I was recently contacted by a blogger who writes for Student Health 101 (http://readsh101.com/m/0112/05/wtc.html) to discuss best practices for undergraduate students looking to become engaged and find support networks at their institutions. One of the programs that I’ve co-piloted here at Sage is the Sage ALLIES Program (http://www.sage.edu/studentlife/allies/) which is a network of faculty, staff, and students that can act as resources for all students on campus.
Creating ways for students to access resources and support is vital and was one of the focuses of my discussion in the interview. Below is the full text (http://readsh101.com/m/0112/05/wtc.html):
Building Your Own Support Network
By Matt Allinson, Graduate Student, Columbia University
By 7 p.m. at college campuses around the country, many students have left their classrooms behind and are recharging with social events, sports, clubs, the comfort of residence hall rooms, and plates of cafeteria food. They may take time to relax and eat some dinner, and then turn their attention to class assignments that need to be completed.
Some students, however, are just beginning their classes, and they are far from taking a break.
Celia Watson Seupel walks into the classroom on the sixth floor of Columbia University’s journalism building in New York City, and it looks like she has been through the wringer.
She arrives with two minutes to spare this time, somewhat out of breath, her eyes darting around the classroom for the best open seat. She lights up when making eye contact with her colleagues.
Seupel gives a few breathless hellos before she attempts to settle herself. She tries to adjust to the serenity of the classroom, from the chaos of her 90-minute commute, partially through New York City traffic. For the 59-year-old from High Falls, in upstate New York, it is time to flip the switch and be a journalist again, instead of caregiver for an elderly mother with dementia.
College in Overdrive
Seupel is part of a growing group of college students who balance a number of responsibilities besides academics, such as working full-time jobs, commuting long distances to school, and caring for children or elderly parents.
Approximately three quarters of all college students now manage at least some of these obligations, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). For these students, their daily obligations go far beyond attending class and completing assignments.
“It can be overwhelming,” Seupel says. She likens her workload to a carnival act where plates spin tenuously atop wooden posts. College is one of the plates, but she, the performer, has to move from plate to plate, spinning them to ensure none fall.
When not in the classroom, Seupel runs a bed and breakfast, cares for her live-in mother, maintains and rents her mother’s home, and serves as guardian for her mentally ill niece. On top of that, she is a freelance writer and searches for a full-time writing job, which can be a job in itself. To date, she has taken two leaves of absence from her master’s program.
“I need all the support I can get,” she says.
How to Find Support
In Albany, New York, 40 miles north of Seupel’s home, Vincent Porfirio, assistant dean of students at the Sage Colleges, says retaining students is his primary objective, and the best way to keep them is to create an inclusive, hospitable environment, rich with support networks.
• Establish connections with professors and students.
Although time is in short supply for students with career and family obligations, Porfirio recommends they involve themselves in campus activities. He believes it is critical for them to make inroads with other students, professors, and administrators.
“Building support networks with faculty takes time and confidence, but it is worth it,” Porfirio says. Those relationships can save time later, perhaps when students seek jobs, and after one or two in-person meetings, students may be able to continue corresponding from afar, via e-mail and social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn.
• Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Porfirio says one of the biggest hurdles facing school administrators is getting students to ask for help before problems become unmanageable. To address this, Sage Colleges created what they dubbed the Allies program. Across Sage’s campus, certain professors and faculty display the Allies logo on their doors, declaring that students can turn to them for advice, whatever the situation.
Since the program began last year, 50 of Sage’s faculty have been training to understand and manage students with unique needs—including, for example, those who are older, are from lower income households, or are experiencing emotional strain.
• Take advantage of the Internet.
Apart from traditional support resources like advisors and office hours, Elena Cabral, administrator of the part-time program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, recommends students leverage social media to build support networks. Tools like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to have conversations with classmates and faculty at any time of day, anywhere. That can be important, even if students only use them to vent about the lousy week they are having to their friends.
Also, the Web offers a wide range of sources that can support your studies, from tutoring services to time management tools.
• Turn to family and friends.
When the time crunch becomes too much, you may have to ask family and/or friends for a hand. If someone can run a few of your errands, cook or pick up a meal, or watch your kids, that can give you the time you need to complete assignments. Even children can help by giving you quiet time to yourself so you can concentrate.
Getting a Fresh Start
Despite the stress of her life outside the classroom, Celia Watson Seupel says pursuing her degree at Columbia has been a renewal for her. “At first, I was embarrassed that I was so old,” she says with a laugh, “but my discomfort quickly disappeared. Everyone has been so incredibly accepting and helpful to me.”
Seupel found a supporting ear in Elena Cabral. Cabral, a graduate of the same program in 1999, has been advising her on setting a workable schedule.
Cabral recommends that all part-time students form a realistic understanding of their degree requirements.
“Despite the name, part-time programs can be rigorous and demanding; it can be like a second full-time job,” she says. She urges students to prepare for a lifestyle change and then embrace it. “Realize you are tackling a major life goal, and approach it head on.”
Keeping It Together
While Seupel may be the only one catching her breath as the professor begins his lecture, she is not the only one performing the carnival act. One of the reasons her classmates have been so accepting of her is that they, too, are spread thin. Several have full-time jobs, spouses, children, and long commutes.
If Seupel suddenly leapt from her seat and ran out of the classroom screaming, “I can’t take it anymore,” the whole class would understand, and perhaps take the moment to live vicariously through her.
Most students are performing some kind of balancing act; none of the acts are the same, but assuredly, none of them are easy. One of the keys to keeping it all together is finding others to help.
MATT ALLINSON IS A FREELANCE JOURNALIST PURSUING HIS MASTER’S DEGREE AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY’S GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM. HE HAS MORE THAN 10 YEARS EXPERIENCE AS A CONSULTANT IN THE HEALTHCARE INDUSTRY.