Family Matters


Remember the summer before you went to college? I remember it vividly. In addition to time spent with friends talking about how weird it was that high school was over, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what the next four years would be like. Soon, I would tell myself when to get up and when to go to bed and how late I could stay out. I could eat nothing but cookies if I wanted to! Though I loved my family dearly, I couldn't wait to strike out on my own, to live by my own rules under my own (well, sort of) roof.

But moving away from home for the first time can be as strange and unmooring as it is exciting, and many college students are surprised at how difficult it can be to balance campus life with the tug of home and family. I've worked with more than a few students for whom that tug became a major boulder in their road to success. The reasons why students can sometimes get sidetracked by family issues range from the simple, such as fear of missing out on family events, to complex situations like divorce and domestic abuse.

One of the most difficult things that can happen to any student is to be far from home when a health crisis hits the family. While there have been anecdotes about the student whose grandmother, grandfather, two uncles, a great aunt, dog, and guinea pig all died within the span of his freshman year and all required his leave of absence, it is true that many students enter college at about the age when their grandparents' health really does start to decline. The sense of fear of and/or guilt over "not being there" is even more acute when it's a parent or sibling who falls ill. A few years ago, I worked with a young woman whose mother learned she had cancer at the same time that doctors were trying to save her husband's life following a heart attack. My student, understandably, wanted to go home immediately. She went back for a weekend, after which her parents practically forced her to return to school.

Of course, some events in life are more important than any lecture on macroeconomics, and some students can afford to leave school for a week or more and be just fine, but for those who are already walking a razor's edge between success and failure, these "should I stay or should I go" decisions can carry enormous weight. For example, I worked with a student whose family decided to book a cruise during the week of final exams. I tried to tell him that, as hard as it would be to miss something like that, it was in his best interest not to go on the trip. Unfortunately, there was no one in the world who would have been able to convince him not to go. In the end, he missed all of his finals, and his grades suffered tremendously because of it.

Often, when students struggle due to separation from their families, either because they feel sad that they are missing out on the good stuff or guilty that they are not there to help with or even fix the bad, I try to tap into the root cause of their worries. "Are you worried about your mom, or grandma, or brother?" I ask. They nod. "Well," I say, "the best thing you can do for them is to work hard and do well. If you are not fully invested in your life and studies here, you're just adding to the worries the person you are worried about is experiencing." Put in those terms, students are better able to see how what can feel like abandoning the family is actually contributing to its long term good. That notion alone can assuage some of the guilt these students feel and enable them to re-focus on their goals.

I also know that when a student needs something that I, as a success coach, can't provide, it is my job to connect that student with the resources and people who can. I have referred numerous students to our on-campus counselors- like my student Joseph, who was torn apart by the knowledge that every day he stayed at school was another day his mother's boyfriend was likely abusing her, or Jessie, whose only family consisted of an aunt and uncle who, she felt, were just happy to be rid of the burden of caring for her. Their stories serve as a constant reminder that these boulders are real and can seem intransigent at times, but that my job as a success coach is to try to budge the un-budgeable. To bridge the unbridgeable. To do whatever I can to ensure that one more student has the tools, skills, and resources he or she needs to succeed.

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.