Rebecca Hapes, NACADA Advising Graduate & Professional Students Commission Chair
I had never really experienced academic struggles until my first year in college, an experience not unlike many of my current advisees. I am a “Gen X’er” and was a very high-achieving student from a small, rural town in Texas. My academic struggles surfaced in a course one may expect, one in which many freshman struggle, Introductory Biology. At that time, I was an undeclared major—general studies at my institution—and was planning to transition to Kinesiology, where the minimum grade allowed for this course was a ‘C’. However, despite the very best of my efforts, I was not on a trajectory to confidently meet that grade. I would have described myself as a good student, and still do—a ‘nerd’, if you will. I am typically the one from whom individuals want to copy notes if they miss class. So without guidance, I did many of the things that are commonly suggested to increase success and academic performance in a course of this nature such as reading the material before class, highlighting and making notes from the reading material, asking questions in class or after over material I didn’t understand from the reading or lectures, attending supplemental instruction, studying with a group, visiting with the professor about material I did not understand, and going over examinations to determine what I missed on them and why.
I did all of that.
They did not have the desired effect.
The bottom line: I tried my very best. And my very best was not good enough at that time.
Ultimately, I made the best decision I could have made for my circumstances and dropped the course—the only course I ever dropped in my undergraduate career. I was able to focus the extra time I had been spending studying for the Introductory Biology course on the remainder of my other classes and earned a 4.0 that semester. I retook the course in the summer and did much better in it, getting the grade needed so that I could successfully transition to my intended major.
However, in addition to the academic struggles with the course mentioned, I also felt utterly alone during this time. Yes, on a campus of over 40,000 students, while doing all of the things one tells students to do to engage and connect with a university, I felt isolated. Alone. Lonely.
And it was an awful time.
However, having those experiences, and being reminded of them periodically, helps me to connect with my advisees. I am able to relate with them and the experiences they bring with them into my office on a real and personal level. I do understand the transitional issues that many of them experience when they enter the higher education environment. I disclose, in an appropriate manner as the situation dictates, about my disappointments, struggles, and ultimately, personal growth resulting from these experiences.
I, too, applied for freshman leadership organizations and was denied to several. I ultimately made the decision to join organizations that didn’t have arduous application and screening processes for fear that my self-worth couldn’t handle additional rejection. I did make the mistake of getting overinvolved in these types of organizations, however, and pared it down after my first year once I determined which of those organizations were most meaningful for me.
I, too, struggled to find my sweet spot of volunteerism and leadership in a place where everyone seemed to be just as good as I had been in high school. As one who had been a leader in the majority of the organizations in which I had participated in high school, this was an opportunity to learn how to become an effective follower. It was a good opportunity. Every good leader needs to learn how to follow. Every great leader needs to be sure they have followers and that they are giving those followers a purpose for following.
I, too, wondered why I was not selected for many scholarships, when I was one of the brightest and highest ranking students in my high school class. Only later did it really ever occur to me that virtually everyone at my institution was the brightest and highest ranking student at their high school. This epiphany has helped me in conversations with multiple types of students over the years. I am able to take their perception of themselves and place it in the context of the institutional student population and environment, which is incredibly helpful in guiding conversations not only about scholarships, but about other competitive programs.
I, too, wondered what was wrong with me, when the appropriate and recommended strategies for studying material didn’t achieve the desired outcome. Perhaps I needed to go through this experience so that I could relate to students going through similar experiences when I later became an advisor. I know that the experience hasn’t been wasted in my life. Despite the struggle that it was, and the self-doubt it created, I know I am much better able to connect with students during their struggles because I have had the same types of issues.
It took about a year or a year and a half for me to transition to my institution as an undergraduate student. During that time, I continued to try various extracurricular activities of interest to me in an effort to engage and connect. I started the summer of my sophomore year with a job as a resident advisor, which was an incredibly valuable training tool for what would eventually become my career of academic advising.
I believe it is important for advisors to remember that the higher education transition for students does take time. And sometimes, perhaps many times, a student will try their very best and be unsuccessful. One of our jobs is to help them as they navigate the uncomfortable growth process surrounding those experiences, because for many of them it may be the first time, especially for the current millennial generation, they have ever experienced any form of failure. If we can assist them in this process to mitigate potential negative feelings of self-worth, that may allow the students an opportunity to practice resiliency, persistence, and grit, rather than negative personal feelings.
Senior Academic Advisor II
Department of Entomology/College of Agriculture & Life Science
Texas A&M University
Cite this article using APA style as: Hapes, R. (2015, June). Remembering our past to help students in the present. Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]