Who wouldn’t want their own cheerleader offering encouragement, support and vision? That’s what AmeriCorps completion coaches Christine Porter and Dea Westfall bring to Stark State College students who may feel a bit behind in the game of life.
“We’re the ‘near peer’ who’s been there,” Christine said. “Knowledgeable, but not intimidating. You could say we’re like a concierge: the go-to person who’s always available to make it happen when you need answers and assistance.”
Recently approved for a second year at Stark State, the AmeriCorps program offers support to students at risk of dropping out. Each coach has a contingent of 90 students, touching base with each student three times or more during the semester. The coaches offer a helping hand, a ready ear and a connection to any needed resources. “We help address any barrier to success,” Christine said, “whether academic, financial or social. We take a holistic approach. You have to treat the whole person.”
The completion initiative recently was named an innovative program by the 2014 edition of Transforming Communities Through Service.
“The bottom line is that many of these students are overwhelmed,” Dea said. “We walk them through any processes they need, show them how to make a plan, teach them how to be self-sufficient. We also want to make sure they know why they’re here and that they’re seeking the degree that’s right for them.” A student who liked a medical setting plus math, but not the hands-on of working with people, for instance, was encouraged to move from a nursing major to a health administration major in accounting.
The goal for students: pass this class, and ultimately, earn a degree.
Both Stark State coaches have ties to the College. Dea’s mother was among the first students to graduate with a Stark State nursing degree. Dea also holds a bachelor’s degree from Antioch College and last year worked in a high school AmeriCorps coaching job. Christine is a recent Stark State alumna with a degree in health and human services. The completion coaching program is a strategic partnership of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, AmeriCorps and ServeOhio. Coaches receive a small living allowance and a $5,550 education award to help with college debt.
Many of the students referred to the completion coaches are first-generation college students or nontraditional students who’ve been laid off from a long-time job. “The more help they get, the more likely they’ll succeed.” Christine said.
“Many students are aware that an associate degree is the new high school degree,” Dea said. “They feel obligated to go to college, but they don’t know what they’re getting into. We can help them figure out what they’re doing, where they want to go and how to get there. When they’re succeeding in that first class, it’s a really big motivation that sets them up for overall success.”
The duo keeps in touch with students via email and face-to-face visits and they’ve initiated group meetings for sharing resources and success stories. Workshops are open to all students. Word of the program’s effectiveness has been spreading, they said, with students, faculty and staff seeing that the coaching is making a difference. “Stark State has historically been a forerunner in seeing a need in the community and filling it,” Christine said. “The College adds and subtracts according to what the community and its students need.”
It’s inspiring, the coaches said, to see students gaining the traction they need to succeed. “The best part is when they start knowing the answers themselves, they start thinking critically about where they’re going in life,” Dea said. “College is just one of the many things in life that are tough. Success here gives them the confidence to do other things.”
“At the end of the day, you just want to help people help themselves,” Christine said. “It’s all about self-empowerment.”
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