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How to help your student succeed in college

Helping your student succeed in college: Balancing challenge and support

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In 1968 Nevitt Sanford published the book, “Where Colleges Fail: A study of Student and Person.” His work was the launching point of a conceptual model that I have long relied upon in thinking about how students transition, grow, and develop while in college. In today’s blog, I want to explain the model and describe how it can be used to help you and your student.

Simply put, Sanford argued that students (and everyone else incidentally) grow and develop when there is some balance between the challenges we face in our life and the supports we draw upon to help us manage them. If the challenges outweigh the supports, we may feel stressed and overwhelmed leading to burnout or shutdown. If supports outweigh challenges, we may feel comfortable but not stretched. On the other hand, if we face challenges outside of our comfort zone, and receive sufficient and helpful support, we are more likely to grow, develop, and expand our capacities and capabilities. Of course this is our goal, so there may be appropriate times to seek support and others to seek challenge.

A couple of observations: First, transitional points in our lives such as losing a job, ending an important relationship, making a geographic move, or…..going away to college tend to be naturally fraught with high levels of challenge. These key touchstone turning points in our lives may lead us into a sense of a loss of control and feelings of uncertainty or even outright panic. In kids, we may call it “homesick;” in adolescents we may call it, “acting out;” and in adults it has been called a, “nervous breakdown.” You get the idea.

Second, while transitional challenges are strikingly evident as they occur, supports often need to be acquired or sought out intentionally.

Finally, navigating these high challenge, transitional times of our lives always takes time. A wise friend of mine used to say, “fake it until you make it.” I think he was talking about the lag between being jettisoned from our comfortable life as knew it into a period of transition and the point when we actually become acclimated to our new circumstances, happy, and capable in terms of the challenges it presents. It just takes time. However, in addition to time, the ability to seek helpful support as needed can make all the difference.

For the student transitioning to college, the most important question relates to how to intentionally seek healthy support until he or she feels “at home” again. In prior blogs I have identified a number of immersive experiences a student can engage in college in order to develop new authentic and supportive relationships (e.g. student organization leadership, social fraternity or sorority membership, participation in athletics, band, theatre, or others) while connecting to their new college. Students can also utilize campus resources by visiting with a counselor, faculty member, or student services staff. Periodic trips home, hosting friends from high school in their dorm, and engaging activities they enjoy can play a role as well.

In terms of your student’s transition to college, you can coach your student on navigating this natural but often challenging process. Normalize it for them – we all go through these times. Assess what you think might be helpful to them. Suggest how they might acquire additional support. Make sure they understand that it will take time – there is no quick answer. Of course, you cannot solve this for them – they must solve it for themselves…with support from others. Welcome to the human condition and thanks for hiking with us today.

Next week I will post our most recent newsletter in lieu of a blog entry. That sets the stage for the lead up to Halloween and the beginning of our series of ghost stories from Ohio’s colleges. Don’t miss it.

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas. Check us out at www.collegeboundadvantage.com .

How to help your student succeed in college: The path to identifying a major

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In my last blog we looked at how carefully designed, immersive, co-curricular experiences can build a strong support system around students that help them succeed. Now we will shift to the academic side of the house and consider how a student’s engagement with their major area of study can also elevate motivation and improve success.

Over the last 20 years, I have served as the academic advisor for over 400 college students. Many of these students worked with me for their entire four-year college career. Over those years I have been able to compile and test some key advising principles that today inform our processes at College Bound Advantage.

First, I have come to appreciate the importance of helping students identify and commit to a major aligned with their interests, strengths, and aspirations as soon as possible. Over the years, I developed a simple process for my “undecided” advisees that begins with exploring the student’s interests, favorite high school courses, academic performance and courses taken to date, strengths, and current thinking about career in order to create a “Map” of potential majors, minors, and careers to explore. We then identify courses and other experiences that can help them discern between options. Families not working with us might consider suggesting that their student request these services from their campus Career Center.

The commonly accepted notion that encourages students to begin college as completely “undecided” and wander around hoping that illumination will follow is, in my opinion, problematic or at least incomplete. In my experience, students find it hard to extract meaning and motivation from such aimless academic drifting and are much better served with a clear plan to explore options aligned with their interests and strengths. Additionally, most students don’t understand major options and need them clearly defined, translated into courses and careers, differentiated from other similar options and organized into a plan of exploration that they can get excited about.

Second, once exploration unfolds and the student identifies a major that they are excited about, another level of planning and exploration becomes possible. It is at this point that students can be encouraged to consider joining student or professional organizations aligned with their major; explore aligned study abroad opportunities; consider internships, coops, or service opportunities related to their major, or join related residential learning communities. These activities clarify choices, deepen commitment, create career pathways, and connect students to others with similar interests.

It has been my experience that once students ascribe meaning and purpose to their academic program, they enjoy increased motivation, improved retention, and strengthen their chances of graduation and success beyond college. The all-to-common alternative is characterized by uncertainty, periodic major changes, lack of motivation, anxiety about the future, reduced retention rates, and employment challenges following graduation.

Of course, even better than beginning this process in college is getting a head start while in high school. High school courses, dual enrollment options, career projects, and college visits can be used to help students accelerate this process and enter college much closer to a potential great-fit major and all the motivating and success-enhancing benefits that go along with it.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, once a student has found a major to get excited about and built their involvements, activities, internships, and career aspirations around it, they learn how powerful the simultaneous alignment of all these factors can be. They also learn that they can do it over and over throughout their life as they, and the world, change. They become more confident, capable of informed risk taking, and motivated. They are also much less likely to settle for careers and involvements that don’t enrich them because they know they can orchestrate change and they know what it feels like to be working toward something they are excited about.

So, if we can coach our students to get involved in one or more immersive co-curricular experiences that will help them solidify a support network and better identify with their college while supporting their journey to find a major that is aligned with their strengths, interests, and capabilities, then…we can sit back and enjoy watching them grow into responsible, happy, healthy adults. Now what’s wrong with that!

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas. Check us out at www.collegeboundadvantage.com .

How to help your student succeed in college: Beyond Frog Camp

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In my last blog, we looked at the Frog Camp Experience at Texas Christian University (TCU). The program is designed to help students learn about TCU while deeply connecting with each other, several student leaders, and a member of the faculty or staff. The result is a substantial bump in first to second year retention and clear anecdotal evidence that students are motivated to succeed when they are intentionally connected to their college and a small, cohesive group of others.

Unfortunately, while programs like Frog Camp are strong in Texas (e.g. Fish Camp at Texas A&M, Mustang Corral at SMU, etc.) they have not migrated to Ohio colleges with the sole exception of “Camp Blue” at the University of Dayton. So, what are the options for students in their first year at other Ohio colleges?

First, let’s define the aspects of Frog Camp that provide the magic. In order for these benefits to accrue to students, the program or organization should provide the following: (1) an intentional and ongoing engagement with a small group of peer students, student leaders, and at least one member of the faculty or staff; (2) a set of designed, shared experiences that foster the development of authentic relationships and group cohesion; and (3) an experience that will help students identify with the college through its history, activities, and traditions. The result is that each student will have a strong, diverse, and capable support group and a deep identification with the college.

So, what are the options? If you and your student attended your college’s orientation, you had a first hand opportunity to observe a group of students who have been through such an experience – your orientation student advisors. They were housed together, trained together, educated on all aspects of their college, connected to faculty and staff, and provided opportunities to serve their community – they have the magic. But what about the new student orientees? Unfortunately just attending orientation does not satisfy the above criteria so, while it may have been a helpful experience, it was not a “Frog Camp.”

Well, enough of that. Let’s cut to the chase. Here are some ideas of the types of experiences I am talking about:

  1. Residential Learning Communities (see prior blog on this topic)
  2. Residential Advisors (RAs) – these residence hall advisors are trained and supported just like our orientation advisors
  3. Social Fraternities and Sororities
  4. Immersive leadership development programs that meet the criteria
  5. Optional pre-college trips, excursions, service projects, etc. that satisfy the criteria. Some colleges offer backpacking trips or assign groups to Habitat for Humanity Homes, or offer other travels together.
  6. Immersive Study Abroad trips that are designed in such a way as to meet the criteria
  7. Athletic teams (varsity or club sport) that meet the criteria. Some coaches who intentionally tend to culture can make these exceptional experiences…others…not so much. Intramural sports do not, in and of themselves, satisfy the criteria.
  8. Any student organization in which the student takes on a sigificant leadership role. Membership and involvement helps, but doesn’t necessarily meet the criteria.

So, encourage (and coach) your student to identify and engage possible “Frog Camp” experiences at their college. You will know when your student has completed a “Frog Camp Experience.” They will be happy, engaged, connected, empowered, motivated…..and wouldn’t dream of leaving until they walk across the stage with their friends and accept a diploma from the college they love.

Next time, we will look at the academic side of the house and how an equally powerful motivating force can emerge there.

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas. Check us out at www.collegeboundadvantage.com .

How to help your student succeed in college: The secret I learned from Frog Camp

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I began my professional career in higher education at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Ft. Worth, Texas. The first project I worked on was the development of an incoming student retreat program that we ultimately named, “Frog Camp” (TCU’s mascot is the Horned Frog). The camp was a four-day, three-night retreat to a nearby camp. At the camp, students were grouped into “Frog Groups” of ten-twelve students and partnered with a member of TCU’s staff or faculty and two upper-class student leaders. Over the days ahead, students went through low and high element challenge courses together, learned about TCU’s history, traditions, and spirit, shared their hopes, challenges, and dreams with each other, and generally had a great time together. By the time they returned to TCU, they had a close group of friends, a strong connection with at least one member of the faculty or staff, a connection to two upper class student leaders, and an emerging identity as a “Horned Frog.” Frankly, we were surprised by the enthusiasm and energy accruing to the program and even more surprised by its impact on retention. In its fourth year, participation in Frog Camp was second only to fraternity/sorority life in its impact on whether students returned to TCU for their second year.

Consider this: at TCU, students involved in a fraternity or sorority had a first to second year retention of nearly 92%. Students attending Frog Camp and in a fraternity or sorority were retained at a rate of 94%. Students only attending Frog Camp were retained at 90% and students who did neither were retained at a rate of 68%. These results are compelling and suggest that students stay in college and graduate when they wouldn’t dare to leave college because their experience, friends, and involvements have become so important to them.

In my opinion, colleges all over the United States spend thousands asking departing students why they are leaving. While these students may be able to offer reasons, I believe that they are, in most cases, leaving because nothing happened to them while they were there that made it unthinkable that they would ever leave.

My Frog Camp experience has forever colored my thinking about retention and it illustrates the immediate importance of helping your student identify and execute means to get involved and connected as quickly as possible through immersive experiences that connect them to others and their college.

Join us next time as we look a little more deeply at the profound impact of campus involvement on student success and identify some options to help your student get connected.

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas.

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