Getting the support you need in college

Last month I went up to Minnesota for a two-day site visit with College Possible Minnesota, an organization that provides college admissions coaching and assistance to low-income, first-generation high school students. (There are also C.P. programs in Chicago, Omaha, Portland, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee.) One thing I didn't realize is that College Possible also provides coaching to their students through college as well! They have four coaches placed in some of the local colleges where a lot of their students attend, and they also have 22 coaches who use phones, email, and social media to continue supporting their students. I emailed my contact at C.P. to ask how long they provide support. Four years after high school graduation? Six years? His response is impressive: "As long as a student is enrolled in college, we will support them for however many years it takes them to graduate.  So, we would definitely support a student for six years after high school and even longer if necessary.  If a student un-enrolls, we will continue to support them...for six consecutive semesters, then they become deactivated in our system.  That said, if an un-enrolled student re-enrolls, their timeline resets."

More and more high school programs are focused on getting students through college, not just to college. About 10 years ago, some of the major charter school networks made college graduation a goal.  Posse has been around since the late 1980s. College Possible has been doing their thing since 2000. What wisdom can you gain from these success-through-college programs even if you're not a part of them?

The first, most basic thing to do is understand that failure is normal. Plan for it. People fail classes or withdraw from them because they're not successful. People take a semester off. People transfer to another school. People change their major. People graduate in five or six years instead of four. These are all quite normal things. So before you even begin college, work to understand what, for you, constitutes small failures and big failures. If you go in with the expectation that everything is going to run smoothly,  you're setting yourself up for disaster. Understand that there are going to be failures and have plans for rebounding from failure. Who do you have to help you? Who can you go to if you find yourself in really big trouble? 

You know how lots of applications ask about a time you failed? This is why. It's not that they want to shame or humble you, and it's not that they only want people who can tell a good sob story. They understand that short-term failures are a part of long-term academic success, and so they know that people who have already figured out strategies for dealing with failure are more likely to be successful.

There are things you can plan to do now, even if you don't have a coach or institutional support:

Have a mentor. Put this on your to-do list for your first semester of college. It may take longer, but that's fine. Just keep yourself actively looking for a person with more experience who can help you deal with setbacks. Your college or department may assign you an official mentor. Sometimes this works, and if so that's fantastic. In my career I have been on both ends of a bad mentor-mentee assignment, so I'm kind of jaded. If you get an official mentor who really is a mentor, great. If not, find someone. It might be an older student, a professor, a family friend, a staff member, or a professional linked to the school. You need someone you can talk to about your successes and failures who can give good advice. Emotional support and empathy are also helpful, but with a mentor I mean someone who can give good, practical advice. As you grow and move on, you'll find new and different mentors. But do everything you can to always have someone you consider a mentor.

Locate and visit all the support offices. By the first day of class your first semester, you should know exactly where to find the financial aid office, campus counseling services, career services, and your faculty advisor. Not only that, but you should visit them all, if only just to introduce yourself and see what they have to offer. Don't wait until there's a problem to figure out where to get help. If meeting people from the different service offices, or hearing a presentation from them, is part of your Orientation but doesn't include physically going to their office, then physically go to their office before the first day of class. 

The main task of the college coaches at College Possible is to encourage and help the students take advantage of the services on campus. If you don't have a coach who will do this, then you have to do it yourself. It's usually not too hard, but the sooner you familiarize yourself the better.

Talk to your family. It's likely that nobody knows your strengths and weaknesses better than your family. Ask them what support they'll expect you to need. Ask them for advice finding a mentor. Ask them what their expectations are and what you can expect if you don't meet them. Ask them what they consider small, manageable failures and what they consider catastrophes. Ask them how they plan to help, and let them know what your hopes are.

Sometimes all you need is a little nudge. I had a friend who told the story of how she went from struggling in college to being a success. Like a lot of people, she found herself more interested in the social aspects of college--so many parties!--and her fall semester grades were not very good. One day early in the spring semester of her first year, her phone rang at 4 am. Of course, she hadn't gone to bed yet. When she answered it, she heard her father's voice: "I just saw your grades from last semester. You can get these kinds of sorry grades living at home and going to the local school." And he hung up, end of discussion. In that short, one-sided conversation, my friend understood that her parents were willing to help pay for her to go off to college if she worked hard. They were not interested in paying for her to go party. And she definitely wasn't interested in moving back home and going to the local community college. So she got her act together and improved her grades immediately. She still had fun, but she balanced it with being a good student. It would be better for you to have that talk with your family now than at four in the morning when you're not expecting it.

Make sure that you and your parents understand that for most people, the best indicator of your college grades are your high school grades. If they--or you--are expecting a much higher G.P.A. than you've ever had before, then understand that's probably going to take a lot of planning, work, and support. It takes more than just a change of scenery. Likewise, if you find yourself with much lower grades, then that usually indicates some sort of problem that needs attention. It's not just that things are harder but fine.

However you go about it, you need two things: someone who cares about your success, and someone who can help you when you're not reaching it. Those two things may be embodied in one person, or it may take the proverbial village. It doesn't matter. What matters is that you recognize now, before it's too late, that you can't do this alone and plan for that truth.

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