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Counseling First Year Non-Traditional Students

 

November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California

Jeania Adams, Bergen Community College

As a counselor at Bergen Community College in the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program, my goal is to prepare our students for their transition to four-year colleges or perhaps immediate employment. Most often, the students I see are first generation college students, and are often labeled "non-traditional." Such students are not prepared academically, personally or socially, to meet the challenges of the college culture. Academically, the students exhibit poor study skills and their basic reading, writing, and math skills are not sufficiently developed. Socially, these students have not adequately been prepared for the independence required by four-year institutions. The student population that I service includes youths from homes where there is not a strong support system; in most instances, the students' parents themselves have never attended college and work low paying jobs, receive social security disability benefits, or the family depends upon public assistance while the student attended high schools where support from teachers and guidance counselors was lacking.

Because of their non-traditional background, many of these students never learned how to negotiate the academy, colleges and universities where they are expected to function individually and independently as adults. They may lack the motivation to attend college or to perform well once they are enrolled. Thus, their success is dependent upon our ability to address in nontraditional ways certain issues that other students have learned to address themselves.

As a college counselor, it is important to assist the student in maintaining a positive balance among work, school and family. I meet with the student on a constant basis so that the student is informed about what is going on at the college. During our meetings, we discuss the choices the student has, such as attending a four-year institution or finding employment after college, and we evaluate the possible outcomes of their decisions. I also keep the students informed about deadlines, resources and campus events; many times, the students are not always on campus, nor do they have time to participate in many of the activities, or obtain information valuable to them. For that reason, at the beginning of each semester I send a "welcome" letter to the student's home. The letter literally reads, "Welcome! Don't forget the deadlines [which I list]. Also, remember to stop by my office and my hours are. . ." I include my office hours in the letter, as well as other important dates for the semester.

I use this letter as the first step to get the student into my office. Even if the students do not read all of the information in the letter, when they walk into my office the first thing they will say is, "I received your letter." The letter opens the door for communication and the student can refer back to it as often as needed. During the semester, I send another letter to the students who did not schedule an appointment or respond to my first letter. The second letter includes, "I haven't seen you yet! Where are you? Come in to see me." I then follow up on the responses.

It is also important to assist the students with building a support system. I make suggestions that students attend on-campus activities. This will help them develop relationships with students who have similar academic interests, and is an excellent way to help the student begin networking. However, building a support system is time-consuming and requires us to be flexible. Daily, my work hours are never 9-5, as stated in my contract; I am scheduled to be in the office later than 5 p.m. one evening a week. Most days, I usually try to be in the office earlier than 9 so that students are able to stop by before their classes begin. It is common that we try to organize our schedules where we fit everything into a tight little scheduling box but that is not always possible when students are working around their busy schedules which often include jobs as well as classes.

Commonly, programs that are funded by the state, such as the EOF program in which I work, impose many mandatory activities. Often, students are not able to attend these activities because of conflicts in their work and class schedules. I suggest that these students come to my office more frequently, on their schedule, so that the students are still participating in "extra activities" and they can receive the information they are missing. We are only adjusting the rules - not breaking them. We are being more flexible for the students because of their daily school and work schedules.

Relating to the student on a personal level is also important. When possible, counselors must attend students' special recognitions, such as award ceremonies. When a student is graduating, I tell him or her that I will look for them at graduation; I even attend sporting events when my schedule permits. Attending their events demonstrates to students that the counselor is interested in their activities. This communicates to the students that we are human too - "that we were not born knowing this stuff." It is important that they know that we once attended college; I even tell my students that I, too, was once a non-traditional student. It is also important to share with students some of our own challenges in college - with boundaries of course - which communicates to the student that we understand the things they are going through. It is important to be sympathetic and when necessary empathetic. It is important to praise and acknowledge the student's achievements: let them know that you are aware that they have raised their G.P.A, ask them about exams they were worried about, suggest extra tutoring if needed, and ask about family members who were discussed during previous meetings. Most importantly, when one has the opportunity, it is important to drop the student a note, especially if he or she has had to "sit out" for the semester for personal reasons.

Overall, when helping a non-traditional student become a successful student, it is important to use non-traditional counseling techniques that assist the student in becoming accountable for their academics and making solid decisions within the college culture.

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