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Great Conference…Now What?

Great Conference…Now What?

If you work in Higher Education, it is fairly plausible you have attended a conference (or considered doing so) in the past few weeks. It seems that “conference season” generally happens between the months of September and November. While there are a few outliers in April and others, a vast majority of sessions happen in this time period.

If your anything like me, conferences can be a bit overwhelming. An endless amount of ideas, and practices are shared. Some you hear and think “yes, we could absolutely mimic that on our campus!” Others seem a far cry of what is plausible considering the resources available. So much information can often paralyze us with indecision. Where do I start? How can I even try this?

When arriving to the conference and hearing the different ideas and fellow campus success stories, we get excited about where our team can go with retention, graduation and student success. Stories of how campuses have created and fostered growth, persistence and graduation rates are encouraging. We are re-charged and refocused, heading back to our perspective campuses ready to tackle the next student crisis with a renewed sense of purpose! The weeks that follow conferences are also met with the same road blocks, lack of budgets and students who just don’t seem to share our passion for their success.

I received great direction from a former Vice President of Student Services I once worked for. She simply said, at the end of each day and the conference in general, write down all your thoughts and everything you have learned. Make a list of 10 actionable items, reviewing the list a few times and narrowing that same list down to three initiatives. Once those three items have been identified, bring those items to me (or a supervisor) and we can develop a plan together in an effort to implement those on campus. This was huge. This did 2 things. Provided a plan of attack for the influx of information and prevented me from getting so overwhelmed and simply doing nothing at all!

This process is also true for the students that we serve. Its exciting to talk about graduation and career plans with students. They get excited too, thinking of all the possibilities ahead of them! However, this is quickly followed by all the work that goes into obtaining a degree or certification and that can be overwhelming.

Similar to the coaching my former Vice President gave to me, it’s critical we acknowledge our students go through this same process. Intrusively advising them through the work that is ahead and how to effectively plan and succeed is critical to their persistence. College and all that encompasses the process is exciting, yet overwhelming. However, if a student has a success coach, academic adviser or faculty member who is able to assist them in breaking down the process into manageable milestones, graduation will inherently follow. Accomplishing a test, class, term and year is a huge success in itself for many of our students. Let’s celebrate and appreciate those milestones and prevent them from feeling the overwhelming thought of the journey ahead.

Early Intervention- When Knowing My Name Didn’t Matter.

Early Intervention- When Knowing My Name Didn’t Matter.

This past weekend I ran a ½ marathon. This was not my first and I hope will not be my last as my results were less then desirable. I had made a promise to myself that I would run at least one ½ marathon a year, not because I particularly like race day, but training for these races will keep me in somewhat good-ish shape…I tell myself this anyway. All to say, I had trained for this race and was excited for what was ahead. That morning, came with little anxiety however,  as I did not have a running buddy therefore was relying on a carefully picked play list to carry me through. I had also made the decision not to drive the course before-hand, so as to not psych myself out. This would later prove to be one mistake of many that I would make.

So feeling all the feels, I made my second poor decision. Not wanting to run alone, I decided at the last minute to join a pace group. Pace groups are those that are led by wonderful volunteers to ensure you are running at a specific pace so that you might achieve a certain race time. I chose a group that was running at a faster pace than I have ever run a ½ marathon, not by much (I’m not that crazy), but about 40 seconds faster per mile. This may not seem too bad….but at mile 10, it feels like A LOT.

So fast forward and the race begins. I am doing ok with the pace group. Thoughts of “oh man, this is it? I can totally do this”, race through my head. I quickly make friends with the pacers and fellow racers in the group. We each have different stories and very different physical builds, but all share the same goal.  As the race continued, I started to feel the fatigue of running faster than I had ever trained for. I also learned this particular course had the most/steepest hills of any race the area had to offer. I could feel every single one.  At mile 10, I made the last bad decision that would prove to be detrimental to my race efforts. I over-hydrated. I’ll spare you the details of what comes next. All to say, I quickly found myself far behind the pace group and very alone.  I needed to mentally tough it out. I was not in good shape and quickly loosing spirit. The last 2 miles felt as if I was starting from the beginning. Hill after hill, I decided that in order to survive I needed to take a run/walk approach, walking up the last few hills. The mental games were at an all-time high. Then just at the right moment, one of the pacers that I had run with during the first 10 miles, came back on the course to get me. She stayed by my side encouraging me to keep moving forward. This was amazing. Intervention happened when I felt as if I would rather be carted off the course then take one more step. She came to get me at the perfect time and while I am certain she probably doesn’t even know my name, that doesn’t matter. She provided what I needed most. Not water or time checks but just encouragement.

We are at that time in the school year where our students may be starting to lose their excitement for classes and their collegiate journey. The initial “I got this!” has been met with a few less than perfect test scores. The fatigue of everything happening outside of classes is starting to take its toll. Students thought they knew what going to school would take and prepared for the year, yet life circumstances and possibly a few errors in judgment are starting to catch up with them.

This can be hard, student success is what we care about most, but unlike the volunteer that came back for me, she was encouraging one person, while we are trying to encourage hundreds. Not every student will show the need for early intervention, or encouragement. It may simply look like a skipped class, missed appointment or overall lack of engagement. So how do we even attempt to catch all of these behaviors when our caseloads are overwhelming on their own? Its simple. We cant. Not well, anyway. Early intervention, encouragements and alerts only work if staff is working together. A faculty member can record a missed class or lack of engagement, a success coach can record a missed meeting and a financial aid representative can become aware of financial hardship, but unless all of this information is coming together, it becomes very difficult to fully understand how to best serve our students or intervene before it is too late.

A student’s collegiate experience is a marathon not a sprint. Road blocks come in many forms and it can be hard for a success coach or faculty member to manage each student’s hurdles. Yet when we intervene and offer encouragement or work through solutions with our students at the right time, the results can not only affect our overall retention but can be life-changing for the students that we work with.

Change is Hard but Culture Hurts

Change is Hard but Culture Hurts

It’s July. This month, along with BBQ’s and family trips, can often be a great time for college and university administrators to reflect, regroup and implement changes within campus structures. When addressing the implementation of changes, countless books, webinars and strategies have been developed to help ensure success. While the suggestions leading to success can be different, one thing we do know is change is hard and without a unified effort, any implementation will be sure to fail. While change management is important, one piece that can often be ignored is the campus culture leading up to it.

When thinking about change management, it is critical that college and university administrators remain cognizant of the various intricacies and consider every possible stake holder in their action research. However, even when implementing the smallest of processes, if the campus culture leading up to the transition isn’t healthy, any measure of change management will be very difficult to maintain.

Changing campus culture can hurt. Maintaining a healthy student-centered college or university can bring about challenges. It requires sacrifice, a strong sense of humility and an active presence with faculty and staff.  Consider this… when trying a new work-out or exercise routine, maybe even coming back to one that you had mastered a few years prior, it can leave you a bit sore. What seemed great at first now feels like a self-inflicted wound that simply won’t heal.  Mid-workout thoughts of “Why am I doing this?” or “Am I really paying money to feel like this?” scream through our minds as we count down the minutes until the workout is complete. Change is hard. In an effort to change your current situation, you merely exercise and while it sounds simple, because we all appreciate when A + B = C, there are factors surrounding this simple equation that can muddy the waters.

Now take this into account. What is the culture of your current living situation? Do your family members actively exercise? Is it relatively normal for you to eat out a few times a week but still choose the healthiest options on the menu? Do you work so much that finding the time to go to the gym or even for a walk seems impossible? Have you established a culture that would make it really difficult to ensure a successful change? Change is hard, but culture hurts!

When looking at culture from a campus perspective, this is also vital. From the onset of hiring a new success coach or faculty member, are we ensuring that this person is receptive to the college or university culture we are constructing? This also needs to be paired with a little (really – a lot) of self-reflection. Does our student success team feel like they have a voice? Do success coaches and faculty members feel ownership of our campus and their position? Are they being heard? This is where the “hurt” can really gain momentum. Change is great, tough, imperative and exciting.  Yet if we have not developed a campus culture that is strong enough to withstand the “hard” part of any change, inevitably we hurt student success and retention.

The tone of any campus culture starts with the institution’s administration. While it’s great when a simple equation works, higher education can be one big gray area. With this in mind, we can avoid the “hurt” if we establish a culture that can move through the “hard” part of any change. That is when we are sure to have a pathway to success.

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

I recently spoke with a woman who works as a success coach exclusively for students who are getting their degrees online. We discussed the similarities and differences in our jobs, and I was most intrigued by two ways in which online success coaching is unique.

The first is something I hadn’t thought much about until now, but once we started talking about it, it seemed so obvious. That is the idea that part of an online success coach’s job is to connect students to or provide students with communities of fellow students and educators. This type of community building occurs organically (if not always effortlessly) on campus, as students live, work, and study in the same physical environment. As any of us who has spent time on one, whether as a student or faculty member, knows, college campuses are rich social environments where any variety of clubs and gatherings, both informal and formal, encourage students to get involved and interact with one another. Having a sense of community can make students feel more invested in their experience as well provide support when he or she is feeling frustrated or is struggling. This is why so many weight loss programs encourage us to share our progress with friends- it’s all so much easier when we know we are not alone.

While online students do participate in discussion threads and other class-related group projects, many online students do not explore opportunities (either because there are none or because they do not know how to seek them out) for greater social interaction. This lack of a greater sense of community deprives students of the social, academic, and motivational benefits that the group provides. Online success coaches themselves act as connections to a larger school community, but many go further. The success coach with whom I spoke realized that many of her students were young moms who were trying to get their degrees while simultaneously working and taking care of children, so she started an online support group where they could connect to each other directly. The group was an instant success, and since that time she has started an online group for young men and another for students veterans and military spouses. 

Secondly, the demographic spectrum of students who get their degrees online is much broader than it is for brick and mortar college students. Many of these students, like the moms discussed previously, are older and work full time jobs or take care of families in addition to attending school. While this generally means that these students come to school more mature and responsible than your garden variety 18-year old, scheduling can still be tough. Many of the students who do work are in school precisely because the jobs they have are often “survival jobs,” – relatively low paying and scheduling instability. A student who works as a restaurant server, for example, may think he has time to work on a paper on Thursday only to learn Wednesday night that the shift schedule has been changed and now he has to work. A student raising a child may be just sitting down to study for that midterm when she gets a call from school telling her that her child is sick and needs to be picked up. A student working as a server AND raising a child may have both of those things happen in the same day, and then she’s really got to scramble!

One of an online success coach’s most important jobs can be to help students navigate these scheduling complexities.   Ultimately, all success coaches primary goal is to do whatever they can to help a student achieve his or her goals; online coaches, however, do this job in an ever-growing environment with its own unique challenges. 

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.

Back to School Series: Helping Students Interact with Professionals

Back to School Series: Helping Students Interact with Professionals

A comprehensive education is so much more than just “book learnin’.” Institutions of learning are also training grounds for building social, psychological, and professional life skills. As to the latter, many of us, after years or decades in the professional world, have forgotten that these rules of behavior and decorum are not necessarily innate- these skills need to be learned. And if we as educators and administrators fail to teach students the rules of professionalism, we are neglectfully leaving out a part of their education.

Be punctual, dress appropriately! Don’t walk into the office of someone from whom you need something with earphones in your ears! Pronounce your words clearly when speaking, and in emails, write in full sentences, and use proper punctuation and capitalization (i.e.- no text speak or emojis, please)! Much of this all seems like it would be common sense, right? Well, for some of us, maybe it is. But if we really think about it, that’s almost always because we picked up these lessons early, sometimes unconsciously, from our first role models: our parents and close family members. Perhaps we saw our fathers interact with their work colleagues. (Perhaps they even brought us to work to see for ourselves!) Perhaps we watched our mothers negotiate a deal with confidence and aplomb. Perhaps we grew up with the grandmother who was ever reminding us not to slouch, who, when we’d ask, “can Samantha and me go the mall?” replied, “You mean Samantha and I, dear.”

Many of the students who walk into my office as students in the success coaching program arrive without the benefit of those role models. Perhaps they are the first in their families to go to college and, while parents who lack a college education can certainly raise their children to be confident, articulate, responsible individuals, some may lack the experiences in the professional working world that would model for their children the more nuanced code of conduct. They may also just simply not know how some things work in the university setting itself. How does one untangle the legalese and acronymic language of financial aid forms, for example? Therefore, I make it part of my job as a success coach to help students learn how to behave in a professional setting, even on campus.

Part of the issue that students have when interacting with professionals in environments like the Registrar’s or Financial aid office is that they simply do not know what to request. When students are unable to effectively communicate what they need, both they and those tasked with helping them become frustrated, and problems are left unsolved. So with my students, the first thing we try to do is diagnose the problem. Then, we talk about effective ways to get the help they need from the resources available. In addition to the “nuts and bolts” tips I mentioned earlier, I always convey for my students the importance of coming across with some self-confidence…even if self-confident is the exact opposite of how they actually feel. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, of course, for asking questions is not only NOT a sign of weakness but actually a sign that a person is confident enough to admit what they don’t know, but DO walk into a room like you deserve to be there.

This is not always easy to do. It takes practice, but just as practice doing anything else can make one better at it, more comfortable in those clothes, so to speak, the same applies here. It reminds me of a student I once had who really struggled her first semester in college but by second semester, with guidance from the success coaching program, was doing much better. She was majoring in criminal justice, and that first summer she got an opportunity to work as an intern in a large city police station. When she returned in the fall, we got a chance to chat and the first thing she told me was how glad she was that we had talked about how to act in a professional environment. “I really did the things we talked about!” she reported excitedly, “and it worked! Before I left someone from the department went out of his way to comment on how mature I was!” She laughed, “and you and I both know that I came to school as one of the most immature people you could possibly meet!”

For online students, the age and life experience differential can often mean that they enter programs with a greater understanding of these professional skills. Many have full-time careers already, and for them it’s about remembering that the same knowledge that allows them to succeed at their jobs is entirely transferable here. With these students, it can be helpful to have them refer back to these experiences in the working world, to ask: what’s your work environment like? What are the big dos and don’ts? What are the rules, both explicit and tacit, about turning in work on time, communicating with colleagues and/or superiors?  Chances are, they are very similar to what’s required of them in college.

For me, however, there’s always one piece of advice underlying all others, and that is this: be someone with whom people like to work. Be someone they trust; be someone they can rely on; be someone they are happy to see walk into the office or classroom every day. Focus on that, and much of the rest of the path will illuminate itself from there.

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

 

Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

We’ve had good ones; we’ve had ones who were not so good. We’ve had ones who changed our lives, our career paths, who opened us up to new ideas and ways of thinking; we’ve had others with whom we just tried to get by with a passing grade. We’ve all most likely had a wide spectrum of relationships with our teachers and professors, both in primary school and college, so we know that those relationships can be as rewarding, fraught, and complex as any others. For university students, these are important relationships, even if only because these people hold the power of the grade, and thus it’s important for students to learn how to interact with their professors.

The students I’ve worked with who have had difficulty in this area have had such difficulty for a variety of reasons, but often the power structure that puts professors on a (for some) intimidatingly higher plane than students is at the heart of it. Simply put, students are scared to talk to them. Scared that if they take advantage of office hours or express a need for help, the professor might think they are dumb. Scared to talk to any authority figure, but especially one who has the power to decide the fate of their GPAs. For some, the issue is cultural, which is something we’ve found at our university with international students from a few specific countries. Not all international students face cultural barriers to effective communication with professors at American universities, but some do. In these cultures, the status differential between students and professors is even greater than it is here. These students hold their professors in such high regard that to actually talk to one seems unthinkable, and to really open up to one about having difficulty in the class- totally anathema. Even classroom participation can be restricted by notions that one simply cannot for any reason express a point of view that might conflict with that of the professor.

International students aren’t the only ones who have to develop the skills to build successful student/professor relationships, and the first thing I tell all my students who seem to be having trouble is to remember that their professors are…spoiler alert…actual human beings! They are people too! They are at times happy and sad and energetic and stressed out. They have, at times, blind spots and biases and holes in their own knowledge. And they are almost always not only willing but excited to interact with students who show enough interest in their class to actually talk about it with them outside class time. I tell my students that what they may see as showing weakness (asking for help), their professors almost always interpret as showing interest. It’s a professor’s dream! When I’ve had students who were particularly daunted by the thought of meeting with a professor one-on-one, I’ve actually walked with them to the professor’s office door. The walk there often looks like a scene from Dead Man Walking, but when they emerge? Smiles! Relief! It wasn’t nearly bad as they thought it might be; in fact, the professor turned out to be a real person just like I said he or she would be! Weight lifted, and a bridge crossed forever.

Now, we all know from our own experiences that once in a while you will come in contact with a professor who is not the ideal. Who for whatever reason is NOT open, friendly, or helpful. It’s the other side of the “professors are people too” coin: people are not always at their best. So how should students navigate those relationships? It starts in the same place: remember that this professor is a person just like you. You know how you have a life outside of class, and it’s not always perfect? Well, so do they. Maybe they or someone they love is going through a difficult time. Perhaps he or she is facing the same burnout toward the end of the semester as you. So don’t take it personally because it may not be about you at all! But since you still have to get the grade, figure out what makes this professor tick. Figure out what kind of behavior and work is going to get you the result you desire in this class and do that. (A good place to start is by getting insight from students who’ve had that professor before. If it’s the material in the class that is at issue, find other resources- like peer tutoring- that can help.)  It’s also good training for the real world- sometimes the relationships we have to cultivate and make work are not the ones we would always choose. Sometimes we have co-workers or bosses who are difficult to deal with, so what do we do? We figure out the best way to succeed in an imperfect environment. When students realize this, it’s just another thing that they now see can be applicable to the rest of their lives, and that in and of itself can be a motivator.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how the student/professor relationship is growing and changing with the evolution of online education, and even those who have never taken an online class themselves can probably see both the positive and negatives based on their own experiences with things like social media. Often, online students find the relationships with their professors comes even easier online. Shy students who would never dare speak up in a lecture hall become poets in online discussion threads. Those who may have difficulty approaching a professor face-to-face find it much easier to communicate by email. These relationships can still be as complex and as rewarding as those with professors who are standing in the same classroom as their students, and each year that online education grows will provide us with more information as to how success coaches can help our students make the most of these relationships.

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.