In an auditorium full of freshmen during the first weeks of school at High Point University, Dr. Beth Holder stands onstage and talks about dreams – and homework.
She tells them she and her 11-member team expect every freshman on campus to write and hand in an essay that answers this big question, “What does success mean to you?”
Success, she tells them, is a word they’ll hear often around campus. It’s part of HPU’s DNA. The essay will give them focus and help the Class of 2019 – a class of 1,450 students – begin their journey.
But as they start college, Holder wants them to know something else.
“I call us the Dream Team,” she tells them. “We’re here to make your dreams come true.”
Throughout the year, Holder and her team help freshmen overcome every challenge and every crisis they face during one of the toughest times in their lives: the first year of college.
They aren’t called success coaches for nothing.
“A Piece of Gold”
In 2012, HPU created the Student Success Program because the university was attracting more freshmen, and faculty members hired to teach were helping freshmen deal with everything from homesickness to roommate tiffs.
Dr. Dennis Carroll, the school’s provost, recruited Holder from the School of Education to head up the new success coach program, an idea he pulled from his days as a high school teacher four decades ago.
Carroll saw Holder as the logical choice. She relates well to students and exudes what he calls as a “rah-rah-go-team attitude.”
Holder left the classroom and began hiring a cadre of men and women armed with graduate degrees, skilled in counseling and education and infused with the energy and compassion needed to, as she says, “get” teenagers.
Success coaches become an advocate, a life coach, someone students can trust. As sessions mount and first names become familiar, success coaches give freshmen the peace of mind they need.
Kerry Flynn Barrett can vouch for that.
She works as a vice president of human resources for a hospital in Westchester County, just north of New York City. Her daughter, Kylie, is now a junior at HPU.
Kylie is thriving. But when she was a freshman, Kylie had challenges with the transition from high school to college.
Kylie had Britt Carl as her success coach, and Carl helped Kylie become acclimated to a new place. She helped Kylie change majors, get a campus job and get more involved on campus to help overcome being nearly 10 hours from home.
She made Kylie – and her parents – feel comfortable. And safe.
“It’s such a piece of gold,'” Barrett says of the success coach program. “You don’t have that kind of direct connection at any other school. High Point put their money where their mouth is. And it’s working.”
The Recipe of Success
It must be Friday. Why? Every success coach is wearing purple, the school’s color.
When the success coach program started three years ago, Dr. Holder started Purple Friday to help boost school pride. Since then on every Friday, when she walks around campus, she’ll compliment every purple-wearing person she sees.
On this particular Friday, Holder is a purple blur. She steps from her office, speed-walks across the room, and in her North Carolina accent, molded by her upbringing in the small city of Hickory, she says the same thing to every student.
“Honey, who are you here to see?”
Students find their success coaches headquartered in the second floor of Cottrell Hall, the newest building on campus. The walls are all glass, the rooms are wide open and the furniture is Google cool.
At Cottrell Hall, students find their success coaches and talk to them about focus and direction. Success coaches are responsible for as many as 175 students a year, and they meet with some as often as three times a week.
But success coaches don’t stay seated at Cottrell Hall. They fan out everywhere.
They meet their freshmen inside the library, outside classrooms, on the Kester International Promenade or around the tables at the Starbucks inside Cottrell or the Slane Student Center.
But that’s just for starters.
Success coaches host tailgate parties, coordinate freshmen fantasy football leagues, hold lunches with students, sponsor a freshman honor society as well as a leadership team.
They also give seminars on time management, personal finance, stewardship, networking, leadership, how to communicate with professors and how to map out a successful academic path.
Above all, success coaches teach students how to be independent and responsible critical thinkers.
That’s all part of the program’s grand plan.
“Students want to know somebody cares,” Holder says.
Holder’s team does care. Gail Tuttle, HPU’s senior vice president of student life, sees that.
“Our president talks about relational capital, and really it’s all about building relationships with our students,” she says. “This is another level of intervention. Students seek them out.”
The “Rays of Sunshine”
Freshmen spring from a generation known to hate conflict, love technology, push to excel and look for confirmation at every turn.
Yet, like every generation, Millennials have a need to feel secure, safe and connected.
“Studies have shown students thrive when they are connected to one or two adults,” says success coach April Cosner. “Many kids come from thousands of miles away, and they need to have that caring adult around. So we see them as our customers. We work for them.”
Success coaches get their share of thank-you notes. Cosner has a few. She calls her thank-you notes from students her “rays of sunshine,” and she keeps them in a gift box at home. The notes are always a welcome surprise.
“Those are tangible reminders,’’ she says, “that good work brings positive results.’’
The Delivery Room Phone Call
Then, there is the story about freshman Nick Labrao. It comes from success coach Akir Khan.
Khan gives his cell phone number to every freshman he sees. Labrao is just one. Khan taught Labrao how to manage his time by writing out his schedule on a white board and coaching him on what to do every hour of the day.
Labrao took a photo of the white-board sketch on his phone, and he checked it at least 10 times a day.
Later, Labrao needed more help. This time, he needed an idea for a class paper. Like he always did, he called Khan. When he got Khan’s voice mail, he called again. This time, Khan answered.
“Nick, I’m really busy,” Khan said.
“It’ll only take a minute,” Labrao responded.
“No, you don’t understand,” Khan said. “My wife is in the delivery room.”
“Congratulations,” Labrao stammered. “I’m sorry for calling.”
Labrao felt guilty. He didn’t want to disrupt such an important moment, and he was thrilled for Khan. But in the second he paused, thinking about what to do next, Khan turned to his wife and said, “It’ll be just a minute.”
He helped Labrao once again.
“I needed a guide in my life, and Akir was my training wheels,” Labrao says today. “Now, I can ride my bike.”
Helping students comes second nature to Khan. He’s the son of a college professor, and Khan sees education as the best true form of public service, and he likens his job as a success coach as being a “guardian angel.”
“This is the future of education,” he says. “Parents are investing their money and their time, and you have to give students – their children – the time they need to adapt. Students can’t be just numbers; they have to be a seed of greatness.
“It has to be about relationships, students have to feel valued, and if you look at it that way, they will do phenomenal things.”
Never Forgotten, Never Lost
It’s time for another Turn Up Tuesday, a weekly session that helps students navigate their first year in college. And this time, in his sharp suit with a purple tie, Khan talks about one of his favorite things: fantasy football.
Seven freshmen surround a table inside a first-floor ballroom at Cottrell Hall. Three are familiar faces from previous Turn Up Tuesdays: Brianna Beard of Fairfield, Connecticut; Hannah Hagans from Trinity, North Carolina; and Austin Schulze from Naples, Florida.
Last week, all three handed in their success essays, and all three rolled out their dreams. Beard and Hagans want to become teachers, and Schulze wants to work for his favorite football team, the Minnesota Vikings.
“To achieve success,” Schulze wrote, “I believe that one must envision their future self.”
All three do.
“Seeing the impact of my students will give me joy and contentment that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Hagans wrote.
Beard and Hagans met in chapel when they happened to sit side by side. They found out they both were education majors, and they both have the same success coach, Angi Kinsey.
They see Kinsey and the other success coaches like a parent. Success coaches make it personal, they say, and for Beard and Hagans, that personal touch is what they need. They don’t feel like a number. Kinsey knows who they are.
“She has, what, 100 other students?” Beard asks. “That is so cool.”
“I mean, we all have enough to worry about with academics, and that is one more thing I don’t have to worry about,” she says. “I have people supporting me. I know I’m not forgotten.”