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First-gen student rewrites his story about what he can achieve — starting with “A”

Embarking on an adventure. Launching an uncharted voyage. Forging ahead into the great unknown. When many of us think about the start of college, we imagine a time of exploration and discovery.

But lugging around cumbersome baggage makes it tough to explore new terrain. After a while, you start looking for the shortcuts, or consider ending the journey early. When freshmen drag their doubts, preconceptions and negative beliefs with them to college, they can squelch their sense of limitless possibility.

Gabe, a first-generation college student, was weighed down by a discouraging belief when he started his freshman year at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

“He told me during our first meeting that he didn’t like chemistry, wasn’t good at it, and it was the class he was most worried about,” said his InsideTrack Coach Jodi. The topic came up during one of their initial coaching sessions because, in order to fulfill a requirement, Gabe had to take chemistry during his first term.

A commitment to supporting and graduating first-generation students is a central tenet of ODU’s mission, said Jodi. ODU’s division of Student Engagement & Enrollment Services, launched in 2011, focuses on improving student success and increasing completion rates. As part of a Capacity Building partnership, InsideTrack is working with the division to enhance the institution’s student support program and provide coaching to first-year students.

When Jodi meets with new students, she tells them, “‘Our goal is for you to be laying the foundation this first year to figure out what works for you to help you get the results you want.’”

Jodi knew that if she and Gabe could develop a strategy for passing chemistry, he’d not only achieve his desired result for that course, but he’d also have a strong foundation for future success.

InsideTrack Coaching concentrates on eight specific Focus Areas, which cover topics touching on some of the most common challenges students face, like finances, extracurricular commitments and connecting to the school community.

After learning more about where Gabe was in each area, Jodi encouraged him to use support resources like tutoring. She also helped him come up with a game plan for time management — which turned out to be a plan for Gabe to incorporate basketball games into his study schedule.

“We talked weeks before his first college final exams about what he needed to do to be as well-prepared as he possibly could be. We also talked about not burning out. He likes watching basketball — it helps him unwind. So I asked, ‘how do you build that in?’” As the end of the term approached, Gabe got in the habit of studying for a few hours before a 7:30 game, and then reviewing the material again after the game finished.

By the end of the term, success was just another part of the routine, like studying or sports.

When they met before winter break, Gabe told Jodi he got an A on his final exam, and an A in chemistry, “and then he started to talk about something else,” Jodi recalled. But she made sure he savored his victory.

“‘Whoa!’” she stopped him. “‘That’s amazing. We need to pause to celebrate this.’”

Reminding him that he didn’t like chemistry in high school, or think he was any good at it, she asked him, “‘What was different?’ He thought for a minute, then said, ‘I just did it. I did the work. I used the resources. I went to the tutoring. I got it done.’”

“‘So what does this tell you about yourself?’” Jodi continued. Gabe paused again and replied, “‘That I can do anything I put my mind to.’”

“We went on to discuss how this could be a game changer – how any of the stories Gabe had created up to this point about what he wasn’t ‘good’ at did not have to be true going forward,” she said.

As Jodi continues to work with Gabe, she wants him to start exploring career options for his computer science major.

“It’s an exciting field with so many different opportunities, but I’m encouraging him to not wait until his senior year to be thinking about that,” Jodi noted. Jobs, internships and course electives will help him get a better sense of potential career paths.

“It’s my hope that his A in chemistry will create study habits for other classes that he perceives are going to be challenging, and will open him up to more possibilities for what he can do,” she said.

*Student name has been changed.


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