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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.

The truth that dare not speak it’s name – Failure

The truth that dare not speak it’s name – Failure

Most of my time as a success coach is spent trying (and blogging about trying) to take a student who has found him or herself in academic trouble and help turn the situation around. It’s about fixing- finding out what works. But what happens when nothing is working? What happens when the problem does not get fixed? We talk a good game about the necessity of failure, just as in the dead of a polar vortex we cling to aphorisms reminding us that without winter there would be no spring, but when it comes down to it, we hate hate hate the polar vortex, and failure…well, it’s just a big, ugly, dirty word.

While the graduation rates for students in the success coaching program at my university is only going up, every year we have students who end up being dismissed from the university. Some come back and graduate, as was the case with a former student of mine whose journey to a bachelor’s degree lasted a bumpy six years, but whose smile as he walked across the stage to receive his diploma was even larger because of it. Some leave and enroll elsewhere. Others seemingly drop off the map.

So why do these students fail, and when they do, how do we help them figure out what’s next? Most of my students who have been dismissed or have left the university are those who just never get their acts together. Most of them really want a degree, but they don’t really know why or can’t see what it’s going to do for them. Some of these students never quite grasp that college isn’t high school or, more accurately, a video game. In college, you can’t just restart every time you fall off the cloud into the river of alligators. After a certain number of falls, you’re alligator lunch. That’s what happened this past year with Paul, a student of mine who almost never went to class, did not turn in work, and then went on a cruise with his family two weeks before exams. When he returned, he asked his professor if she could give him the dates he’d missed while sunning himself in the Caribbean. “Was it so he could make up the work?” she asked. No, he replied, it was so that he could retroactively get a doctor’s note saying he’d been sick those days. And yes, this really is a true story.

For students like Paul, there’s not much else to do but give some tough love. Once they’re in a room with no doors but the exit, these students almost always realize that they’re primarily responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. Sometimes the darkness of failure itself illuminates for them both the opportunity they’ve just squandered as well as the way to turn it around. Sometimes, they still need a little outside illumination. This is when we talk about hard truths. “You can mess up for awhile, and indeed messing up is part of the process” I begin, “but at some point, the opportunity goes away, and you will find yourself regretting its loss.”

I’ve had other students, however, who ended up dropping out or being dismissed when the primary boulder in the road was not motivation at all but lack of ability. This is another discussion educators have trouble with, but it happens nonetheless. In particular, I remember a freshman I once had who was failing every class a few weeks into the term. Once we started talking about his classes, it became instantly clear that he simply could not do the work. He said as much, his professors said as much, and it was obvious that this lack of ability even to comprehend his textbooks was making him miserable. So we had a conversation about other options. I broached the subject carefully, as I knew that Sean was the first in his family to go to college and therefore was under a lot of pressure to stay and succeed. I asked him how he felt about life on campus, and then I asked him what he would do if he wasn’t here. What did he like to do? What was he passionate about? He said that he loved cars. What about going to school to become a high-level mechanic, I asked? His eyes lit up immediately, and for the next fifteen minutes he told me more than I ever wanted to know about cars. A month later, after some difficulties convincing his mother that this was the right choice, I called Sean to check in. He had started training as a mechanic at a vocational school near his home, and he was loving it. “I am doing so well here, I really love it, AND I already have a job!” he exclaimed.

Sometimes you have to know when the student is telling you, “this is not working.” When that happens, it’s not necessarily a failure on the coach’s part (though both failure and polar vortexes are necessary sometimes!); it just means that the next part of the job is opening that student up to greater truths and possibilities.

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.