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.