As I continue to await the final grades for my students to come in, I have been thinking more and more about the specific challenges success coaches face and the particular roles we take on towards the end of the fall semester. Even outside the realm of academia, this season can bring on challenges to productivity and motivation, (let's see…I could get a bunch of work done today, or eat another Christmas cookie and get some online shopping done from my desk….hmmm…), but especially for college students, many of whom may have spent their first weekend home all semester at the Thanksgiving table, this final stretch can be an uphill battle. Students get a taste of home and are eager to return. This mental shift is only exacerbated by the myriad holiday events- from concerts to parties to decorations- that spring up all around campus. This is the time when I am talking, calling, texting, cajoling, cheering on my students 24/7 in an effort to prevent them from losing the momentum they've built throughout the fall.
Then, it's time to become the mentor. It is in this period that we celebrate small victories, like when Allison made a 98% on her last sociology paper, her best grade in college to date. I remind students how hard they have worked- how they made it through a class they didn't particularly like or will likely move from academic probation to academic warning, or off academic probation entirely. Even something like taking a 1.0 GPA to a 2.0 can be a huge victory. But mentorship is not all cheerleading; it's also about teaching life lessons and helping these new adults learn how to deal with reality.
At the beginning of each semester, I always ask my students what GPA they would like to have by semester's end based on a realistic assessment of their courses and current GPA. We then make plans based on this goal (some of which need to be adjusted after mid-term), and go from there. However, since the majority of graded assignments, like big projects and exams, occur in the second half of the semester, this is the time when we really have to look at the numbers and figure out exactly what needs to happen in these last few weeks in order for a student to accomplish his or her desired GPA. If it looks like a student is going to make a D in one class, I explain that, in order to get off of probation, he's got to make a B in this other class to offset the D. We go through best and worst case scenarios, and it almost always comforts students when I explain to them that fully understanding the worst case scenario means that any result better than that with which they came in will be a net positive.
But what if the worst case scenario actually happens? This is when my role as "success coach as mentor" is perhaps the most difficult, but also the most crucial.
Dylan is a student in our program who is most likely going to be dismissed after grades come in. Throughout the first half of the semester, he told his success coach that all his classes were going well and he was doing everything he was supposed to do, while in reality he was attending only two of his classes regularly while putting in appearances at the other three exactly once. In the classes he was actually attending he was making an A and a B respectively, but he was failing the classes in which he'd been MIA since Day 2. His success coach and I took a look at college transcript and noticed that this was a pattern. One semester he would do well and the next he would tank. Wash, rinse, and repeat. When presented with reality, he continued to lie, going so far as to tell a professor to her face that he'd been attending her class when she knew for a fact he hadn't. For this student, the best case scenario may just be this dismissal if, as I hope, the experience shakes him up and makes him realize that the way he's been doing things is not going to work anymore.
One of my current students, Chelsea, has the opposite problem. Chelsea works harder than almost any student I've seen walk through my door, but college level work is extremely difficult for her. She badly wants to succeed, but her ability in core academic subjects such as reading and math are simply very low. As a mentor, I have been trying to help Chelsea think about the big picture of her life. Would it help her to attend community college for a couple of years, do some remedial work, and then try again at a 4-year institution? Is there a career path in which she is interested that might not require a 4-year degree? I know that, while I would love for Chelsea to graduate from my university, in the end it's her whole life that she's got to think about, and the best thing that I can do is to steer her in a direction that gives her every possible chance to succeed.
I have mentioned previously that, while most of my students are freshmen and sophomores, I have a few students who keep coming to me throughout their college years regardless of their academic status. I have found that, in these cases, it is usually my role as mentor that keeps them coming back. I think about the conversations I have been having recently with one of my seniors, a football player named Thomas. While Thomas is going through many of the uncertainties brought on by senior year and that scary first look into the future, he is also coming to terms with the end of his football career. Football has been such a part of his life- part of his identity- for almost his entire life, and though there is a small chance that he might be drafted into the NFL, in all likelihood he has played his last game. Over these last few weeks, Thomas and I have spent a lot of time talking about how, while this feels like an end- and while it is an end in some regards- it's really the beginning of a whole new chapter in his life.
It is in conversations like these that I know unequivocally what my favorite role as a success coach is; it is as a mentor. It is when I get to step out of the trees with a student and help him or her look at the forest- at the whole, complicated, mysterious, frustrating, beautiful life they have in front of them- that I really love my job.
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.