Holiday Blues for Students

Your students may be suffering more than you know.

Thanksgiving is upon us, and Channukah and Christmas are around the corner. This time is usually a time of rest for students. However, some are facing going home with dread.

Today one of those students told me how they thought about jumping off of the top of a parking garage. As the fall semester comes to a close many students, like this one, are anxious about going home and telling their families that they are failing classes. Rather than face the disappointment, ridicule, or wrath of family and friends, some students would rather end their lives.

This is the time when families start asking students about their classes and school life. What many families don’t realize is that the how, when, and why these questions are asked impact their student psychologically.

Consider asking your student how they are doing in private rather than at the family dinner table. When these questions are asked in front of others it can feel as though the student is on display rather than truly being cared for. What’s worse is if the student isn’t performing well then they don’t have any room to tell the whole truth without facing the embarrassment of failing in front of family and friends.

Pull your student aside well before the hullabaloo of the holidays so that you can have an honest one-on-one with them. If the student is in their first year then do not necessarily panic if their grades are not where you think they should be. Nearly everyone has an adjustment period. Listening to your student talk through what they are going through, both negative and positive, can help them cope with their challenges, and follow through with the last few weeks of the semester to be as successful as they can be.

Students’ mental health can be especially fragile around the holidays as they are met with the hopes and expectations of loved ones. How loved ones respond can determine if students are able to cope well or feel as though they have no way out.

Finally, if a student is suicidal there are people that can help. Most schools have a helpline students can call 24 hours a day. Counseling staffpersons are not off during break, and at least one person will be in the office to answer questions about how to get help for your student even at home. In addition, if you, or anyone else needs help immediately, then please call the National Suicide Hotline at 800.273.8255.



Today we’re proud of our student Katiera Rutledge! Katiera is a student we’ve worked with over the past two years who was interested in transferring from her community college to the University of Maryland at College Park. Her story was featured here.

Katiera was originally denied admission, but after some encouragement from us, called the Admissions Office to find out how to become a stronger application. At that point the Admissions Office discovered that her file had simply been misfiled! Katiera had earned admission to her dream school after all.

This student’s story tells us a few things about the transfer process.

1) It can sometimes be scary. 

Katiera was used to the community college setting, and, even though she wanted to transfer, was a bit reluctant to apply to the larger, flagship school. We worked to demonstrate just how prepared, and ready she truly is, to allay the “I’m not good enough” fears.

2) Follow up can make all the distance.

Katiera did not call the university ranting, but she did ask questions regarding her application, and what she could do to make it stronger. Not all universities are open to such calls, but the lesson here is to let them tell you no rather than assuming the answer without speaking to someone first.

3) Seek outside help. 

Katiera has worked with us over the two years to bridge the gap between her community college and her dream school. Guidance counselors, and university officials are great places to start looking for information about college or transfer, but don’t discount the web, and books! There are a wealth of people in the world who want to see students succeed, and are willing to answer questions. This site is one of those places as well.

MOOCs and Being First Gen

In our office we recently had our first dust up with MOOCs, or massively open online courseware. A student was attempting to transfer in an edX class and we had to figure out how to explain that this type of credit was not sufficient for our institution.  I have nothing against MOOCs for personal enrichment. edX seems to offer a wonderful array of courses for anyone who wishes to be a lifelong learner. The danger is when students do not know the difference.

Many MOOC sites do explain that their courses may or may not count for academic credit at a traditional college or university, but sometimes this information is hard to find. If you find yourself unsure about your classes and whether they transfer look for a few key things:

  • Are there any admissions requirements? A regionally accredited university requires some sort of documentation that you attended and completed high school or a GED equivalent. This is true of for-profit, online education and traditional non-profit schools. If a site allows you to take classes without any such documentation then it is likely that the site is meant for “fun” and not mean to be transferable.
  •  Are the classes free? With the budget cuts all American colleges are experiencing you can trust and believe that no credit-bearing class is going to be free.
  • Is the site separate from the main university site? Many of these courses are taught by faculty from prestigious institutions such as MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, but unless you have gone through the admissions process at the main university site then you are not enrolling in an actual course from these institutions.

MOOCs are a wonderful way to enrich your life and help you really hone a knowledge base. I liken them to the Khan Academy, which helps refresh a student’s memory on concepts long forgotten, or even reinforces what one learned in traditional classes. However, if your desire is degree attainment then please reach out to the admissions counselor at your local community college, or four-year public or private university.

Square Peg – Round Hole

As a practitioner in higher education I see students at all stages of growth simultaneously. It is not unusual for my day to begin with an undeclared freshman and end with seniors ready to tear into the world. One thing I’m noticing across the spectrum is a disconnect between desired occupation and the requisite skills needed to join the occupation.

Most recently I’ve seen students interested in prestigious companies, agencies, or titles, but with little desire to learn the skills necessary to reach those positions. For example, one may want to work for the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, and yet, not want to travel abroad, not want to experience a culture that does not speak English, and yet wants to train workers who may go abroad. Another example, is a student who wishes to go to law school but hates writing. In fact these students typically emphatically dislike any course that includes writing. In discussing options with these students it can be challenging to steer them toward their interests and aptitudes while not appearing to crush the dream they’ve had since they were seven. However, we must challenge these ideas if we are to be of service to our students.

The disconnect between skill and desire is coming from multiple aspects of a student’s life. Some students are pressured by parents to get a “good job.” Other students are listening to the reports that say if they do not major in science, engineering or mathematics (STEM) then they are doomed. Other students are looking at their student loan balance reports and are trying to head for the sure bet come hell or lack of interest in a field. Inevitably these students fail miserably in their courses or eventually in their ability to get a job because they cannot articulate a true purpose for why they are interested in their subject of study. These students are outperformed by those who actually want they thing, whatever it is, that they are going for.

It is debatable whether the United States really needs more STEM graduates. It is certainly debatable that humanities and social science degrees do not pay off. The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Handbook shows art students doing fairly well: These students are not wealthy, but they aren’t impoverished either. What I see in my work is that regardless of the degree, if the holder is not enthused about the work then the job hunt is merciless as they are beat out by passionate and skilled individuals. Toning down the rhetoric that one must be in one field to do well would go a long way to ensuring that students choose majors and careers that are a good fit.

It’s the Network Silly!

What opportunities will your university provide?

In a twitter chat yesterday about parenting style somehow the topic veered into what constitutes a “good” school.  Many educators are of the mindset that it doesn’t matter what school you attend so long as a student likes their experience and does well.  When it comes to a first generation student I wholeheartedly disagree.  A large part of the college going process is about with whom you’re also attending school.

A bright, motivated student will perform well anywhere he or she attends college.  However, the college experience isn’t just about earning good grades.  Students go to school to have a short period of time to get to know other bright, motivated people.  They build networks of friends and associates whom they can call upon later in life when they are looking for a job, or perhaps raising money to run for President of the United States!

For the first generation college student the choice of which university to attend could mean the difference between seeing successful peers who model how to aim high and being stuck with peers who are in the exact same boat and don’t know how to paddle to shore.  To achieve great things it helps to see that others have or are working toward achieving great things, and no this phenomenon does not happen at all colleges.

In addition to college peers showing what is achievable, a “good” college expands a student’s possibilities.  A small college with no endowment may not provide the scholarship the first generation student needs to study abroad, or take an extra summer class.  A first generation college student has to be especially careful to ask the right questions of admissions officers when determining which school is right for him or her. Often times our parents cannot guide us past what they know, so the first generation student will want to find an institution that can and is willing to do that for him or her.

Lastly, with whom is your college affiliated?  I am an academic advisor at an institution that provides students with direct access to internships that automatically lead to jobs.  This institution also has partnerships with one of the most prestigious museums in the nation.  Political figures have lectured here.  Students can, and do, stand on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before them, and even go beyond their mentors and the institution.  However, the university’s affiliations are what gives them boost they need in the first place.

Consider carefully what you want out of your education and pursue the right school accordingly.  Don’t forget the intangibles in your decision because they may  be exactly what makes all the difference.  Akil Bello of Bell Curves said it best in yesterday’s chat:  “networks, exposure to possibilities, clear examples of the achievable, “inside info”.. it matters.”

Culture Shock: On Being an International Student

Attending college in the United States can be an exciting but scary time for an
international student. It is likely that you were exposed to enough U.S. culture through the media in your home country for some things to feel very familiar, and yet there will be lots of other things that will surprise you.

by Ashika Brinkley

International students hail from all over the world

Attending college in the United States can be an exciting but scary time for an international student. It is likely that you were exposed to enough U.S. culture through the media in your home country for some things to feel very familiar, and yet there will be lots of other things that will surprise you. I remember not being able to figure out why I kept bouncing into people all the time. It never occurred to me that at home we both drove and walked on the other side. As you begin this journey it is important to remember that you control the college experience you have. Sure there will be unexpected bumps in the road but you control your response to both the unexpected and mundane. A positive outlook will allow you to connect with others and seize opportunities in ways that will truly enrich your experience.

College is a time to acquire knowledge and some expertise in a subject matter of your choosing but more importantly, college is a time to learn new things about yourself. With that in mind I would like to share my top three bits of advice for a positive international student experience.

  • 1 . Pursue Excellence-It is likely that a lifetime of rigorous and stressful academic preparation has brought you to this point. Continue to challenge yourself in the classroom and keep those grades up. Strive to be on the Dean’s list, and look for those honor society invitations in the mail. That being said excellence is not just about academic performance. Excellence means fully immersing yourself in your college experience and challenging yourself to find opportunities to be well rounded. Get involved in campus life. Most campuses have an international student organization that you can get started with, but don’t stop there. Get involved in student government, find a place to practice your faith, read your campus newspaper, attend athletic events, pay attention to local politics and volunteer. Excellence means bringing your best self to every situation and challenging yourself to move beyond your comfort zone in and out of the classroom.
  • 2 . You’re an Ambassador. . . deal with it. Whether you like it or not you are an ambassador for your country. Pay attention to superficial things like your dress and deportment, but more importantly pay attention to how you respond to others. People will make assumptions about your culture and ask what may seem like ridiculous questions. Use these opportunities to invite others to get to know you better. I remember being asked why we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving at home.  I thought about the story of the first Thanksgiving and the Mayflower and was incredulous at the thought that someone could not understand why this was not a part of my culture. In the end it was just a well intentioned albeit awkward invitation to spend the holiday with their family. By and large you will find that people are well intentioned. Even when they may seem ignorant about the rest of the world, or even xenophobic, most people do want to connect with others. If you are open to that possibility you will find yourself having made friends in the oddest of places at the end of those four years.
  • 3 . Get out of your dorm room! – International students don’t corner the market on loneliness and homesickness. Home does not have to be thousands of miles away for you to miss it. Chances are most other students are feeling scared, anxious and alone just like you are. An empathetic new friend can often be found right across the hallway, in the cafeteria, in the television lounge or in the quad. Force yourself out of your dorm room. It is normal to want to hold on to your culture for dear life when you’re feeling the loneliest. Resist the urge to insulate yourself from U.S. culture as a way of holding on to the culture and comforts of home. Connecting with others is the best way to mitigate homesickness. If you’re shy, start off making small talk with cafeteria staff, the people in the mail room and shuttle bus drivers. Either way make a conscious effort to have meaningful human contact everyday.

So there you have it. Here’s to a good first semester and a great four years!

Ashika Brinkley is originally from the island of St. Lucia.  She graduated with honors from Morgan State University with a bachelor of science in chemistry, and earned her master of public health at Yale University.  Ashika is also the Owner of Funding Finder Consulting, which works with organizations to help them maximize their fund raising potential. She is also a member of the higher education community serving as an Adjunct Instructor of chemistry at Tunxis Community College and of chemistry and public health at Goodwin College.

Explore Early

The chance to open your mind is in fact what a great deal of what a college education is supposed to be about. However, that doesn’t mean that you should not also consider your future.

Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory
Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

College is a great and wonderful place to discover new things. You may not have known that you were interested in geology until you had to take it because it was the only class available that fit into your General Education Requirements.  The chance to open your mind is in fact what a great deal of what a college education is supposed to be about.  However, that doesn’t mean that you should not also consider your future.

Students who plan on going into specific professions have very specific requirements.  For example, the student know absolutely knows that they are pre-med must take classes such as organic chemistry early on in the collegiate careers so that they can get to the more advanced courses that are required of students who want to take the medical school entrance exam in their junior year.  Also, engineers must take several courses in mathematics before ever starting courses in their major.  The student who discovers that they are interested in either of these majors well into their college careers could be forced to spend longer than necessary at school.

As an English professor, I can only hope that you take the time to enjoy some fabulous course in literature if you’re into the sciences.  Conversely, I hope that all of the humanities and social science majors find the time to take more than the required number of courses in either the natural sciences or a professional program like business.  However, exploration also has it limits.  In order to ensure that you can graduate in four years, be eligible for internships, and start building a relationship with a faculty mentor it is important to make the decision in what you want to pursue at least for the first phase of your life.

Generally Speaking

My advice to any current student is to not take your general coursework lightly. Those introductory courses are a chance to explore and think beyond what you may already know to be true.

Nearly every college and university has a set group of courses that undergraduates must take before specializing in a major.  Students who know from birth that they want to be doctors, or journalists, or some other exciting career often find these courses annoying, and maybe even unnecessary.  The concept of “well-roundedness” seems old and outdated.

In the push for career training sometimes the idea of learning for the sake of learning new ideas becomes lost.  The university as a place of ideas is slowly slipping away as the marketplace demands more workers and fewer thinkers.  However, your general education requirements may allow you to have the best of both worlds.  General education requirements force you to take classes that you might otherwise ignore.  Mathematicians have to endure humanities courses just the same as English majors have to slog through some quantitative skills curriculum.  These are wonderful opportunities to push yourself, and maybe, just maybe find a new way to approach an idea.

My own graduate career did not have the equivalent to a general education requirement, but I made one for myself and found that my research was better for it.  The courses I took in sociology allowed me to get out of my silo and see the world from the perspective of brilliant people in another field.  I chose classes that reflected something I really wanted to learn, got permission for them, and eventually was able to work with the chair of the sociology department on my thesis.

My advice to any current student is to not take your general coursework lightly.  Those introductory courses are a chance to explore and think beyond what you may already know to be true.  They also can confirm that yes studying neuroscience or medieval literature are exactly what you want to do with your life because you can honestly say that you have looked at other things and nothing quite measures up.  If you had wanted professional training only you probably could have done an apprenticeship and skipped college all together.  Many great entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates, have famously dropped out.  Nonetheless, if you have chosen to go, make the most of chance to learn something new.

Get it in Writing – Protect Yourself Against Mixups

Having recently taken a new position in Academic Advising, I am already amazed at just how many students leave

The best degree plan is an approved one
The best degree plan is an approved one

their academic futures up to someone else.  People, even people who are genuinely concerned about your well-being as a student, make mistakes.  Sometimes this works in your favor, and the University has to waive some requirement they didn’t remember to tell you to take.  However, this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes your choices lead to your own downfall.

If you know you need an exception for your degree program then talk to someone early and have them write the answer with a signature.  If they are going to email it then try to be present when the email is sent, and ask that a copy be sent to you as well.

Asking for assistance early shows that you care about your education and are willing to take initiative.  Having something in writing or in an email format protects you in case someone loses your documents.  Things happen.  People in advising and registration change jobs and may misplace something.  Emails can be accidentally deleted.  It is up to you to be sure you are earning all the appropriate general credits and major requirements.   Speaking of general credits do you know what yours are?  For those of you scratching your heads asking what is a “general credit” I will have another post soon.

Not all education is good education

In “Education is the Key to Success” I discussed the merits of the argument that an education should guarantee you a job.  I contend that it is important to obtain some form of college education.  However, it is imperative that students know exactly what type of education they are getting, and from whom they are receiving it.  As the New York Times points out in “In Hard Times, Lured into Trade School and Debt,” not all schools are created equal.

How much is too much to pay?

There are many “schools” out there promising students the opportunity of a lifetime.  They recruit, and recruit hard.  They call you constantly. They email you daily.  Yet, what they are offering may actually be fools gold.  Before signing up to go to any college or university you need to do serious homework.

Some schools are known as “diploma mills”.  These are schools where you do very little to earn your degree besides pay tuition.  While this might appeal to some people, they are highly upset when the realize that these “degrees” have no weight in the business world.  Employers and graduate schools know a fraud when they see it. Diploma mills are often nationally accredited if accredited at all.  Keep in mind that it’s not national accreditation you want; instead you’re looking for regional accreditation.  This is important.  Accreditation is a process through which schools recognize each other.  It means that the school has been evaluated and it is agreed upon that the members of that body will accept each others credits.  Look up the schools you have heard of and you’ll find that they are regionally accredited, not nationally, and this means that these schools only recognize other regionally accredited schools.  If you try to apply to let’s just use Harvard University for graduate school, and your degree is from a nationally accredited institution, they will reject you without looking at any of the rest of your application.  Be sure to ASK about accreditation because even major schools have lost it before.

However, other schools that are properly regionally accredited schools still promise the moon and charge you the sky to deliver.  As discussed by this article, people who are going for trade school certificates are starting to be fleeced, and often they don’t even have a final credible credential to show for it.  One rule of thumb I tell prospective students is that if the school is trying too hard to get you to sign up quick, fast, and in a hurry then the hairs on the back of your neck should stand up.  Look for what they aren’t telling you.  What happens if you decided to sign up for classes and want to drop them?  Can you get your money back?  What is the refund policy? What is the institution’s placement rate after graduation? (Although in this economy everyone is having troubles in this area.)  How much is the tuition in comparison to other colleges and universities?  A 40 thousand dollar per year education, from a little known school may not be worth the sticker price.

A successful college experience centers within your ability to be sure that whatever college you attend, whatever degree or trade school certificate you earn that you can come out of the experience with a debt load you can manage, and a credential that has some long term potential for growth.  You’re going to have to get out there and ask tough questions, filter through long-winded answers, and with hope, find the right fit for you.