Photo of academic coaches and student

“I wanted to do something positive. I wanted to give back.”

Robin Nelson was 55 years old in 2016 when he decided it was time to go to college. He had had issues with various addictive substances in the past but had been clean and sober for about 10 years.

“I wanted to do something positive. I wanted to give back,” Nelson said.

Nelson, who was born and raised in Aurora, graduated from Waubonsee Community College in May 2018 with an Associate in Applied Science in Human Services. In September he earned the Alcohol and Drug Counseling Certificate from the state of Illinois. He is now working toward an Associate in Arts in Social Work.

Shortly after he registered for his first classes at Waubonsee, he received an email from the college telling him that he was eligible to participate in the Connect4Success (C4S) Program. Before his first class in the fall 2016 semester, Nelson was connected to Iris Castellanos, a Student Success Coach.

The C4S Program gives students the opportunity to work with a Student Success Coach who helps students navigate the administrative and procedural business of college. Not all students know about all of the resources available to them to help get through college and, because they don’t know all that’s available, they often don’t know what questions to ask to get help. Student Success Coaches point students to resources like academic tutoring, counseling and advising, financial aid and scholarships, as well as the many other resources available to students.

“When I got the email, I thought I might as well accept all the help I can get. Iris helped in setting the path and locating resources I needed,” Nelson said.

This is exactly why Waubonsee has the C4S Progam and a team of Student Success Coaches. The coaches want to help people. 

“It’s been great working with Robin. It’s difficult for some students to ask for help. Robin was not that way. He knew what he wanted [to do well in college]; he just didn’t know all the ways to get there. He told me he wanted the help and he took it,” said Castellanos.

An article in December 2018 in The Chronicle of Higher Education points out that college students today have remarkably different challenges than they had as recently as just 10 years ago. In this article, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Stommel make the point that today’s college students “are the most overburdened and undersupported in American history.”

They offer some data points:

  • more than 25 percent of college students have a child
  • almost 75 percent of college students work
  • more than 50 percent receive a Pell Grant which is often not enough to pay for college
  • many students have to use their student loans to help support their parents

Goldrick-Rab and Stommel say that higher education must “begin with a consideration of what we value, the kinds of relationships we want to develop with students… In other words, the work of higher education—as with all education—has to begin with a deep respect for students.”

Which is why Waubonsee’s Connect4Success (C4S) Program exists and is so successful.

C4S is a federally-funded Title V Grant program that provides free one-on-one academic coaching for eligible students who need personalized academic support. Students are paired with a Student Success Coach who supports them individually during their time at Waubonsee. Since it began in 2016, the program at Waubonsee has had more than 900 participants. To be eligible to participate in the program, a student must meet at least one of these three criteria:

  • be enrolled in two or more developmental courses
  • be eligible for a Pell Grant
  • be non-white or non-Asian

A podcast from the American Association of Community Colleges featured Allison Martin, the director of institutional effectiveness initiatives at Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, Louisiana. The episode from May 16, 2018 addresses the topic of gamification in education. Martin discusses the fact that young people learn by repeating tasks, by practicing. This is intuitive in some disciplines but is just recently emerging as a way to help students with their academics.

“It’s all about practice and people know this who play sports or are musicians. They know that you may be naturally gifted but you can’t be a success, you can’t be your best without practice. And we haven’t prompted this in higher ed[ucation]. Instead, we’ve kind of led with the idea that you’re naturally intelligent or you’re not college material,” Martin said on the podcast.

It is natural to think that coaches help athletes improve their footwork, swing, understanding of how a game is played or any other skillset. It is now becoming natural to think about how such a model can work to help students improve their skills in learning. The C4S Program helps students learn time management and study skills, as well as how to navigate the complex and often-intimidating world of college processes.

While at Waubonsee, Nelson was awarded two scholarships from the Waubonsee Community College Foundation. He’s an honor student and a member of Phi Theta Kappa. He’s already putting his education and experience to work for good. He has completed internships with Transitional Alternative, Incorporated and with the Gateway Foundation. He was offered a job at the Gateway Foundation while interning there and works there today helping people with substance use disorders and mental health disorders. He plans to transfer to Aurora University in the fall of 2019 and continue studying social work and go on to earn a master’s degree.

“Because I’ve been through it, I have a lot of empathy for people,” he said.

Nelson credits Castellanos and the C4S Program with helping him succeed.

“She’s been instrumental in my success here. I’d have been pretty lost without this program. I didn’t know what classes I needed or anything else. It was really cool to have someone to help,” Nelson said.

Nelson and Castellanos were recognized as representatives of the C4S Program by the college’s board of trustees at its January meeting as a Student Success: Institutional Story.