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On Picking Up Speed After Coasting To College

This piece is the fourth in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.

In a recent post in GothamSchools’ Community section, Nikya Medford wrote of her fears of being alone when on her college campus, without the guidance and support she found at home. Nikya is a student that I visit once a month at the State University of New York at Albany, and while Nikya quickly learned that she had much more support that she originally perceived, her fear is a common one among the college students that I work with.

Though there is a great amount of social and academic support to be found on most college campuses, many students have difficulty connecting to those resources. Working with college students across three New York campuses I have noticed that regardless of whether a student lives at home or on campus, rarely are students aware of all the services available to them, or that it is considered their responsibility to access these services.

Of the 19 college students that I work with across three New York campuses, about half are living away from home. In conversations with adults about my work, many are quick to assume that those students living at home have a much easier time transitioning to college than students who live on campus. However, students living at home often have a hard time acknowledging that expectations of their work have changed from what they were in high school and no longer will their teachers grade them based on effort and potential alone. Students who were once at the top of their class but coasted there on teachers who knew them well and knew how smart they were frequently have a very difficult time acknowledging when they are doing poorly; and thus they are less likely to seek help.

A part of my job is helping students acknowledge when and why they are struggling, and then planning for how to help them. I do this in several different ways, but a large part of it is getting students to visit the academic resource centers available on campus. Often, visiting the writing center or the math tutoring center is exhausting for students, as they must not only make time for these visits, but also follow up on the extra work they are asked to do by the center staffs. However, after papers are handed in, or tests are taken, my students have always acknowledged how much this extra step helped their performance. By helping students find academic resources and schedule appointments I can help my students find the help they need; and then by sending them reminders, and checking in after they have seen their tutors, I hold my students accountable for keeping their commitments to their own academic success.

In addition to having designated resource centers, most schools encourage students to visit with their professors. But few 17- or 18-year-olds are eager to take time out of their busy lives to meet with a professor for extra help. While I make it a priority for my students to introduce themselves to their professors and visit office hours more than once a semester, it is rare that a student is easily convinced to complete this task. In high school, students saw their teachers all day – in the halls, in class, at lunch – and an appointment was rarely necessary to discuss a paper or test. When an appointment is necessary, high school teachers are more likely to take the initiative to meet with students who are demonstrating a need for extra help, rather than expect vice versa. Once students enter college, it is easy for them to presume that if a professor wants to discuss something, he or she will let them know.

So when I suggest that my students visit office hours for the first time, I frequently meet resistance, as students are unclear why they should seek out a professor that does not seem to need to speak with them. This perception — that professors will talk to you if they need to, and office hours are only for if you have a question — is an unfortunate one, and something I work to change in my students. Often I suggest having a conversation with professors so that they can get to know each other. From these meetings the student will likely learn more about the class topics from the change in presentation format and the professor will recognize, and likely appreciate, the student’s eagerness to learn more about the topics. It can only improve the student’s class experience. Last semester, as we made finals study plans, I wrote specific office hour visit days in students’ calendars. This encouraged students to meet with professors as part of their finals preparation as well as to push them to begin studying early for finals, so they could have sufficient questions to speak with their professors about.

While it is important for students to be told that they will be successful in college, it is equally important to remind them of the changing academic expectations that will be placed upon them. First-year college students do not frequently have the background knowledge of how to approach professors or seek out academic support services on campus. These skills need to be taught to students before they begin school, and their development encouraged as students progress through college. More often than not, the support services that students need to be successful are available to them — students just need to be given the encouragement and guidance to take advantage of the assistance.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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