Wednesday, August 30, 2017
The first day and as a matter of fact, the first week of classes is typically a joyous occasion. Students stop by my office to say hello and some might even give me a hug. They are excited to tell me about all they did over the summer in their externships or jobs. They want to share information about the trips they took. They want to impress me with their summer academic achievements and life challenges and I am always thrilled to hear from them. The building was lifeless without the students and they are the very reason we are all here. I see beaming smiles on the faces of students I encounter in the hallways. I say “welcome back” to my returning students and “welcome” to the incoming 1L students who appear timid, yet in search of a friendly face and someone who can answer all of their questions. I am then reminded of why I do this work and reenergized for the semester.
The difficulty this year as compared to others is that students have more sad and challenging events to share which is very much out of the norm. Some students have had several deaths in their families, are facing health, familial, financial, and other challenges. Other students are concerned about family members impacted by recent natural disasters. Students are coping with the stress and fear of being unable to navigate the semester academically. I am not a counselor and my students know that I am not shy about reminding them to access the professional counseling services available on campus, yet I feel privileged that they are comfortable enough to share certain experiences with me. Non-academic experiences impact academic experiences and the sooner students can address these the better academic journey they can have. Life experiences make the students who they are as individuals and likely form their identity as lawyers. The information students share with me allows me to help them have perspective when they experience challenges throughout the academic year. Although this task is not listed in my job description, it is implied because engaging with students in this way helps build relationships with them and helps them achieve their academic goals.
Some might disagree and say this level of interaction goes beyond what one should do as an academic support professional. I would argue that we are in the business of building relationships to more effectively impact the academic success of our students. Having some information beyond their grade in a class, law school grade point average, LSAT, and/or undergraduate grade point average assists us as we determine the best approach for supporting students, the examples we might use or avoid, and strategies we might use with one student but not with another student. It also helps explain students’ attitudes about learning, engagement in their academic journey, and persistence to graduation. Based on my past experience, I found that for some students poor academic performance is related to financial inability to purchase books for classes, food, and /or appropriate attire for professional events which affected the student emotionally and mentally. If I cannot find some way of connecting on a human level with the students then I am ineffective when I challenge my students to challenge themselves and when I tell them that I believe they have the ability to overcome whatever challenge they have before them. Sometimes I am the only positive or encouraging voice they encounter in the building but they also know that I am honest and will call them out and redirect them when they are not moving in the right direction. I garner respect by telling them when I do not know a piece of information but suggest that we can strategically work through steps together and problem solve. I also make it my business to be aware of various resources on campus where students can find assistance with various non-academic challenges.
What happens to the helper though? As Academic Support Professionals, we go from student to student and from crisis to crisis. We are problem solvers all day long but what do we do to ensure that we are okay? Where, when, and with whom do we debrief? What does that look like? If we are a solo academic support person, do we have someone at work who we can check-in with? Do we have someone who understands what we do? Do we have a life outside of the building like we tell students to have? Do we have energizing things to do? Take care of yourselves Academic Support Professionals (Goldie Pritchard).