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“Girl Power” And A College Turn Around

In the last few years I had between writing a book and setting up the learning section of my website, so I didn’t have much time to write articles let alone add to the “true stories” series I want develop further. I literally have dozens of true stories I can write, and these are meant to illustrate specific points or common scenarios. They’re also meant to help feel students less alone, highlight mistakes not to make, and to give them some hope when they are having problems. While the following is true, it’s not over. I am still working with her as of the time of this writing, and she’s amazing:

“Sarah” was a sophomore at a mid-sized private college in the far northeast of the U.S. When I first met her during a fall semester she was in utter tears. She had not been sleeping, had been having nightmares about her grades, and was on probation for her scholarship requirements. She was at risk of losing her scholarships and having to leave her school because of her grades.

As I got to know her situation I could see that her general problems were broad, but the effect was most pronounced in specific areas. The one area that became her nemesis by the time we met was Chemistry. It reached the point where she didn’t just dislike or “have a problem” with Chemistry, she outright feared it. Just the though of having to do the work gave her a sense of panic, and she was so far behind in it that it seemed impossible for her to catch up. In order for her to keep her scholarship she had to maintain a cumulative 3.0 GPA, a tough standard for any student, and this one class caused a ripple effect that was dragging the rest down as well. As a Biology major, this chemistry class was not the last, and she had the tougher Chemistry II plus Organic Chemistry I and II classes to get through. In order for her to stay on her chosen academic pathway it was clear that the problems she faced had to be solved quickly.

We began our work by looking at the obvious things. There was no indication of her having any hidden issues like a medical condition, which was good news since that would just be a complicating factor. We also braced ourselves to have to appeal the scholarship board’s decision to potentially revoke her funding by planning an appeal strategy. Once these were addressed we focused on the Chemistry issue. In this case Sarah had some common problems that I’ve found in Underperforming students, which I’ve discussed in both my book and the college problems assessment I have set up. She wouldn’t ask for help when she got stuck and fell behind in the work. This sent her in to this horrible cycle of not understanding the material, then she would panic or be so stressed that she could not sleep. Inevitably her other classes suffered because of her inability to concentrate and focus. But Sarah gave me a lot to work with when trying to help her. She was willing to dedicate herself to succeeding and had solid skills to begin with. Like my other top-achieving students that have encountered problems, I could see that she actually needed to sharpen her academic game. Sarah was, and still is, particularly susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, so we continuously broke things down and laid out plans. Sarah really became engaged in our process, and constantly sought my advice on how to approach a variety of tasks: Papers, exam preparation, courses to take, and prerequisites for potential graduate study. We arranged for Chemistry tutoring, meetings with Professors, and Sarah knew that I was her “back up” who she could call at any time for help. Especially at the beginning, Sarah was dealing with an omnipresent feeling of being overwhelmed, so I spent much of my effort to keep her head clear and focused on what she needed to do. We laid out a plan, talked twice a week about what she needed to do, and slowly her failing grades began to stabilize. But, it was past mid-term when we initially began our work together, so her grades were still low, drug down by the prior damage done. But we were able to stop further damage so she ended up passing her classes, but barely, and just as expected we had to file an appeal for her scholarship. I helped her to write the appeal letter and it was approved, so she we had a fresh chance to start work together for the spring semester. Intervening in a crisis is always tough, and the best work always comes from starting at the beginning of the term together.

It was from this point on that Sarah began to utterly amaze me, and still does. That spring, this five-foot, 90 pound girl entered in to something with her classes that I can only describe as a “slug fest.” Like a boxer in the ring, she stepped in and began to hammer away at her opponent, and she was merciless. She was often exhausted from the long hours of work and snuck in naps when she could, but she was doing it. Sarah started the term as strong as possible, earning A’s and B’s on the early exams. We preemptively put tutoring in place for Chemistry from the start of the term and she used it regularly. When I spoke with her she was always on the brink of feeling completely overwhelmed, but I kept her on track the way I had before. We worked on staying on top of her overall work, writing papers, and on exerting control over her academic life. I was able to get her to be much more proactive than reactive with her workload, and I saw a big reduction in her previous avoid-then-panic cycle for her work. We kept talking twice a week to keep her fully aware and moving forward, and gradually she reached midterm with solid grades. Sarah had a hard time accessing her Advisor, so I stepped in to that role as I do with all my students. As the semester progressed and she kept good grades I saw her confidence increase. Sarah was getting to see what she could do, and she was feeling her own strength. Bear in mind that this spring term in the northeast, including my area, was brutal. I remember this winter very well because of the minus 15 temperatures on some days, and Sarah had it even worse. But she persisted: Going to class, tutoring meetings, review sessions, getting assignments done, and the library to study, often returning home alone in the frigid dark after many long hours. As my other students began to run out of steam at mid-term, Sarah just kept going. Despite the work, the cold, and the fear of having to leave school she remained resolute and seemed to just gain energy with every small success. By the end of the spring term, even when I began to fatigue, she was running circles around everyone still. In the end she earned a 3.55 GPA for the term, and it drug her cumulative GPA above the 3.0 mark. She was safe now, and her scholarships were too.

That spring Sarah earned a B in the Chemistry II class she had to take and it no longer had her in tears. Then, to top her own achievement, she tackled the harder Organic Chemistry I and II classes in two consecutive six week summer sessions, earning an A and a B. After another successful fall semester, resulting in her being named to the Dean’s list, Sarah chose to do a study abroad for the following spring term, during which our work was periodic and international. I am happy to say that Sarah and I will be back to our regular work now that she has returned. Because she improved her GPA she now has choices, and plans on applying to medical school or a similar program. It’s now the prerequisite classes for such programs that she’ll take on, like Anatomy and Physiology, and our work will include a graduate school search so she can choose where she wants to earn her professional credentials.

Sarah’s story illustrates great potential nearly lost. She was able to regain her status of being a High Performing student after having problems. And, like my other High Performers, she is so happy to be able to work up to her ability level now. Some people think that I work only with students who have chronic problems since I’ve written about Underperforming students. But this is not the case. High Performing students can have problems that can mask their true potential. If intervention is timely and effective it can make all the difference to them, both as a person and for their future.

Are you trying to identify the problems you are having in college so you can make improvements? The student self-assessment I use in my work has proven particularly useful in doing that. Take a look.

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