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The Importance of Normalizing the College Experience

The EvoLLLution | The Importance of Normalizing the College Experience
By compassionately working with students, higher education institutions can help move their students along the pathway to success.

I work regularly with students who are new to college and often coming from backgrounds that put them at risk for dropping out. My goal is to help them thrive in college and earn their degrees. To do so, I try to help them normalize their college experiences, so they understand they’re not alone, that everyone struggles and that they can be successful.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a student who was feeling incredibly overwhelmed due to a lot of very real personal issues in addition to being a student for the first time in 10 years. After more conversation, I discovered she was a first-generation college student, too.

She shared that she was beginning to think she wasn’t college material and that the people in her life were right in telling her that. All of this was brought on because she was struggling to pass one class out of four, while being a single mom of a child with severe disabilities, the owner of a broken-down car she needed to get to class and having financial issues.

I took the opportunity to normalize her feelings of being overwhelmed with school, particularly with all that was going on with her. I told her I would be amazed if she wasn’t struggling to pass a class with everything going on in her life, and that I was amazed she was doing so well in three of her four classes. Her coach and I were able to share about a couple of failed classes of our own (gasp!). The audible change in the way she talked about her feelings after that was remarkable. She was genuinely surprised to hear that college graduates in professional careers had once faced their own challenges in school.

I shared with her an example I often use when talking to a student who sees “failure” as proof they don’t belong in college: when she was learning to walk and talk, was she a failure every time she fell over or couldn’t say a word perfectly? She said her son, who is nearly fully blind, is just learning to walk and she would never call him a failure; he’s just learning. I asked if she could look at herself the same way: that she is just learning the ropes in college. In fact, like her son, she may just fall over a bit more often because of all the additional challenges she is facing. This does not mean she can’t learn. She just needs to be patient and realistic. We also discussed the incredible strengths she brings to our school from her challenging life — and how those same strengths could be applied to college.

At the end of the conversation, I asked her to get out a piece of paper and write down what she was taking away from our talk. She wrote: “The same strengths that have helped me survive — ambition, drive and dedication to my son — will help me with school” and, “It’s normal to fall down when you are trying something new — it’s called learning.” She shared that she was leaving the conversation feeling like she could continue with her program and would not be so quick to call herself a failure in the future.

There are times I forget how important it is to check in with students on what they perceive to be the “normal” college experience and how that compares to what they’re experiencing. Many times, it’s so very different, and that difference can lead them to feel they don’t belong and cause them to drop out of school.

Greg Walton, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has done research on normalizing students’ college experiences. In 2011, he and a colleague, Geoffrey Cohen, published a paper in Science demonstrating that even one intervention in normalizing the challenges of the college experience can have long-term impact on a student’s success.

From 2001-08, Walton and Cohen gathered a cohort of students at an elite private college to read the results of an ostensible survey about college freshman who had experienced feelings of not belonging when they began college, but who felt like they fit in by the time they graduated. The focus was on the idea that anxieties are normal and short-lived. Participants then took on the role of advisor to future college freshman, writing stories and creating videos about their own challenges when beginning college. They also completed daily surveys for a week following the intervention.

After three years of college, intervention participants performed better academically than the students in the control group, demonstrating that students can benefit from hearing the message that it’s normal to have a hard time at the beginning of college and that things will get better.

As success coaches, we are in a prime position to provide that opportunity, speaking compassionately and from a breadth of experience. I believe helping students understand they’re not the only ones struggling and that they do have the right to earn a college degree can go a long way toward helping them graduate. Walton’s body of research makes it clear that normalizing students’ experiences helps them become more successful and improves their overall wellness, too. We coaches have the rare opportunity to help make that happen.

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