In September, students come back to college after summer break looking for a fresh start in the new academic year. In academia, advisors have a bit of a break during the slower summer term, but as students start returning for the fall, they are met with a slew of emails from panicked students who were put on academic probation or academically dismissed due to poor scholarship at the end of the previous year, all trying to find out: “what happens now?”
These students return to school dealing with the almost incomprehensible idea that they have failed at something academically, possibly for the very first time in their young lives. Having successfully avoided contemplating their future over the summer, they are hit with reality when it is time to move back to campus. Some students are coming up to a brick wall and realizing that maybe a particular major isn’t right for them, or maybe even that college isn’t right for them at this point in time, and some just know they need help, but not what kind or how to find it.
With guidance, academic gamesmanship workshops, and help with study skills, some students are able to get back on track, but there are a significant number of students who simply won’t be able to rally. There are always multiple reasons that students will fail: trouble at home, problems with a roommate, illness, mental health concerns, transition, academic ability, and the ever-prevalent party-itis.
In STEM disciplines, advisors often see students who have “always wanted to be” a physicist, mathematician, engineer, or another STEM major, who simply can’t do the work. As an advisor, there is very little that is more frustrating and heartbreaking than students who want to be successful, who really, sincerely try to improve their skills, but aren't successful and won’t give up the dream that they came to college with.
Most people who work in advising do so because they want to help students in one way or another. Very few advisors would take satisfaction from saying to a student “You are simply not smart enough to be in this major.” That is certainly an exaggeration of what might occur, but it is hard to be helpful to a student who insists (over and over again) that they can do it this time, because this time is ever so different than the last time they were given a second chance.
Students choose majors for varying reasons; reasons run from “my guidance counselor told me I should,” through “both of my parents majored in this” or “my friends told me I could make a lot of money with this degree” and into “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.” Rarely do students in academic difficulty say “I participated in clubs in high school, went to summer camp to practice this, and have been working a summer job for two years at X company to gain experience.” Though of course those students are out there, very rarely are they the students who are in over their heads academically.
What advisors want to do, for both retention purposes and because it’s in the very nature of being an advisor, is to help a struggling student find a new path. When a student leaves the advising office with purpose, a new goal in mind, and a plan, even if that student is changing their major or leaving a university to spend time at a community college, the advising session was a success.
With most students, the key to helping them make the transition lies in the root of their major selection. If an advisor can find the key behind the insistence that this is “the only major for me,” usually another option can be found that will satisfy the student to some degree. Does the math major really just want to teach? Does the engineering student like to work with her hands? Does the computer science major want to work in a start-up company?
Whatever is behind the student’s major choice can be used to help the student find another path. Students often have very little understanding of how broad a university’s major offerings are and because of that, they don’t see what other options there are for them. Advisors specific to one major may not know details of other majors that are offered, but with general knowledge of what other majors are available they can help a student discuss other majors and begin to lean in one direction or another.
Every advisor knows that all students won’t follow this equation. There are students who will throw themselves against the wall of calculus, physics, and chemistry until they are truly defeated and dismissed from the university with no further options. Part of what every advisor has to learn is to accept that separation from the university is really the best thing for those students. Anything that will force the student to step back and look at their intent with new eyes, or help the student come to grips with the fact that it just isn’t working, is going to help that student grow as a person. They won’t be growing in that particular major, and maybe not even at the same university, but moving on will make them a better, happier, and hopefully more successful person in their adult life.
There are ups and downs in the academic year, and while the fall every year is full of excitement and new faces eager to begin the next step in their lives, it is also often fraught with the disappointment and frustration of returning students who are trying to deal with their failure and change gears before it’s too late. Advisors ride the waves of emotions with their students; they celebrate their successes and help them deal with failure.
As advisors whose job it is to help students succeed, it is important to remember that there is actually little that is more rewarding than to see a student accept failure, acknowledge that the road they are walking isn’t the right road, and begin to look ahead in another direction with a new feeling of hope and excitement.
Director, Undergraduate Advising Center
College of Engineering
Cite this article using APA style as: Switalski, R. (2012, September). Assisting struggling students out of STEM disciplines and toward tuccess. Academic Advising Today, 35(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]