“That class has been cancelled.”
“Your financial aid file is incomplete.”
“You have been no-showed.”
“The deadline has passed.”
“I cannot find my academic adviser.”
Wandering students randomly appear in my office sharing these types of statements, which seemingly threaten to undo them, even those not studying in my division (Social Sciences). Most times a ‘homemade’ sign taped to the top of my computer screen catches my attention from the corner of my eye. It simply reads, “This is somebody’s dream!”
It is a reminder that, for many of these students, simply attending college is the first bold, life-altering goal they have managed to formulate. They dared to dream of furthering their education. Many are first-generation college students, individuals who we universally define as students whose parents are without any postsecondary education experience, having a high school education or lower level of educational attainment.
The sign is also a personal reminder that after having attended six different institutions and earning five degrees, many people took the time to get off the proverbial sofa and turned the light on for me, even in completing my doctoral studies. I am reminded that no one does it alone.
My first week in college – the one I did not receive a degree from – was traumatic. My family literally dropped me off for freshmen orientation week on a Sunday morning and rushed back to my neighboring home state to attend to another important issue. My roommate’s mother, however, stayed with him the entire week to help him pick classes, purchase items for our dorm room and open a checking account.
I struggled in selecting classes, spent hours in financial aid lines and questioned if I had made the right decision to attend college and if that was the right college for me. I further doubted the wisdom of attending one far from home. It was a private institution. From my vantage point, when it came to most of my first-year classmates and my lack of college-readiness support systems and resources, I was an anomaly.
First-generation college students are frequently found in the margins of important collegiate experiences. Instead of being strategically ushered to the center, they often disappear, leaving school completely due to unpleasant experiences, unresponsive offices, as well as inattentive and inadequate support systems on- and off-campus. Navigating the terrain of higher education without built-in support systems can be treacherous. Their first-generation status is often used as a barometer of higher education retention, academic progression and graduation rates. Researchers with robust data mining analytics enthusiastically press the “run” button on them, but rarely see the person, often failing to capture important nuances impeding their success.
My experiences after eleven years in higher education as a professor inform me that far too many are in the margins. This positioning is often due to their lack of knowledge, experiences and exposure – as well as that of their parents and guardians, not lack of ability – in navigating academic and student support systems. As if attending college is not challenging enough, they are often summarily yoked with a plethora of statistics that predicted outcomes for the first-generation students who preceded them. If not handled properly, these predictive analytics may result in further marginalization and diminish their chances for blossoming.
The National Center for Education Statistics notes that first-generation college students are 30 percent of all entering freshmen. Further, the Center indicates that only 11 percent who begin at a community college progress academically to earn a bachelor’s degree. The combination of low-income levels and parents with no education beyond high school are strong variables used as predictors of higher education failure. Academic underpreparedness also results in high representation in remedial and developmental courses upon entering college. Low degree attainment is also noted for new college students needing these support courses.
These troubling statistical outcomes and metrics open the door for the types of miracles that happen across college campuses every day. These marvels are performed by committed individuals who help students succeed despite the odds suggesting that they will fail. We need to be more consistent, intentional and intrusive, and consciously do more to engage students. We must instill a sense of belonging and well-being when they come to us, proactively making them aware of collegiate resources. The following suggestions are not earth-shattering. They are simple reminders that sometimes small gestures can make the greatest impact in our collective efforts to retain more students who progress academically and graduate in a timely manner. We must especially be concerned about first-generation college students attaining theirs dreams.
- Smile and simply ask, “May I help you?” This simple action can be transformative and can easily diffuse meltdowns and potential confrontations that may be brewing. It is also kind, shows basic courtesy and concern, and demonstrates a willingness to help. Many of us on college campuses have been doing what we do for many years in the classroom and support offices. This is the first experience for new students. As the adage goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” Strive to make it a good and lasting one.
- Be a coach and advocate. Listen to what students are saying. Do not be so quick to dismiss them because they ended up in the wrong office. Give informed suggestions on how to resolve their issue. Offer to allow the student to use your office phone to better position yourself to continue coaching. If necessary and appropriate, advocate for the student. Model the appropriate behavior of patience, courtesy and how to ask for clarity and additional information while on the phone.
- Take a walk. If time permits, take a break from your office and escort the student to the correct office. Ask about their academic and professional goals as you walk. Share your less than perfect journey towards earning your first degree. We all have memorable stories, battle scars and challenges that no one else should have to endure if given the proper guidance and support. Do not be bashful. Tell your story.
- Say, “Thank you.” Students need to be reassured that they made the right decision in seeking assistance, even if they are at the wrong office. Thank them for asking for help. Reaffirm that they made the right decision to attend YOUR institution by your deeds and disposition.
Not all teaching and learning is limited to classroom settings. Each interaction with a student outside the classroom often presents itself as a teachable moment. Yes, there is the maxim of not coddling students. There are even statements that go so far as to proclaim, “If I wanted to work with children, I would not be on a college campus!” Intentional, considerate and consistent engagement of students, especially those new the collegiate landscape is a win-win situation. The student feels more at ease and informed. The college representative, faculty, staff or administrator is presented with the opportunity to breathe life into the college’s motto, vision and mission statements.
Working effectively in higher education takes a serious commitment. It is hard, yet rewarding work. Some say it is sacred. We have the potential to not only help shape the lives of our students who are trying to write a new narrative for their family, but also impact generations and the world in a positive and lasting manner.
Finally, I must confess I do not always get it right. I am not always at my best for every student I encounter 100 percent of the time. Sometimes we fail because we are exhausted or quite simply overwhelmed with other mounting and competing priorities. I, however, try to do better the next time. Being on a college campus is my personal and professional dream and is what keeps me centered and closer to that 100 percent most days. Learning, being academically challenged and engaged in a supportive college environment is also the dream of the students we purposefully interact with in our classrooms and those we randomly encounter as they seek help in navigating a totally new world.
Dr. Curtis L. Todd is special assistant for Student Retention, Progression and Graduation at Atlanta Metropolitan State College in Atlanta, GA. He is also professor of social work and an affiliate faculty member in the college’s Criminal Justice and Police Sciences Institute.