Recently in class, Dr. McCoy asked us, “What are some personal reasons a student may find themselves on academic probation?” Our list included both physical and mental health problems, work, stress, and an infinite list of other possibilities. In short, there was no clear reason for a student struggling academically. My attention was brought back to her question this past week while scrolling through Instagram. I saw that SUNY Geneseo released a series of installments, titled “One Voice,” written by five student athletes that have overcame some form of adversity in their lives. The features range from stories of loss and heartbreak to buzzer-beating victories and unexpected recoveries.
The installments exemplify the type of setbacks students may face that can lead them to struggle academically. Since the stories are written by fellow students, athletes, and friends of mine, it was extremely eye-opening to the commonality of such circumstances. Some of these people I’ve known for almost a full academic year now, and only just realized how much they’ve gone through and sacrificed to be at this school.
Conlan Keenan, a star hockey player, lost his mom to a tragic pulmonary embolism when he was a freshman in high school. Davina Ward, a graduating senior who helps manage the women’s basketball team, was in and out of foster homes and suffered abusive parenting throughout her youth. Baily Gorman, a runner on our track team, battled cancer her senior year of high school. And these are just a few stories of many I’m sure can be found on Geneseo’s campus.
How could Geneseo, or any college for that matter, know of such obstacles that their students are facing? Furthermore, how can the college recognize this adversity and give every student the opportunity to receive help? In taking a closer look at Ian Chipmans article, “The Power of Expectations,” this is one key problem in Stanford’s letters sent out to students when they are placed on academic probation. Students feel more like a failure than a person dealing with hardship.
Sure, colleges know and have heard repeatedly that everyone “has things going on.” However, maybe these installments could reach the writers of the letter, and the students themselves, in a way that our in-class “letter rewrites” can’t. Rob Urstein used a similar approach in Stanford’s freshmen interventions, when upperclassmen narratives were included in an online orientation process. They explained how they dealt with their own transition to college and overcame obstacles.
The “One Voice” features are not statistics. These are real stories, from Geneseo students. They are the realities that our own friends and colleagues are facing. And, at least for myself, these features showed me the last thing anyone struggling academically needs is to feel like a failure. These students are strong, resilient, and inspiring. Academic probation letters need reflect this notion, and let the student know that it’s okay to struggle sometimes.
Athlete Andrew Cummings put it best in his feature, “Will I Be Myself Again?” : “Stick close to those who you can count on to lift you up. They are the ones that will help in the healing process and be there when times are hard. You will become yourself again.”
A student on academic probation can only be expected to improve if their college “lifts them up.” Their probation letters can do so through an outreach of resources, personalization, and encouraging words. First, however, the institution must realize that every person on this campus is battling something we’ll likely never even know about. It’s important that they hear it from the students themselves.