Q&A with Senior Student Support Specialist Justin Tate
If you're an online learner, it's great to know you can always turn to someone who’s been in your shoes, understands how challenging it can be — and knows you can succeed. Senior Student Support Specialist Justin Tate earned his own graduate degrees online. Now, drawing on that life-changing experience, he counsels other online graduate students on how to stick with the program, balance its demands, and make the most of the experience.
What led you to become a coach?
I grew up in a family where college was expected. There was never any doubt whether I would be getting a degree after high school. Unfortunately, when I got to the university, I realized my study habits weren’t as good as I thought. The workload was way more intense than I expected. It took me two years, and a few dropped classes, before I understood myself: how I learned, and how I needed to balance life, work, and education.
By junior year, I was doing great. I even started working at the university Writing Center where I tutored other students on developing their essays. That’s where I first realized I enjoyed helping learners like me — those who had what it took to succeed, but needed to find their own strategy to get there.
What do you enjoy most about coaching students?
College is tough, especially if you're a working adult with many competing priorities. For me, grad school was an entirely different challenge from undergrad. In the long gap between, I developed professional skills and a greater sense of purpose in my life, but I also had more commitments beyond even a full-time job. My priorities and energy levels had changed so much it was like starting over. Again, it took a while to find a strategy that worked.
It’s rewarding to support students through their challenges in class and in life, because I know how tempting it can be to give up. If I didn’t have someone to talk to — or people in my life who understood what I was feeling — it’s very possible I would have dropped out. My goal is to be that person you can call any time, who understands what it’s like, and can guide you through the difficult times.
What is it like to work with a student from enrollment to graduation, and to watch them succeed academically?
The path to graduation does not always run smooth. It’s great to maintain that relationship all the way through, because you have a greater understanding of individual situations and what approaches might work best on a personal level. I tend to get emotional every time a student graduates, because I know what it took for them to get there.
What characteristics or skills do you need to coach adult learners well?
Start by understanding that every adult learner is different. They have a wide variety of priorities, obligations, and challenges. The only way to understand the obstacles they may face is to take time to listen to what’s going on in their world. Once you build that relationship, it’s easier to offer support that is relevant to their unique situation.
What are some of the main concerns students share, and how do you help them overcome those concerns?
The most common concern is fear about how to find time for higher education. Adult learners balance a lot of big priorities. At first it can seem impossible to find time for them all. Helping them process each class, shift strategies, or find their own unique study style isn’t easy, but we try to get to that space as fast as possible.
How does your coaching help learners stay engaged, so they don’t fall by the wayside?
I’m always personally interested in how classes are going, what big assignments are coming up next, and the general feeling each student has about their experience. By talking through what’s going on in and outside of class, we can collaborate on strategies to help them become more efficient as a student and still get the most from their education.
How do you work with the university to support students?
As a support coach, I’m primarily focused on talking with students, learning about their challenges, and supporting them through times of stress. This includes navigating complicated university processes, registering for the correct courses, and connecting them with the appropriate financial resources, or other departments which are part of the college experience.
As a coach, I collaborate closely with the university to share feedback from students, smoothly implement changes, and distribute information. Since I’m usually the first person to hear about a potential obstacle, I can easily pass that information along to the appropriate parties.
It’s also common for faculty to reach out to me if there are students who could use some extra support, are lacking engagement, or could benefit from walking through resources. All this has retained learners who don’t just go through the motions, but actually feel a part of the program.
Have you or your colleagues ever helped a university discover a problem sooner, so they could support their students more effectively?
My goal is to be a neutral advocate for student learners. That means many students are comfortable sharing their honest perspectives on courses and university processes. This includes identifying clear frustrations about their experience, but also the things they love most. Sharing this feedback with the university has led to more efficient processes, improved curriculum, and innovation in the classroom.
What new issues are you beginning to see now, as more learners come online, or move through and beyond the pandemic?
The pandemic has impacted students in very different ways. Some mention they’re more motivated than ever, with fewer competing social obligations. Others feel additional stress, as they support family and their own mental health during difficult times. Almost everyone has been touched by it in some way, and a good week can easily turn bad. Planning ahead and making contingency plans are a big part of coaching conversations, so we can expect surprises and work through them together.