For many college and university students looking toward the fall, questions left unanswered and swirling concerns about the year ahead have stamped the first semester of the new academic year with a question mark.
While schools grapple with options such as hybrid courses, in-person (yet socially distanced) classes and more, we caught up with Rita Snyder Furr, assistant director of ADVANCE Operations at George Mason University.
The ADVANCE program is specific to transfer students from Northern Virginia Community College to George Mason University, but the circumstances and concerns being brought up by the program’s students are reflective of what many are coping with, both on a local and national scale.
From a college success coach’s perspective, here’s what Furr is seeing in here daily communications with students, as well as her advice on reaching out to college counselors and advisers, and how both students and parents can stay hopeful at this time. Highlights from our conversation are below.
First, what is a college success coach and what is its importance in higher education?
The term ‘success coach’ may be defined differently between colleges and universities, but for the ADVANCE Partnership between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University (Mason), the success coach serves myriad student-centered functions. At the heart of this is a holistic focus on creating personalized educational and professional plans with students while offering support, guidance and access to institutional resources, which help students advance their short-term and long-term goals. In other words, the success coach role is one that seeks to move beyond providing transactional student services to one that purposefully seeks to integrate academic planning and non-academic support into meaningful and sustained interactions with students from their admission into the ADVANCE Program until the day they walk at Mason commencement to receive their bachelor’s degree (of course, with the earning of their associate’s degree at NOVA in the middle of this educational journey). It is important to note that the ADVANCE Success Coaching Team works in collaboration with NOVA front-line academic advising and counseling staff to support student success.
When the pandemic began, what kind of questions and comments were you hearing from concerned students, and how did you all adapt to the circumstances?
The collective uncertainty we all felt when the COVID-19 pandemic began was reflected in the questions and comments that we were receiving from concerned students. These questions ranged from, “I am scared. This is my first experience with online learning. How do I continue to be successful now that my in-person courses have abruptly shifted into an online setting?” to, “My partner has recently lost their job as a result of the pandemic and I can no longer afford to attend and/or focus on my studies. Without this financial support, I am seriously considering dropping out of college altogether. What are my options?” And helping students navigate uncertainties becomes increasingly different from a distance. Therefore, we had to think critically about how we were holding space for students, meeting them where they are at and not creating additional social distancing in our approaches to serving them that did not compound on the physical and emotional isolation they may already have been experiencing.
In other words, thinking about how we are engaging with students, having multiple accessibility points to hold student interactions, being up-to-date on how institutional plans (e.g. semester schedules and course delivery), resources and support (e.g. how students are able to access counseling and psychological services despite a university closure) were shifting as a result of COVID-19, as well as new opportunities, like special COVID-19 grants to financially help students with their own unforeseen circumstances, that also became important in helping the ADVANCE team shift and adapt to meet the needs of our growing student population.
What have you seen to be some of the biggest concerns of students, and how do you go about keeping them calm and giving them clear ways to handle their circumstances?
Being academically successful in a predominately or exclusively online setting is one of the biggest concerns students are currently expressing, however we also have students experiencing various forms of insecurity (housing and/or food) as well as mental health concerns from experiencing stress, anxiety and depression as that has either been brought on or worsened as a result of the global pandemic. Knowing your student population and their material circumstances is key because this allows advisers and success coaches to be equipped to have these conversations with students and to keep them clear about their options and the path they need to be on, especially when this conversation is pursued through a coaching framework and the student has dedicated time and space to articulate their needs and create their own action plan with a supportive coach who is also able to help the student identify and leverage institutional resources to stay on track. And in doing this, it is imperative for an adviser or a success coach to establish a safe and inclusive space where students not only feel heard, but experience an ethic of care, which allows the student to keep calm and engaged.
Are you getting a lot of questions about how school will look next year?
Yes, absolutely. While we gain more information regarding how both NOVA and Mason will implement their mixed formats of in-person and virtual instruction for fall 2020, many students have been asking questions focused on academic planning and whether or not specific courses are a good “fit” for them in an online format when considering their specific learning styles or life circumstances. This is where our ADVANCE success coaching team has really been able to shine. Expressly, their role as the student’s primary point of contact throughout their college experience coupled with their training in coaching methodologies, our success coaches are able to leverage their rapport with a given student to provide personalized answers to these questions while offering additional resources at both institutions to address certain student needs during these uncertain times.
How are you all keeping students hopeful at this time, even though the circumstances are tough and often changing day by day?
Again, we have found that communication and expressing genuine care for our students has been key in keeping them hopeful during the current circumstances. While we are required for good reasons to physically distance, we have found that maintaining continued contact with our students and being mindful of not creating additional social distancing in our practices is keeping students hopeful and engaged. A safe and inclusive space where students not only feel heard, but experience an ethic of care is key. Also, giving the students space to problem solve and leveraging resources and encouragement is also keeping us all hopeful as it is showing us collectively the resiliency we have as individuals and as a learning community despite the circumstances.
Why is it important for college students to reach out to their advisers or success coaches in times like this, but also just when they need help in their educational journey?
It is important for college students to reach out to their advisers or success coaches, especially during the global COVID-19 pandemic for two reasons. First, higher education and student affairs research shows that if students have one quality and supportive relationship with a faculty or staff member on their college campus, they are more likely to be academically successful, persist and graduate with their credential. This level of student rapport becomes even more critical during times of uncertainty and when students are facing very real challenges such as job loss or housing and food insecurities and/or mental health stressors due to the aforementioned insecurities. The sudden shift from on-campus engagement and in-person instruction to fully online student services and coursework, and social distancing mandates in their personal lives are also factors. This makes continuity of communication with their institution and those who support them academically even more imperative in order for them to feel connected as together we attempt to create a “new normal.” We believe that reaching out and establishing that connection is even more important to keeping students engaged and enrolled, especially at this time.
Second, it is important for college students to reach out to their adviser or success coach because this individual is often their primary gateway to student-success resources. The ADVANCE Program allows students to have a number of unique benefits that they otherwise would not have access to at NOVA or as non-ADVANCE Mason-bound transfer students. ADVANCE equals access, so in addition to a number of great resources at NOVA, ADVANCE students can access student health services, counseling and psychological services, learning services, the Patriot Pantry and other resources offered at Mason. It is important to note that with most of the ADVANCE Team having spent a significant time in our respective careers dedicated to serving community college students, the insecurities or “unique” circumstances such as being an adult leaner, a student parent, juggling full-time employment with full-time academics or any of the other seemingly “nontraditional” circumstances that current students are now facing are not only the norm, but championed within open-access, two-year institutional contexts, so we thrive on working with student populations grappling with “real-world” issues and connecting them to much-needed resources in an effort to help them in their educational endeavors. With that said, these resources can be a real gamechanger for students, especially facing new or worsened hardships as a result of the global pandemic. Suddenly, resources that some students would not necessarily need are now available to them, as well as additional opportunities, such as student emergency assistance funding. Again, these resources would not be accessible to them at both institutions if they were not a part of the ADVANCE Program.
What has been keeping you all hopeful during this time?
The resiliency of our students and knowing that we are helping to support our community during an uncertain time and because of this, we will collectively come out stronger.
For students who might be worried about the upcoming year and have lots of questions, what is your advice for them remaining calm and navigating the upcoming months?
Feeling worried about the upcoming academic year and having lots of questions is a completely normal reaction given we are all navigating uncertain circumstances. However, instead of being reactive, I strongly encourage students and their supporters to be proactive and to explore academic options and seek answers to questions as soon as possible. Failure to speak with an adviser, a success coach or a representative at your chosen college or university of interest as soon as possible will only lead to greater uncertainty. There are a lot of options and resources available to aid in student success, even during a global pandemic. During this time where things feel out of our control, empowering yourself with information regarding your academic options or questions is ultimately in your hands. Take some uncertainty out of the equation and connect with a faculty or staff member at your chosen institution as soon as possible. Knowledge is power and you will be happy you did so sooner rather than later.
For parents, is there anything else they should know about concerns college students may have, any ways they can help or when/how to reach out to a school’s success coach or adviser?
I encourage supporters [of current or rising students] to be engaged, but to allow the student to take the wheel and drive the vehicle. Higher education is not only an investment in their future, but an important developmental opportunity to foster skills such as self-advocacy, autonomy and a sense of identity and purpose. It is important for supporters to be engaged in the process, but to allow the student to claim the process for themselves.
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