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Katerine Rodriguez Pais, University of Connecticut

Katerine Rodriguez Pais.jpgOver the years, I have worked with numerous student populations ranging from adult learners to immigrant students, first-generation students, student-athletes, exploratory students, STEM students, and honors students.  As much as I enjoy mentoring high achieving students and being awed and humbled by their achievements, I continue to be amazed by working with what I call my “underdog students.”  My most challenging and rewarding cases have been working with students at risk such as students on probation and students who have been dismissed and are readmitted.  Over the years, I have learned various best practices and strategies for serving these student populations.

At my previous institution, UAlbany, I started my first position as an academic advisor.  Over the five years I was there, I recall a particular student; I will call him Robert.  Robert had reached out to me before being readmitted into the university.  He had taken some time off and was ready to return.  As many advisors who have worked with students on probation or readmitted students know, it is very challenging to work with these students.  Will they succeed? Will they get dismissed? Will they graduate? Will they learn from their past mistakes? Will they listen to us mere advisors? How can we as advisors best support these students?

Robert met with me several times, and he ended up on the Dean’s List.  After working with students like him, I came to love working with underdog students even more.  Before this position, I had worked with countless underprepared students at a community college.  I worked at Palm Beach State College where one segment of the student population were students who were recent immigrants learning English/reading skills and trying to succeed in college at the same time.  I worked with students who needed to take prep classes and college skills classes to prepare them for college level work.  I had witnessed countless students do well despite the odds and achieve immense goals in the face of adversity.  I knew they could do it, because you see, I also graduated from this community college.  I knew that some students are underdogs but they can succeed with the right mentoring, study skills, and iron will.  I had been one of these students who succeeded despite the odds and now I was given the opportunity to serve other underdog students.  But this story is not about me, it is about them.

When I started my new position at UConn five years ago, I also was given the opportunity of working with probation students.  When I work with probation students, I mention to them that success is possible and I tell them the story of my old advisee at UAlbany: my student who went from being on probation to the Dean’s List.  I work with them to figure out new learning strategies/study skills and help them figure out what worked and did not work in the past.  I refer them to campus resources ranging from tutoring, the Academic Achievement Center, The Center for Student with Disabilities, or the Counseling Center, etc.  

Using a Multifunctional Team Approach to Serve Students on Probation  

When working with at-risk students, advisors must take a multifunctional team approach.  As advisors, we often cannot serve all the needs of each student, especially if we have large caseloads.  I learned this valuable lesson working at the Renfrew Center, a residential eating disorder treatment facility.  I acted as liaison between the multidisciplinary treatment team, patients, parents, and schools.  I have applied what I learned in this setting to advising students in crisis.  Students on probation often need help that is beyond our scope of expertise as advisors.  For instance, it is vital to remind students that we are not trained therapists.  After referring students to counseling, it helps students address underlining issues so that they can get healthier and get back on track academically.

Finally, it is also important to refer students to various campus resources.  At UConn, probation students are required to meet with an “academic recovery advisor” and fill out an “Academic Recovery and Engagement Plan.”  Students also get an opportunity to follow-up with their departmental advisor. Students can sign up for a mentoring program on campus called UConn Connects that pairs up students with a peer or staff mentor.  In my experience, students who use multiple resources are often the ones who establish a good plan for future academic success. Costopoulous (2016) shares that when working with students at risk, advisors should “coordinate a response from various student services” (p. 4) to help students come up with a plan for academic success, but they cannot blame themselves if students do not decide to help themselves.  In summary, advisors need to take a multifunctional team approach when working with students at academic risk.    

Helping Students Consider Options and Envision Success

When I am working with probation students, we talk about consequences and options.  We talk about preparing for the worst and hoping for the best outcome.  We discuss various options such as whether it is in the best interest of the student to take time off to take care of their health.  After working at the Renfrew Center, I witnessed countless bright students who were on the brink of death from their eating disorder.  Some of these patients even managed to get excellent grades despite being critically ill, yet many of these young patients needed to get medical and mental health intervention to regain their overall health and continue with their studies.  Once they were in recovery, they were in a better place to return to school and continue pursuing other life goals.  When working with students who are subject to dismissal, it is vital to discuss whether students should take time off and what their plan will be if they are dismissed.  Often times, students need to take time off to address various underlying issues that are preventing them from obtaining academic success.  When taking time off, students should consider the following questions: Will they continue counseling? Will they take some classes elsewhere to improve their grades? Will they look for a job to acquire experience and transferable skills? Should they consider transferring to another institution?          

While I discuss consequences and options with probation students, I also encourage them to envision an outcome of success.  Higgins (2003) calls this a “plan for success” and states that advisors and students must create a partnership where students “identify what needs to change and implement the plan” (p. 1).  I encourage students to see me every two weeks and set up a semester-long plan.  I help them figure out what study skills they can improve.  Most importantly, as advisors, we can teach at-risk students to develop problem-solving skills (Miller & Murray, 2005) and to determine what campus resources they need to take advantage of in order to implement their academic success plan.

Conclusion: Sharing our Stories with Students on Probation

Last semester one of my advisees came into my office.  With a caseload of over 500 students, sometimes I do not get the time to thoroughly review a student’s advising notes before a student unexpectedly drops by my office.  What jumped out at me was her transcript.  During her first semester, she was on probation, but each semester, her GPA had drastically improved.  She had even made the Dean’s List!  When she came into my office, I told her how proud I was of her.  She told me that she remembered what I had told her during her first semester and she wanted to show me that she could do it too—that she could go from probation to Dean’s List.

Incredibly, I had another student recently reach out to me to ask for a recommendation letter.  During this student’s first year, she had experienced major mental health issues to the point that she had emailed me expressing thoughts of self-harm.  Although I was a new advisor, I had received training on working with suicidal students.  With the help of the university’s care team, the police were contacted and the student was able to get in contact with her parents.  The student’s grades suffered as her personal and health issues continued and she was dismissed.  She kept in touch with me as we followed the steps listed above.  She took time off to address her health by seeing a therapist and taking classes elsewhere. When she was readmitted, she decided to change her major as she found a better fit.  She also ended up on the Dean’s List and has been accepted into a graduate program.    

And in that moment, I knew that some students do take our humble advice, and many underdog students do succeed despite the odds.  It is moments like this that I savor and use to remind me of why I’m an advisor.  Their story is my story after all.   

Katerine Rodriguez Pais
Academic Advisor
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Biology Advising Center
University of Connecticut
katerine.pais@uconn.edu 

References

Costopoulos, A. (2016, December 04). Guiding When It's a Matter of Life or Death. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Guiding-When-It-s-a-Matter/238565 

Higgins, E. M. (2003). Advising students on probation. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from http://nacada.ksu.edu/tabid/3318/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/118/article.aspx

Miller, M. A. & Murray, C. (2005). Advising academically underprepared students. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from 
http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Academically-underprepared-students.aspx

Cite this article using APA style as: Pais, K. R. (2017, June). From probation to dean’s list: Serving underdog students. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 June 40:2

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