at times- is this student going home every weekend because they feel disconnected and isolated, or do they feel more disconnected and isolated because they’re going home every weekend? Therefore, with students who are struggling to find their place in the crowd, I recommend that they double down rather than pull back. I inform them of groups they may not know exist, put them in touch with people with whom they have common interests and, as always, make sure that they know that there is always one person on campus who very much cares.

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.

Talkin’ About First Generation…Boulders in the Road

Talkin’ About First Generation…Boulders in the Road

A few weeks ago, I came across an article by Jason DeParle of the New York Times ‘For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall‘ that chronicles the struggles, both on campus and off, of three low-income students vying to be the first ones in their families to earn a college degree. Since roughly 60% of the college students enrolled at my university are first generation college students, the stories of these three young people echoed tales that I have heard over and over again throughout my tenure as a success coach. With such a high percentage of first generation students at my university, I have, of course, seen many students who have been able to overcome the obstacles that this status confers upon them, but I’ve also seen students fall victim to the myriad pressures and challenges of being the first person in a family to attend college.

How can we better understand the unique challenges faced by these students? And what can we, as success coaches, do to ensure the retention and graduation of first generation students? It’s important to understand that first generation college students experience challenges both off campus and on. Off campus challenges can at times seem paradoxical. Some students struggle with the pressure of having families and even whole communities who are behind them 100%, cheering them on, praying for their success. But this support can be so much more complicated than a “go get ‘em tiger” slap on the back. A student who is the first in his or her family to attend college has, in effect, become “the chosen one.” The one who will “make it” and then bring everyone else along. Thus, these students feel like they have a duty to succeed, not just for themselves but for the whole family. They become responsible for lifting up all the loved ones in their lives who were not given this special opportunity. They become like Atlas, and what would Atlas do if and when those who are working so hard to give him this opportunity discover that he is faltering, or failing English 101?

However, while some students feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, others struggle from the lack of support from family and community. I’ve had multiple students tell me of going home for a weekend only to face taunts of, “oh, here comes college boy! You think you’re better than me just because you go to college?!” And some students face both a surfeit and a lack of support simultaneously! A few years ago, I worked with a student named Devon. Devon was a first generation college student from a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. After we had met a few times, he began to open up to me about his family. “My mom and my aunt,” he said, “are so supportive. They want me to be the one to succeed so much.” At this point Devon’s GPA was abysmal, and as we talked about ways to improve academically he added, “but my dad doesn’t think I should go to college at all. He says that I’m not better than he is, and he never went to college. He tells me I am going to fail anyway, so I might as well start saving now to pay back my loans.”

Regardless of how much or little support they get at home, first generation students can sometimes experience feelings of guilt that they are in college at all. They worry that they are abandoning their families or inadvertently losing a connection to their communities. All college freshman enter school hoping to be changed and bettered in some way by the experience, but many first generation students fear that change as much as they desire it. And when they arechanged, as we all are by new experiences, they can, at times, feel caught between two worlds.

First generation college students also face on-campus challenges. For one, there are the nuts and bolts of navigating the terrain that all new students face. How do I register? What in the world do all of these terms mean on my financial aid form? How do I apply for extra grants or loans? Can I resell this $200 textbook I needed for exactly ten weeks of my life? However, unlike students whose siblings or parents have walked this road before, first gen-ers A) have no one back home to advise them and B) sometimes don’t know that these questions are confusing and intimidating for every new student, so they keep mum, try to “fit in,” and don’t ask the questions to which they most need answers.

Thus, one of the biggest services mentors like success coaches can provide is to be an open forum for questions and uncertainty. It is so important for these students, much like it is for international students and veterans, to feel like they have someone to talk to, whether that’s a coach, an RA, a success coach, or even an older student who has been in their situation before, who they trust. With my first generation students, I help them navigate financial aid forms, the registration process, and work study options. I inform them about tutoring programs and other resources. I give them information on ways to connect to the campus at large through clubs and organizations, since we know that a sense that one has found one’s place in the campus community is perhaps the single best predictor of whether or not a student will stay enrolled. But more than anything, I try to provide them with a support system, a home away from home. I make sure they know that no question is too “dumb,” and no issue to seemingly insignificant to discuss.

America’s greatest asset has always been its people- its dreamers, its adventurers, its pioneers.  For many first generation college students, stepping foot on a college campus for the first time is no different from disembarking off a gangplank at Ellis Island, or catching a first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from the back of a conestoga wagon. It is the moment when one realizes that, while a seemingly impossible dream has been realized, the real journey has only just begun.

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 the Four Year Plan

Creating the Four Year Plan

It’s registration time again, and while much of the registration process is about the prosaic- the nuts and bolts of dates, times, and requirements- over the last few days I’ve found myself waxing existential. Registration, at its core, is about students building the road, brick by Macroeconomics 210 brick, that will lead them into the bigger, scarier forest of “the real world” and career. Yes, they will strive to build careers that will provide for them financially, but as we all know, what we chose to do in life affects so much more than how many dollars are in our bank accounts. It affects how we engage with the world, the language we use, the philosophies we claim and discard, how many sunrises we see. “What we do” becomes an inextricable part of “who we are” whether we like it or not. (If you don’t believe me, eavesdrop on the conversation at any dinner party and count how many times the question “what do you do?” is asked between new acquaintances.)

Because of this, I help all my students create a four year plan. Some students enter college with a clear idea of what they want to do in life and what field of study they would like to pursue, and for these, the primary benefit of the four year plan is that it provides a sense of scope and perspective, like seeing the box top of a jigsaw puzzle on which the finished image is revealed before diving in to a sea of strange, unconnected pieces. With these students, we can usually create a comprehensive four year plan during their first semester, and barring a change of direction, they can use it as a roadmap all the way through their senior years. Other students, however, come to college having little to no idea what they want to do, and for these the conversation can span a couple of years. First, I always remind my students who have yet to declare a major that they have time.

Freshman year is mainly about fulfilling core requirements as well as exploring introductory courses in fields of study that might appeal to them, so I encourage students to take courses that will serve them regardless of the major they eventually choose. However, at some point students do have to declare, at which time I start to dig a little deeper. I ask them to start by thinking about their skills, likes, and dislikes in the abstract. If you had the choice, do you prefer to be indoors or outdoors? Do you like your daily or weekly schedule to be pretty structured, or do you prefer to manage your own time? Do you thrive on routine, or do you need new and varied challenges in order to stay interested? If you had to do a puzzle in the newspaper, would you choose the crossword or the soduku?  Do you like being part of a group or working solo? When you think about the show The Office do you think, A) “I’d hate to work in that office,”  B) “I’d love to work in that office,” C) “I’d love to be in/work on the set of the television show The Office,” or D) “I’d love to have so much money that I never had to work and could spend all my days in my massive mansion watching re-runs of The Office”?

As with all students, even those for whom the path seems straight and clear, I remind them of the fundamental truth that, no matter what they choose now, no choice is irreversible. In fact, I had a student just last semester who is a perfect example of how a change in major can have a huge impact on a student’s academic success. Brad didn’t come to me until midway through his sophomore fall semester, and he was not doing well, particularly in a course on business finance. I looked at Brad’s high school as well as his college grades and quickly discovered that nearly all of his poor grades were in classes that involved math. Okay, I thought, math is just not Brad’s strong suit. Soon after Brad came to me, it was time for him to register for his next semester, and before we talked about specifics, I asked him a few questions. “So why did you choose business as a major?” I asked.  After a few moments of deer-in-headlights blank staring, his face furrowed. “Well,” he began slowly. “A bunch of my friends were choosing business, and I don’t really know yet what I want to do, so I figured that would be as good as anything.” I assured him that he was very much not alone in his uncertainty, and then I walked him through what the next three years as a business major would look like. Sophomore year = math. Junior year = math. Senior year = math math math. “Now,” I said. “Having looked at these classes, thinking about your strengths as well as where your interests lie, is this something you want to do?”  The answer was no. “Well,” I continued, “then I think you might be happier and more successful if you changed your major.” Brad’s eyes got big. “You can do that?!” he exclaimed. Yup. That was a year ago, and now Brad is doing well as a criminal justice major. His grades have improved significantly, and he is actually interested in his classes.

I also remind students who struggle with choosing a major that many people end up doing something in life that has absolutely nothing to do with their college majors, or who change careers throughout their lives. I think about a friend from college who majored in theatre and was an absolute tour de force as an actor but who is now a veterinarian- or of one of my high school classmates who spent twenty years as a nurse before going to law school and eventually becoming a judge. Life is an adventure, I have learned, and you never know what kind of opportunities may come along. Therefore, the most important thing is that you learn how to learn, so that when those opportunities arise, you can say “yes” with confidence, competence, and curiosity.

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.

Faces of a Success Coach: The Boxing Trainer

Faces of a Success Coach: The Boxing Trainer

Beyond knowing that Muhammad Ali “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” and having watched most of the Rocky films (life is just to short to spend two hours on Rocky V), I don’t know a lot about boxing. Even so, there’s something about the idea of the boxing trainer as someone who’s always in your corner that just rings true to me as a success coach. Today was one of those days where it rang out loud and clear.

The day, however, didn’t begin with a revelation; it began with a trio of soccer players and Death of a Salesman. You see, Ian, my first student of the day and a member of the soccer team, hadn’t read it. Which isn’t necessarily a big deal. Lots of people haven’t read Death of a Salesman. In fact, I predict that the majority of humans on the planet haven’t read Death of a Salesman, and the world keeps on spinning on its axis. Reading Death of a Salesman is not necessary for living a successful and happy life unless, of course, you register, of your own volition, for a course in which you are required to read…you guessed it…Death of A Salesman. And it turns out that Ian had registered for just such a course! What are the odds!

When Ian revealed to me that he still hadn’t read the play, weeks after it was assigned, I played the athletic coach card. “Okay, so do you want to head to the library right now to read or do you want me to call Max to tell him that you can’t go to practice today?” I asked. Ian knows that Max and I are a united front when it comes to academics AND that no practice today basically means no playing time this weekend. Ian headed to the library. The next student to walk in my door was another soccer player named Kenny who, as it turns out, also needed a verbal refresher on the Riot Act of 2013. As Kenny left and my third soccer player, Deke, walked in the door, Kenny gave him a look that said, “man, I wouldn’t want to be you right now.”

It was not even lunchtime, and already I was feeling exhausted, frustrated, and annoyed. “Why can’t these guys just get their acts together?!” I wondered. “Are these meetings with me even useful for them?”

In other words, I was not in the zen-like, open-hearted mindset in which I’d like to have been, even after a walk across campus to the music building where, in addition to success coaching I also teach piano lessons,  when my mid-day piano student arrived ten minutes late. This wasn’t the first time that Calista was late, and just as I heard the door open and was preparing my, “this isn’t gonna fly anymore,” speech, Calista entered in the middle of an apology. But before she got very far, she halted in mid-syllable and burst into tears. Calista comes to me for piano, but she also works with another one of our success coaches for academic purposes, and after a conversation about feeling overwhelmed and underwater, I asked her if she felt her success coach was helping. “Oh yes!” she said. “Since I’ve been working with him, I’ve been doing much better but…” “But?” I asked. “But…he always seems so busy,” she said. I asked her to elaborate. Other students were constantly knocking on his door during their meetings, she said. (Her coach works part time in student affairs.) She felt like he was doing five other things in his head while he was talking to her. She wasn’t resentful, but she clearly didn’t feel like her success coach’s focus was completely on her during their sessions. In response, she had instinctively backed off, loosened the bond of trust that connected them. She simply no longer felt that, after an exhausting round of boxing her way through a day or week of college life, she could count on her success coach to be there, in her corner, with a bottle of water and her best interest at heart.

I spoke with her coach, a new addition to our team who was very glad to get the feedback. She had been doing so much better, he had reasoned, that she didn’t need as much help from him anymore. Furthermore, he realized that his current office set-up was not as conducive to success coaching as he would have liked, and he decided to move his meetings with Calista to a quieter area of campus.

But the thing that struck me most of all while speaking to Calista was how much those 30 minutes twice a week meant to her. Recently, she has been dealing with multiple deaths in her family and financial as well as academic concerns. Sure, she is doing better academically, but that is partially because the time with her success coach has been so valuable. Sometimes, at success coach meetings, we have thrown around the idea of meeting only once a week with our students who are getting As and Bs at midterm, but this conversation with Calista made me realize that the feeling of missing that 30 minutes twice a week -where someone was completely focused on her- made her anxious, made her more likely to fall back into the old habits that got her on academic probation, made her more likely to go back to thinking, “nobody cares about me, so it doesn’t matter if I fail or not.”

I thought again about Ian, Kenny, and Deke. I remembered a conversation Ian and I had had on a previous occasion about why he was here and what he really wanted. “That’s the first time anybody has asked me that,” he remarked thoughtfully. I remembered how Kenny and Deke had joked about how I must be psychic, since I’d texted them both for results of a test literally a minute after the professor had returned the tests. I could tell by the way they told the story that they liked knowing that I would ask. They liked being accountable to someone and knowing that that someone was always going to be in their corner. Ian, Kenny, and Deke will eventually get it and be able take the ball and run with it themselves, but right now they need someone to help them see the long game. They need someone to be accountable to. But mostly, they need to know that, after an exhausting round of boxing their way through a day or week of college life, they can count on their success coaches to be there, in their corner, with a bottle of water and their best interests at heart.

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.