Recipe for student success
“Students come into the office with their shoulders up around their ears,” says Katherine Downey, BFA 14. The master’s in drama therapy student is recounting a typical experience at the couch-filled Welcome Crew office on Loyola Campus, where she works as mentor.
Downey assists students who may walk in with burning questions or just for a friendly chat — perhaps they need a little encouragement because they’re starting their PhD and have eight papers to read this week. By the time they leave the office, students are usually a little more relaxed, she reports.
The Welcome Crew and its team are part of Concordia’s Student Success Centre. With offices on both campuses, 24 staff and about 100 peer employees made up of fellow students, the Student Success Centre is exactly the sort of resource Downey wishes had been in place when she first started university.
Creating a one-stop-shop
Concordia has always offered students support services. However, they were scattered across different departments and tended towards the remedial. There was no easy-to-turn-to space for students of all levels. “If you were a B student and wanted to be an A student, there was very little,” says Lisa Ostiguy, professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences and Concordia’s deputy provost.
Under Ostiguy’s leadership, in 2014 the university made multiple resources easier to access by creating a single website under Student Services’ Counselling and Development. And in January 2015, the Services for New Students, Student Learning Services and Career and Planning Services were separated from Counselling and Psychological Services and placed under the newly created Student Success Centre. The goal was to create a one-stop shop to offer academic support for all students from first-year to graduation.
“We didn’t want the Student Success Centre to be seen as a side service of the university,” says Ostiguy. “We wanted to see it integrated with academic programs.”
That’s why when it came to hiring a director, it was important to recruit someone with a strong academic experience — which describes Laura Mitchell, who took the helm in 2015. The Edinburgh, Scotland, native had fallen in love with Montreal years ago while here to further her research in music and health. She joined Concordia from Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que., where she was an associate professor of psychology. Although she relished teaching, she found great satisfaction in helping a broader range of students.
Mitchell understands the feeling of wanting to help students advance their skills for success in the classroom yet not having the time to devote to each one. “Laura has been instrumental in working together with the faculties to provide strong academic support to students,” Ostiguy says.
Helping students feel at home
The Student Success Centre offers three core services. It tends to new students with orientation events and workshops for navigating the first year, along with networking and social opportunities. It also provides learning support and career advising and planning.
An integral part of the integration is the Welcome Crew, who show first-year students around, act as mentors, offer referrals and answer straightforward questions that don’t require an appointment with an academic advisor.
Downey loves her Welcome Crew job. She says there’s something special about peer-to-peer support, being able to talk to someone “who’s going through all the same stressors and balancing academic and personal life.” She encourages struggling students and bonds with them over shared experiences. “There’s nothing like meeting a student and laughing with them,” she says.
Downey also provides a willing shoulder for students experiencing sadness. Some are profoundly homesick and can’t afford to visit far-away families. Others come in and break down because they did poorly on an exam. “It’s difficult. Someone could entirely grasp a concept, do well on written assignments and quizzes but have a hard time with mid-term exams,” Downey says. “We all learn differently.”
The Student Success Centre’s Learning Services cater to different styles of learning through academic skillbuilding support, time-management clinics, and writing and math tutoring. They also support professors teaching selected courses in core subjects like chemistry, geography, economics and biology by offering weekly peer-facilitated study groups for students in their classes.
The centre has tracked results: the more weekly sessions a student attends, the better they do. Of those who attend 10 or more sessions, 67 per cent achieve a B grade or higher, compared to just 28 per cent of students who never attend. Then there are students who are already doing well and want to do better.
“It’s happened to all of us,” Mitchell says. “You think you did something really well, you get a B and it’s fine, but you think, ‘What did I not do?’” Mitchell wants to debunk the myth that some people are just good at studying. “I don’t think you’re born knowing these things, they’re things you learn, and everybody can improve. Students need to feel we’re going to work with their strengths and challenges,” says Mitchell. “That is far more encouraging than saying, ‘Here are all the things that are wrong with you!’”
Léandre Larouche and Kelly Routly are both students who work as writing assistants at the Student Success Centre. Larouche is a francophone from Quebec’s Saguenay region who also speaks Spanish. He used the Writing Centre’s services when he first arrived at Concordia for his honours English literature degree.
“Having done my CEGEP in French, I was used to another paper-writing style,” he says. “The centre gave me a better grasp of how to structure my papers in English. Assistants helped me think about how to make stronger arguments and how to use structure and rhetoric to write in a more sophisticated fashion. But, more importantly, they helped me do it by myself.”
Larouche signed up for the mentorship program and was assigned a master’s student in his program whom he could email or ask questions. He tapped into his own experience with a learning specialist at Bishop’s University. “She gave me tips on how to be more eloquent, how to manage stress,” he says.
Mitchell remembers Larouche approaching her and offering to work for the centre as soon as he could. Because his schooling had been in French, he did a “marathon of grammar” to prepare for English university, so the rules were fresh in his mind. He grasps why students make the errors they do, and can explain to them clearly and simply. Larouche particularly loves working with really engaged students — those who start noticing their own errors and improve the most.
Routly, an honours history student, enjoys working with “students from a variety of programs, who bring in papers with interesting points of view and ideas on subjects you may not have thought of before.”
She appreciates working one-on-one with a person — not simply looking at their paper. She sees the centre as a low-stress microcosm of the university and lauds the supervisors for “ensuring the writing centre continues to be a positive and safe environment.” In turn, the permanent staff benefit from the perspective of peer employees who, being students themselves, can keep the centre up to date on students’ needs.
Mitchell says common barriers to success include poor time management and fear. Students fear failure or being embarrassed by not being good at something. They worry about giving presentations.
“All of us get anxious about particular things, but we all have to learn and develop,” she says. The centre strives to give students opportunities to overcome their fears. Mitchell wants students to “learn to associate joy and excitement with learning and self-development, rather than anxiety.”
Support on the path to a career
Career and Planning Services, also under the Student Success Centre, assist students in finding the right career path and navigating the job search.
A student may tell Mitchell she wants to be an engineer who’s a great writer; another may want to be a philosopher who codes. “Our careers have become multifaceted and our students are aware of that,” she says. Forecasts suggest today’s students will have six-to-nine completely different jobs throughout their working life. Adaptability and resilience are key. Mitchell believes students can embrace this unpredictability by being empowered and curious learners.
The centre’s strength is that it can help all kinds. Students in failed standing can rebuild their skills and get re-motivated. They’re required to take a course on self-management strategies, designed in-house, and a course that Mitchell teaches on study skills. “Some students freely admit they don’t want to be there,” she says. “But by the end, they feel better equipped for their studies.”
Another satisfying task for Mitchell is to identify potential Rhodes Scholarship recipients — academic superstars who also give back to their community. The prestigious post-graduation scholarship funds a two-year master’s degree at the University of Oxford in England.
“These students’ portfolios blow my mind,” says Mitchell. “They’re extremely organized, motivated, caring individuals. It’s such an intense competition because they’re the brightest and best of this province and there’s just a hair’s breadth between them. Every year I think every one of them should win.” Even if they don’t, the process can help the applicants recognize how exceptionally they’re doing and that they’ll go on to do great graduate work.
In late 2018, the Student Success Centre will move into bright, new offices with multifunctional space on the seventh floor of the Henry F. Hall Building. There are plans for creative marketing that will alert students to the services and encourage greater use, and also to launch a Next-Gen Skills program, that will help students transition into the ever-changing workplace.
“I have a brilliant job!” says Mitchell. “The only bad thing that can happen to me in my daily work is if I meet a third or fourth-year student who says, ‘If only I’d known about this earlier.’ I’d like to eliminate that.”