Retention Specialists Keep Students On Track

February 20, 2018

Sometimes, students need a little extra help to achieve success in college.

Regardless of a student’s socioeconomic status, creed, disability, marital status, race, gender identity, religion, or sexual orientation, at some point in a student’s academic career they might need assistance outside of the normal realm of what is perceived to be in student services.

That’s where TCC’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion comes in. TCC’s three Retention Specialists – Ryan Stilson, Erna Paradise, and Joseph Schnetzer – offer support and educational opportunities designed to increase the academic success, retention, graduation and transfer of students who may have more barriers and challenges to overcome in order to realize their goals.

Programs and services offered are accessible to all TCC students and aimed at providing reasonable and appropriate accommodations to meet all their learning and evaluation needs. Retention Specialists understand that academic challenges are not always the primary issue against student success.

“A lot of our students, if we’re not retaining them, it’s because of life issues, not because they’re not capable,” says Stilson.

When a student first visits with a retention specialist, the two have an authentic conversation with some strategically placed structured questions to discover that student’s unique needs. It’s the first step toward developing trust and building rapport with the student.

“Developing that relationship is key to retaining the student,” says Schnetzer. “We want them to know they matter to us. We want to know their basic needs are being met. We can’t progress when they don’t have food to eat or a place to stay that’s safe.”

“If a student presents an immediate need, we’re able to give immediate direction” says Stilson. “You can’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes, I’m just shocked. It’s amazing and sad to me how many of our students are hungry. We put them on a list and they get massive amounts of food.”

After that initial conversation, which also covers each student’s goals and aspirations, students take the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory, an assessment tool that reveals their strengths and weaknesses.

“LASSI assesses the 10 qualities of highly successful students, so they and I know where they’re already a superstar,” says Schnetzer. “My role is to help them use their qualities they’re really good at to help them overcome their deficient areas.”

Schnetzer compares what they do to being a sports coach.

“That’s what I do for students academically,” he says. “They seem to relate to that. It helps them be a little more receptive to having some help.”

Each game plan is tailored to the individual. Retention Specialists offer strategies for test taking and time management, for studying more efficiently, and for creating smart goals that contribute to building momentum for success. They have newly implemented a six-part series called “Starting at the Finish Line,” that covers everything from career exploration to reclaiming wasted time.

“If they see things improving, it snowballs, and they start to believe and they are willing to try more things,” says Schnetzer. “Once they get a little bit of success, then they’re excited about coming and success builds on success.”

Though the relationships and coaching sessions between the retention specialists and their students are personalized, there are many recurring traits.

“Our data shows our students struggle with reading,” says Stilson. “College reading is different from high school. When a student is shown 100 pages of a psychology textbook, it is understandable that many get overwhelmed. Our reading strategies workshops teaches students how to read with purpose and how to ask questions.”

A heightened fear of failing and the importance of an overall sense of belonging to the institution are two more common fears.

“Overcoming the fear of failure is never easy,” says Paradise. “However, it can be done, particularly when students are made aware of all viable resource options available.

“There is no magic pill that can instantly transform a student’s preconceptions or notions about ‘fitting in’ or belonging, but with a little time and effort, we all can work to make all students feel more welcome and boost their chances at success.”

Anxiety is another common roadblock.

“One of the biggest barriers to success students have is their anxiety,” says Schnetzer. “General anxiety. Anxiety about performing well enough to get into a program. Anxiety about failing a test that’s half their grade. We help them find ways to bring that anxiety down to a manageable level so it doesn’t cripple them and their academic performance.”

With math anxiety being common, the retention specialists partnered with Joshua Baker, faculty chair and assistant professor for developmental math, for a math anxiety presentation.

Finding creative and personal ways to address student learning challenges is part of the job. Retention Specialists, as a position, are a relatively new addition to the College, and came about as the Office of Diversity and Inclusion was established.

“Our department had not existed before,” says Schnetzer. “We had a lot of questions. Who are we? What do we do? How do we implement it? What are the best practices? What are common barriers to student success and what are our statistics at TCC?

“We’ve been seeing students in these academic coaching sessions for a little over a year, and we have seen the needle move in a positive direction.”

HLC expects institutions to offer high quality support services in addition to superior academic rigor (Criterion 3D). Retention Support Specialists fulfill this expectation in numerous ways, but most especially by helping to providing student support services suited to the needs of all student populations (3.D.1). For more information on Inclusion Programs from the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, visit the website.