Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Key to College Success: Be Prepared for the Worst

I just finished a class lecture/discussion on being a successful college student with my developmental writers. So much of what I do with those students is related to providing them with the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking skills that they will need to get their degrees. But I know, having been an undergraduate student and an instructor for ten years, it is often the things that happen to us outside of the classroom that derail our best efforts.

And I'm not just talking about the simpler choices we make, like going to a party instead of studying. I'm talking about when you have no money and no food. Or if you or someone you care about gets really sick, hurt or depressed. Or if you find yourself with a stalker. Or your professor just isn't really all that helpful and you can't understand your math homework. Sometimes fate steps in and hands you challenges that are stressful, distracting, and can really negatively impact your studies. I assigned my students for homework to make themselves up a list of university, community, and virtual resources to have on hand in case the worst does happen.

Academically, there are any number of resources out there now to help you study and understand your work when you're stuck. I'd like my students to come to me or to use the tutoring service provided by the college, but I also know that at 3 AM, when they finally get around to their work, I'm not available. Go online, find the sites that you think might help, and bookmark them in advance. Some suggestions include, Quick and Dirty Tips, and even Khan Academy on YouTube. Why wait until your panicked and stressed to Google for help; when you get your schedule, take an hour and do some quick research to find websites that might help you at 3 AM when no one else is around. 

Socially, it's a trickier matter. There are almost always support or activity groups for whatever you might need or be interested in. And if there isn't one, you can always start it yourself. I always find that if students have a good support group around them and des-tress in more healthy ways, they will be better students. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding new and different friends, which can be hard. Knowing what is going on at the university and in the community you are in (obviously easier to do in a big city) can be a lifesaver. Read the student and local community newspaper; you'll thank me.

Have the number and address for the on- and off-campus medical facilities. Know what services your school offers and don't be afraid to use them. Also, don't be afraid to get help for a friend. Nothing will ruin a semester more quickly than illness that goes untreated or a depression that goes unrecognized. Ask around; if students consistently complain about the services on-campus, head to the local hospital or clinic. If you don't have health insurance, don't let that stop you. But, plan ahead and see if you qualify for "free" healthcare. Know where their are free support groups run by community organizations or churches. Students are often too afraid, too ashamed, or too broke to get the mental and physical help they need. This can be devastating.

Finally, don't go hungry. Find the local food back or church that does charity work. If you feel dishonest taking food from a food back, make a vow to pay them back when you have money or volunteer for them as thanks. It's really hard to study and do well academically while you are hungry. But also find ways to make your dollar go further. Get all of the coupons you can and always ask if there is a discount for students. Find the "happy hour" when food can be up to half price. Find the sales at the local grocery stores. And learn to cook; once you can make your own food, the costs go down significantly. 

I know about all of these issues because I've lived them. I almost failed French because I didn't get the help I needed. I watched one friend struggle with bi-polar disorder and another with severe depression, both ended up dropping out of school. Our social group did poorly those semesters, too, because we were worried and trying to help take care of them. I ate a jumbo box of instant rice for the last half of another semester that a friend gave me because I was broke. I also know that joining the school paper and getting involved in student government saved me from different stresses because I had a great group of people surrounding and supporting me. If not, I would have left school because of another student stalking me. 

I learned all of this as I went along and thankfully it didn't derail my studies in any significant way. I know that so many of my students, especially those who are in my developmental classes, are already behind the 8-ball, so to speak, when it comes to the probability of getting their college degree. For me, it's not just about the practical academic skills that will help them graduate; it's about equipping them for anything life at university may throw at them, inside or outside of the classroom.


  1. This post is absolutely excellent, Lee. So many things can happen in college, well in life in general, and it's better to be prepared than desperately hoping you'll know what to do when it happens to you.

  2. Thank you for this post. I know I struggle with how much of this type of information to include in my own courses, especially first-year writing courses. Yes, I'm there to teach them to write, but at the same time, I'm often the only faculty member they will form any kind of relationship with their first year because of our relatively small class size. It is important for students to understand the wealth of resources available to them and how to take advantage! Something I certainly wish I had done more of in undergrad.


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