While students at Fort Lewis College have access to helpful staff and are often on a first-name basis with their professors, the complexities of career questions, course scheduling, and oh, a looming pandemic, can sometimes call for a more robust support system. In the fall of 2021, Fort Lewis College’s newly launched Academic Hub introduced a solution to help keep students on track and off to the races: the Academic Success Coaching program.
FLC’s Academic Success Coaches are faculty who partner with students to help navigate some of college’s most daunting aspects. Through this free program, coaches help students discover, understand, and articulate their passions and interests. They encourage students to explore career paths unique to their skill sets, while also gaining life skills, like how to organize resources, manage time, and develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
“The goal is to help build a community of supportive learning so that students feel welcome here, like they want to stay here, and earn their degrees here,” says Lead Academic Coach and Lecturer of Math Daisy Matthews.
Fellow Lead Academic Coach Ryan Dubas, lecturer of English, sees his coaching role as advocating for whatever a student needs, shedding light on opportunities and support systems, like TRIO or the Peer Education Center, that are available to them, and then introducing them to the person who will help them next.
“Students need spaces where they’re not getting bombarded with more information,” says Dubas. “As a coach, I help them wind down and have that open space where they can explore the silence–or the noise–of their own being…whatever they’re feeling.”
"An Academic Coach doesn’t feel like a teacher; it feels like a friend that knows a lot about FLC. It’s someone you can go to every week just to check in. If you have questions about classes or teachers or school, you’ll get thoughtful answers."
“An Academic Coach doesn’t feel like a teacher; it feels like a friend that knows a lot about FLC,” says Kai Kidd, a first-year student from Austin, Texas. “It’s someone you can go to every week just to check in. If you have questions about classes or teachers or school, you’ll get thoughtful answers.”
Drawn by the mountain biking access and free pass to Purgatory Resort for first-year students, Kidd moved to Durango in 2021 to attend FLC. He went to four different high schools, including one in New Zealand, and says that classes weren’t hard for him, but that college just adds another level of things to understand in order to succeed. At the beginning of his first semester, Matthews connected with Kidd, and the two met every other week. Kidd says Matthews has helped him organize his class schedule and figure out how to deal with challenging situations.
“I didn’t know how to approach one of my teachers about a missing quiz, for instance,” he explains. “She said that all the professors are different and that you just have to learn their styles. Communication is key with your professors, so you just have to reach out to them first. That was really helpful advice.”
“As a teacher, you’re driven by what you’re required to do, and you do a lot of talking,” says Matthews, who has been an educator for nearly two decades. “As a coach, I’m driven by what the student wants. I do a lot of listening and forcing myself not to talk unless the student is asking me to talk. Sometimes just having a conversation with somebody is helpful, just to vent or sort out what’s in their heads.”
In Fall 2021, nearly 100 students signed up for the Academic Success Coaching program. At the end of the term, coaches awarded scholarships to 25 “Soar Scholars,” including Kidd, who were consistently engaged in the coaching process. These students were invited to celebrate the awards at a special dinner with their coaches, peers, and FLC’s president and provost.
“The scholarships are for students who sought out help on a regular basis,” says Matthews. “Selection wasn’t based on their academic records but their effort. We were looking for students who were making moves to self-improve.”
To help identify incoming students who would benefit from having an adult mentor on campus, Academic Success Coaching program coordinator Michelle Bonanno partnered with the Admission team. This small step has helped ensure that first-year students have a faculty connection from their very first day of school onward.
“Maybe they’re coming from a rural town or from far away, or they’re nervous about making friends,” says Bonanno. “We’re looking for students who would be more successful if they had just one more connection.”
Maryssa Abston Tolliver, a first-generation student and member of the Sun’aq tribe in Kodiak, Alaska, admits she wasn’t “really good in high school grade-wise.” Leading up to her first semester at FLC in Fall 2021, Abston Tolliver was concerned she’d fall into procrastination patterns with her classes again.
“I knew I would need help in college, so I signed up for everything offered,” says Abston Tolliver, who is pursuing a degree in K-12 Education.
One of the first people she related to was Academic Success Coach Mike Wagner, adjunct instructor in the Teacher Education Department.
“[An Academic Coach} is like having an adult friend,” says Abston Tolliver. “It’s really motivating. It’s not that other teachers don’t listen. Teachers have so many other things to do and you can feel that; they work with so many students. Success coaches really want to know how things are going and what you want to say about things.”
Abston Tolliver says that thanks to Wagner and FLC’s other accessible, approachable mentors and resources, she didn’t spend the entire semester worrying if she’d pass; she says she got all As and Bs and, like Kidd, was recognized as a Soar Scholar by her coach.
The list of 2021 Soar Scholars also includes a non-traditional student with goals that need an extra jolt of confidence. After 17 years working in Texas oil fields, Daisy Tsosie (Diné) moved to Durango in 2017 for a fresh start. After receiving her GED from the Durango Adult Education Center, Tsosie applied to FLC and began her college journey in January 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic shook the normal right out of life, Tsosie struggled to find her footing in classes, especially when she tested positive for the virus in the fall of 2021. The illness spiraled her into depression. She called FLC’s Skyhawk Station for help.
Besides connecting with a COVID-caseworker, Tsosie was also introduced to her Academic Success Coach, Jaymee Carozza, instructor of Health & Human Performance. Carozza met with Tsosie every week, encouraging her to take each challenge one at a time.
“She gave me ideas to try and told me that I could do this,” says Tsosie. “I gravitated toward her knowledge and relied on her faith in a way, even though I knew I wasn’t going to give up. She helped alleviate a lot of my stress. That’s what kept me going.”
Tsosie plans to keep meeting with Carozza this semester as she works toward her degree in Psychology. In 2021, Tsosie, a transgender woman, founded Deer Woman, a nonprofit focused on helping people get from where they are to where they want to be. She has plans to one day be a trauma therapist.
“I want to be somebody who can help connect the dots for others,” says Tsosie.
When Tsosie gets discouraged, she says she likes to be on campus, just to be around the spirit of people “going for their dreams and wishes.”
“The hopes are high here,” says Tsosie of FLC’s campus. “We’re the generation that’s in school trying to face these challenging times. We don’t know tomorrow, but we’re still trying. It might not be ideal, so sometimes we have to be humble and ask for help. I have to keep fighting to be here, but I know I deserve to be here. I’m not willing to give up.”
For more on FLC’s Academic Success Coaching program, visit fortlewis.edu/success-coaches.