• Bridging the gap in higher ed with student support services

    by Lourdes Carvajal

    Two students talking with each other

    Q&A with Student Support Coach Lourdes Carvajal

    Learners today are stressed. They hold down full-time jobs. They’re returning to learning as adults. They’re first-generation college students. They're highly focused on careers and worry about debt. But even with all these additional obligations, learners have big dreams of advancement through education.

    Student Support Coach Lourdes Carvajal works with learners to bridge the gap between institutions and students. And both sides benefit from higher retention rates, less stress, and fewer hurdles to graduation. She shares her story of helping students below:

    Why did you become a student support services coach?

    I was an online student in my graduate program and had a lot on my plate to balance. I didn’t even know there were resources at my university to help students like me. I wanted to make the difference in a student’s experience while they’re achieving their academic dreams. It would have made my life a little easier if I had someone to go to from the university on the tough days.

    What do you enjoy most about coaching students?

    I love when a student confides in me that they’re struggling and need help. Life throws us curveballs when we least expect them and having someone to confide in makes it a little bit easier to withstand. The trust that I have earned from my students means a lot to me because I know how much they want to make it to graduation. I want to be able to help them get there.

    What is it like to have a long-term relationship with a student and watch them succeed?

    It’s an honor helping someone who has dreamt of achieving their academic goals. They share those goals with me from the very beginning, and I remind them of those goals throughout their journey. We go through ups and downs together, and we get to know each other very well. We become like family. I’m always so proud of them when they do finally achieve their academic goals.

    What are 3 characteristics or skills that you need to be an effective coach of adult learners?

    You need to be able to see the student holistically. They’re an individual who’s balancing a lot on their plate in addition to their coursework. As an effective coach you need to check in on how they’re doing, not just in the classroom but at home, too. This will greatly affect their performance academically as well.

    You also need to be supportive, in whatever decision the student makes. Our students come to rely on us, as they may not always have an effective support system at home.

    I believe another skill needed is to have good communication among your students but also the university. I believe the phrase “it takes a village” is very much applicable when working with students. Having good communication in the end will result in better support for the student.

    How have you or your colleagues helped a university better meet the needs of students?

    Some of the main concerns I hear from students are about mental health and overall wellbeing while being a full-time online student. We brought up this issue to the university and worked together to develop more mental health resources for our program. We have partnered with a resource center at the university to provide workshops on mental health for our students.

    How do you help students overcome their concerns as they’re working toward their degrees?

    My background is in social work, and mental health is very near and dear to my heart. I do mental health check-ins with my students, just to see how they’re feeling. We so often are busy taking care of everyone else, we tend to put ourselves at the bottom of that list. I remind them to prioritize themselves by doing some self-care every once in a while. We talk about activities or hobbies that they like to do to de-stress, and I remind them to do this when things are becoming too stressful.

    How do you help learners stay engaged with their courses and programs?

    My coaching style is to be very transparent with my students. If I’m transparent with them, that will make them more comfortable to come to me when they do have an issue. I remind them that they’re never on their own throughout this journey, and I’d love to help them as much as I can. I believe this has helped my students stay engaged in their courses in the program. Just knowing that someone is really looking out for them makes them feel more comfortable and motivated.

    How do you work in tandem with the university to support students?

    I like to define my role as being here to support the student. The university really likes how my role interacts with learners, as there is generally an academic adviser for the program as well.

    The academic adviser takes care of any academic issues, like course planning and grades.

    I work with the student to ensure they’re always set up for success. I allow the student to talk about their week, how their personal lives are affecting their coursework, and we also talk about their courses.

    The academic adviser and I talk almost every day so we can both brainstorm ideas on how to best support the student.

    In what ways do you partner with faculty members to help a student succeed?

    I’m very lucky to work with such amazing faculty members at the university. A faculty member will reach out to me personally to talk about a student who could use more support. I work to find the root of the issue and help find resources to best support them.

    I reach out to faculty members as well when I notice a student struggling academically and provide the context for what’s going on and how I’m working with the student. I love the collaboration between the faculty, the institution, and myself because we all want the same thing for our students, and that is to see them succeed.

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  • Empathy, skill, knowledge: How a great student coach helps adult learners succeed

    by Natasha Prospere

    Adult learner on laptop

    Q&A with Student Support Coach Natasha Prospere, M.ED

    Every online learner needs somewhere to turn when they have a problem or need someone to listen — someone whose advice is empathetic and reliable, and who can point them to resources that help them succeed. For many learners, Student Support Coach Natasha Prospere is that person. See how she approaches the crucial work of guiding learners from enrollment to graduation — so learners, institutions, and employers all get the outcomes they’re hoping for.

    What do you enjoy most about coaching students?

    I enjoy interacting with my students. And I enjoy working on new challenges every day — you never know what to expect. It's rewarding to support each student along their path, to encourage them and to provide the resources they need, from orientation to graduation.

    I let them know what to expect along the way, guide them through their upcoming courses, and help them meet their graduation requirements. I can help them access the resources they need, whether that’s mental health, tutoring, writing center, or something else. Students often thank me for being their advocate and facilitator.

    What's it’s like to have a long-term relationship with a student and watch them succeed?

    Building relationships and positive rapport with students is fundamental to their success. My students know I truly care about them, their families, and their academic success. They feel supported by me.

    In our first conversation, I learn about their academic goals — and also about their home life, what brought them to the institution, who’s part of their support system, and their ultimate goals. So, when times get tough — and they will — I can be there to remind them why they started in the first place.  

    As coaches, we provide motivation, as well as encouragement through personal struggles and life events, whether that's sick children, taking care of elderly parents, or even divorces.  We also celebrate, sharing in joyous occasions such as weddings and pregnancies!  Whatever’s happening in their lives, we’re there, with personal outreach, regular communication, and timely feedback. 

    What are three skills or characteristics you need to coach adult learners effectively?

    First, you need empathy and compassion. Second, you should be a constructive, active listener. Third, you need to be a problem solver — and to do that, you need to thoroughly understand the resources you can provide to learners, and the university policies you’re operating within.

    What are some concerns you help learners overcome?

    Time management is a main concern: feeling overwhelmed as they try to balance work, school, personal life, and raising a family. I provide tips on being a successful online learner, both during our conversations and via email. For example, I tell them to:

    • Plan your study time.
    • Print and/or download your syllabus so it’s always handy.
    • Check your school email every day — something important might be happening.
    • Log into your course(s) several times a week.

    Stepping back, I also encourage them to find their passion. What do they do for fun? Are they making sure to take time for self-care, exercise, time with family and friends? Are they eating well and getting enough sleep? That’s especially an issue for my nursing students.

    How do you help learners stay engaged with their courses and programs?

    Online graduate advising is so much more than telling students “what class comes next!”

    Students rely on their Support Coach for information to solve problems, make decisions, navigate university procedures, and overcome technology challenges. We help them register for their next class, but we also make sure they know what to expect in their upcoming courses. We help them add the concentration courses they’ll need, transfer programs, take leaves of absence if they must, and — for our Nursing suite — prepare for clinicals and campus visits.  

    We don’t just connect frequently with students. We advocate for them. We share their concerns with the university. We provide the right guidance: information they can use. It’s all about building a personal relationship that shows each student we truly care about them as individuals — and about their success. 

    How do you coordinate with the university to support your students?

    The institution’s on-campus Academic Advisors (AAs) handle grades, GPA concerns, academic standing, instructor concerns, and similar issues. With my Nursing program, Duquesne also has a clinical coordinator to help learners secure a preceptor and complete their required clinical hours. As a success coach, I send learners a program plan to follow, and remind them when it's time to register, order books, and complete financial aid.

    Students tend to reach out to me first, as their main point of contact. I can direct them to their AAs, clinical coordinators, or instructors, as needed. I often copy the AA on emails, and provide time and day when it’s best to reach the student. We follow up via email, and we meet bi-weekly with the university to discuss student affairs.

    We're a great team. Here's an example just from today. An AA called me with a heads up that a student may contact me. The AA said she knows we have a great relationship and wanted me to know what was going on with him academically. Since I know his academic situation now, I can proactively reach out to him, as he may need an updated program plan.

    What issues are rising to the forefront, as more learners come online, or as they begin moving beyond the pandemic?

    Some continuing issues are even bigger — for example, time management. We're always offering advice to help learners stay organized, set aside a dedicated study space, or use a physical or digital planner. And some students who’ve been out of school for awhile struggle with the technology. We’re there to provide resources, including a 24-hour tech support, live chat, and a writing center. So they always have what they need.

    One issue I’m anticipating: helping nursing students find a clinical rotation. With COVID-19, many sites weren’t accepting students in person. Now, I suspect, there will be an overflow that we’ll all have to carefully manage together.

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  • How mindfulness can help us start a new year amidst a pandemic

    by Ashley Lodge

    Young woman looking out at hot air balloons in the sky

    It’s only natural that our brains are in a constant state of alert due to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has continued into the new year. Not only do we need to take steps to protect our bodies from the virus, we also need to take care of our minds to deal with the stress and anxiety occurring as a result. One approach that has been shown to be beneficial in dealing with this is mindfulness. 

    What exactly is mindfulness? 

    When I get asked this question, I always quote Jon Kabat Zinn, one of the leading figures in bringing mindfulness to Western audiences. He says it is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”  

    I came to mindfulness was because it was recommended to me by my doctor. I'd suffered from anxiety that, at times, could be quite debilitating. He suggested a book: Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, co-authored by Professor Mark Williams, the Founding Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. I managed to get a place on the Centre’s eight-week MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy) course in September 2013. Following several years of daily practice and seeing the positive impact it had in my life, I later trained as a mindfulness teacher.  

    By attending the weekly group sessions and doing the practices and meditations in my original mindfulness course, I could see my anxiety calming little by little. I was more present in the moment, less reactive to difficult situations, and generally calmer and more focused. I was able to observe the working of my own mind and see thoughts as subjective mental events, rather than an objective view of the world. Understanding the two modes of mind, ‘doing’ and ‘being’, and being able to shift the gear between the two, helped me better navigate daily life. It’s not some kind of quick fix. It takes daily practice (meditation) to help rewire the brain towards calmer, wiser ways of thinking and approaching life.  

    How can mindfulness help us get going in 2021 mid-pandemic?  

    We're all concerned about Coronavirus. Questions like ‘Will I/loved ones be okay?’, ‘What impact will this have on my learning and/or work?’, and ‘When will this be over?’ are never far from our minds. 

    Right now, we don’t have all the definitive answers and while mindfulness doesn't serve to make everything better, it can help us develop ways to feel okay during times of uncertainty. Mindfulness can help offer moments to pause and step back from what's going on around us, all the information we're receiving, and our own thoughts. Rather than getting trapped in ‘doing’ mode and trying to problem solve tricky emotional situations, we learn to stand back, be present in the moment, and observe. Therefore, if we choose to respond, we do so with the calmest and wisest approach to a given situation.  

    What are some ways to embrace mindfulness, starting today?  

    The best way to learn how to be mindful is by attending a course. This will give you a deep understanding of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ modes, the characteristics of mindfulness, and the practices covered. There are many courses being offered online and many apps that can help too. To help you get started today, here are some suggestions for beginning the new year with a mindful perspective: 

    Consider intentions rather than goals. A lot of what we learn through mindfulness is training the focus of attention. In order to do this, we need to be clear about our intentions. Having clear intentions sets where the attention goes. Setting your intentions at the beginning of the year is often more favourable than using language of goals. Rather than setting specific metrics that can be used to beat yourself up, intentions allow us to have more flexible parameters that can be adapted as situations evolve and change.  

    Be gentle and kind to yourself. Self-compassion is so important. Very often we can be our own worst enemies with how we talk to ourselves. Given how much is going on in the world right now, give yourself a pat on the back for what you are able to do. Practising self-care and compassion has the added benefit that it makes us kinder and more understanding to other people too. It has a positive upward cycle effect for us and those around us. It’s a win-win.  

    Reconnect with your body and reengage the senses. Mindfulness is great at helping increase focus and reduce distraction and rumination. Simple ‘everyday’ mindfulness practices, like mindfully preparing a cup of tea or coffee, are an easy way to do this. For example, going through the steps of boiling the kettle and pouring the water into the cup, smelling it as it brews and feeling the heat through the cup, adding milk and noticing the colour change, to finally tasting the drink. This helps focus the mind and train it gently to focus on one thing at a time.  

    Although the benefits of mindfulness are well documented, it’s important to check that it’s the right approach if you’re currently experiencing any mental distress. Please always check in with your doctor or clinician before undertaking a mindfulness course. Remember that talking things through with friends, family members, or one of the many support lines out there can help if you feel things are becoming difficult.  

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