Non-Traditional, First Generation and Low Income Students; Tapping into their Wealth of Resiliency

I want to challenge you to think about non-traditional, first generation and low income college students from a different lens. Please know that I fully understand the very real scope of the challenges they face, but that it is perhaps precisely because of these challenges - not in spite of them - that they may have an even better chance of achieving improved outcomes, beyond what we have seen thus far. I invite you to entertain another avenue upon which we can travel the landscape of their experiences -  both prior to and while enrolled in college, with the support of narrative based coaching. I have a game plan...

Here’s the thing. I keep hearing about, reading about and talking to people in student support services who are saying that traditional college students are struggling with resilience. Everyday obstacles like conflicts with roommates or receiving C’s or even B’s are apparently cause for anxiety and stress and reasons to access mental health services on campus. This is problematic and may speak to a generation of young students who are arriving on campus under-prepared, as it relates to their “resiliency”.

So, what if being a non-traditional, first generation and low income college student was seen as a potential indicator of success because it carries with it an increased history and habit of resiliency? What if we treated it as such and invested in programs to reinforce it?   

If indeed the reduced ability to exercise resilience is a buy-product of a life of “helicopter parenting” as some have suggested, where kids are not given the freedom to face natural consequences and instead have become accustomed to their parents managing their everyday lives, then it’s worth examining if the opposite is also true. Shouldn’t we also be exploring if the lives of students who have not had this experience, but rather a robust history of facing lots of life-stressors, might bring with them increased resilience?

Allow me to share a story to illustrate just this point. Years ago, I was coaching a student who had hadn’t had the opportunity to go to college at the traditional age. When she was eighteen, she was a single-mother, working to support not only her own child, but to help keep her extended family afloat financially, as well. By the time she reached her early thirties, she knew that with just a high-school diploma, the future she wanted for her own children and the career and financial aspirations she felt for herself, remained illusive. With her kids in daycare, and working full time at a job she hated, she had selected an online college so that she could find a way to fit school into an already packed life. In so doing, she hoped to forge a more financially stable path forward by being the first in her family to earn a college degree.

It would be easy to see her life as a college student as harder than that of a traditional aged student whose sole responsibility is to take care of him or herself for the first time - to focus entirely on the experience of being a student without the worries of juggling a full time job and full time parenthood.

But, “easy” is subjective and requires a great deal of context. This is where investing in the narrative of resiliency becomes so powerful.

In the first meeting with this student, our conversation started out with her in the depths of major doubt and frustration. She was in a panic and her fear presented itself as frustration and anger at a system that she felt was not serving her immediate needs. She was starting to adopt a mindset - a narrative -  which went something like, “Here we go again… more evidence that I was not meant to do this, that I do not belong and was foolish for trying to tackle being a college student. Why have I invited this additional stress into my life? I don’t need this!”

It was the first week of school and the books that she had previously ordered had not arrived and the bookstore was sold out. There was an assignment due - based on the reading - and she was unable to get a hold of her professor or allocate much time later in the week to get caught up.

The temptation for most coaches at this juncture would be to go into “problem solving mode” - to jump into an immediate game plan. But, experience told me that getting solution focused when she was operating from a dis-empowered mindset and narrative was a futile exercise -  and we had a major coaching opportunity presented to us!

I first acknowledged the obvious so that she knew that I saw her in this moment, and that she had an ally in me and indeed, the problem would get resolved - but not right away.  I said,  “This is stressful and it will eventually be resolved, but probably not as fast as you’d like. I am not going anywhere.”

Then, I asked her permission.

I asked for her permission to pull back from the situation - to see herself in it - from a distance. I asked her to trust me in this process, and because I had immediately validated the situation, and expressed confidence in the power of the conversation I was inviting her into, she agreed.

Then we got down to the real business of updating her narrative.

“Tell me about your typical morning routine - what does it take to just get your kids and yourself out the door in the morning?”  You see, based on all that I already knew about her, I took the gamble to assume that her life was not easy and that she already regularly demonstrated a lot of the traits that are required of college students to be successful. The gamble was about to pay off.

She recounted a disciplined daily routine in the face of stress. Hmmm...

I asked her what it required of her to stay on top of her schedule like this, and she said things like, “organization, patience, determination - her love of her kids and the commitment I made to being their mom”.  To be clear, this did not initially flow, so I had to try to a couple of approaches to get her talking more and follow my lead;

  • I told her own “story of the morning routine” back to her: if this story were about someone else, I asked,what words would she use to describe that person? The words started to come more easily.

  • I also asked her who in her life was her biggest fan. She said her grandmother. I asked her if her grandmother were on the phone with me now, what words would she use to describe her granddaughter. She continued to share more words like loving, a fighter and a mama-bear.

This was good. I took the words - her words - and said them back to her. I asked her to write them down; organized, patient, determined, loving, committed, a fighter and a mama-bear. I then shared that these words sounded like she was describing someone who was pretty resilient. Did she agree?  She emphatically said yes, adding that she has had to be resilient her entire life.

We got to where we needed to be in the conversation - we had arrived at her informed and empowered narrative. I was now onto perspective building.  So, my next questions included…

“How does knowing this about yourself help you manage the frustration of today’s book issue?” and, “How does it give you perspective about your ability to handle this particular obstacle when compared with all of the obstacles you have managed in your life?”

From here, she was connected to the best in herself. She had remembered who she was, where she’d been and from this place she led the charge in creating a game plan, after I simply asked, “So what’s your first step in resolving this?”. She was beginning to coach herself - I added a few nudges here and there and showed her some school resources - but she was in a much clearer head-space and tapping into her own wealth of internal resources.

This approach is indeed a paradigm shift in how to coach students. It changes the conversation about coaching, and it certainly changes actual coaching conversations to include the almighty power of personal belief by leveraging strengths in the midst of challenge.

For coaches and the coaching institutions that entrust them, here’s my game plan: I offer a  straightforward training protocol that gives your coaches the tools to have the kind of conversations that many of our students need most  All students bring so much - and in particular, non-traditional, first generation and low income students bring an abundance of untapped experiences, and yes - resiliency - we just need to equip them with the ability to see who they are and who they are becoming, in the face of difficulty!