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.