How Grief and Trauma Impact Learning

by Anika Lautenbach and Sarah Norek

This year students have been asked to adapt to myriad changes and uncertainty. Throughout these transitions, students have experienced collective grief and trauma, while also balancing the needs of family, work, school, and other commitments. We know none of this is easy, and we want to share some key ideas about grief and trauma and how they show up in learning contexts.

Grief & Trauma

This summer, Chris and Anika attended a Trauma-Informed Care workshop presented by the Oregon Family Support Network. This workshop emphasized how trauma impacts the brain in many ways—affecting problem-solving, reasoning and learning, and perception of time and the world around us. Trauma can also cause disassociation—feeling separate from self and surroundings—and can trigger fight, flight, and freeze reactions. These are extremely challenging states to learn in, and these are states that our students (and our colleagues and ourselves) are experiencing regularly (Canaga, 2020).

Additionally, Sarah and Clare, partnered with CAPS to design a webinar and Canvas module Learning During Times of Stress. The webinar and module content help students identify and understand feelings of loss, anxiety, fatigue and overwhelm, and provide them with strategies to navigate the experience while taking care of themselves. We learned a lot from our colleagues Emi Brown and Bonnie Hemrick about the symptoms of grief and how these symptoms manifest in our daily lives.

When we experience grief and overwhelm and fatigue, it isn’t uncommon to see changes in our sleeping and eating patterns or to have difficulty with focus or memory. In addition, we may either feel like disengaging or wanting to be even closer to those with whom we find comfort. You may also have heard of anticipatory grief—thinking ahead to loss—in response to something that hadn’t happened yet. Not surprisingly, all of these feelings and experiences can impact a student’s ability to focus and learn.

In a 2020 Healthy Minds Study, 30.5% of students reported that their mental health conditions negatively impacted their academic performance. 31.1% of students reported that anxiety impaired their academics. You can read more about the impact of COVID-19 on college student well-being here.

Even though only 31% of students actively identify the impact of anxiety on academics, many more students may report symptoms associated with anxiety. How students describe their experiences may vary, and students may be experiencing the impact of trauma, grief, or anxiety, even if they use different language when describing their experiences.

Student Experiences

During spring term, students often shared their feelings of frustration, sadness, worry, and fatigue. Students offered that they were feeling overwhelmed by coursework, that things which had previously been easy were now difficult, and that it was difficult to focus and stay motivated. At the same time, they were worried for loved ones, experiencing job losses, and navigating new responsibilities within living spaces. All of these experiences are likely amplified by pandemic’s disparate impacts on marginalized communities, as well as the continued racial injustice and violence.

From the Spring Student Experience Survey and from the Fall Survey conducted in September, we know students continue to experience concerns about mental and physical health and the well-being of their family and friends. In addition, students have expressed concerns about academics, finances, and responsibilities like work and caregiving. If you’d like to learn more about the survey findings, please consider registering for the FYI Friday Session, or contact Clare Creighton for access to the report.

We’ve learned a lot from workshops, collaborations, and  students. While students may find remote and online learning a little more familiar this term, we know that they’re still adapting and facing trauma, grief, and overwhelm that make learning difficult. We’d encourage everyone to keep this in mind while also being active in reaching out to students, checking how they’re doing, and engaging in supportive conversations.

Canaga, S. (2020). OSU Trauma Informed Care [Webinar]. Oregon Family Support Network. https://www.ofsn.org/

The Impact of COVID-19 on College Students’ Well-Being (2020). Healthy Minds Network and American College Health Association. https://healthymindsnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Healthy_Minds_NCHA_COVID_Survey_Report_FINAL.pdf

Supporting Students through Conversations

by Sarah Norek and Anika Lautenbach

We know that right now, students are experiencing grief, trauma, and overwhelm that make learning difficult. While some students may voice their feelings and experiences, many with similar experiences may not share them. As our colleagues Sara Caldwell-Kan and Bonnie Hemrick pointed out in a recent workshop, we must assume that our students are not okay right now and respond from a point of connection and support.

When we have conversations with students, we have the opportunity to provide empathy and connection and to help students find resources. Over the past few months, we’ve identified some themes and strategies for supporting students in conversation that we’d like to share with you.

Adopting a Supportive Mindset as You Enter the Conversation

  • Be a point of connection. Ask how they’re doing and validate their response. Acknowledge you may not have all the answers, but you want to listen.
  • Focus on the person in front of you. Whenever possible, eliminate distractions and give your full attention.
  • Meet students on their terms. Invite students to engage in ways that feel safe. Don’t insist on video. Keep in mind not everyone is looking for advice. Ask questions to understand how you can support the student.
  • Ask questions and come up with solutions together. If students want to explore solutions and strategies, work together to figure out what will work for them.
  • Be open and transparent in communication. There is uncertainty in so many parts of life. Be concrete and specific in communication so students don’t need to decipher the message or next steps.

Helping Students Adopt Strategies That Support Their Needs

  • Share the Learning during Times of Stress module. The ASC partnered with CAPS to create this Canvas module that helps students learn about and manage stress.
  • Help students understand the rhythm of their day. Ask when they are most productive and when they might be able to complete tasks. Help students think about their individual context.
  • Talk about the benefits of starting early. Things may take longer than normal right now. Starting early allows students to break tasks into smaller steps to complete over time.
  • Support basic needs. Be available to talk about basic needs like food and housing and connect students with resources like the HSRC.
  • Normalize self-care. Let students know it’s important to take breaks and it’s ok to need more breaks or longer breaks—especially from the screen. Normalize decisions made on well-being rather than “powering through.” Encourage students to take time for what nourishes them—sleep, connecting with friends, journaling, walking, meditating, etc.

Starting with a Framework

With big topics that impact students’ well-being, it can feel overwhelming at times to plan for or anticipate conversation. Supportive Conversations handoutWe’ve trained on the Supportive Conversations design for exactly that reason, as it can be helpful to have a sample conversation flow. Click the link or visual for the full-size version. Of course, the conversation needs to be nuanced and adapted to your own style and to the student in front of you, but it offers a starting point for thinking about the flow of a conversation and your role in it.

Chris Gasser, Coordinator of Supplemental Instruction, notes that “There are multiple pieces of this structure that I appreciate: It is simple, it checks my gut reaction to talk and find solutions, it attends to both the affective and the practical, it gives me a role to play: confidante and thought-partner, and it allows the conversation to continue.”

The strategies in this post and handout aren’t the only ones you can use; we hope these ideas spark new ones for how you can support students you connect with. Our colleagues Sara Caldwell-Kan and Bonnie Hemrick recently offered a webinar on “Centering Care during Uncertainty” and their handout on supporting student employees and leaders provides some great strategies and ideas as well.

In closing, we want to acknowledge that, like our students, many of us are also experiencing grief, trauma, and associated challenges. It’s difficult to offer support if we’re not taking care of ourselves. Please consider how the strategies we’ve shared might also apply to you. And check out Beyond Benefits for employee resources relating to wellness, mental health, finances, and more.

Take care. We’re wishing you well and we’re ready to help you support students in fall term.

Fall Course Updates Based on Spring & Summer Learning

I coordinate the Academic Success Center’s ALS 116: Academic Success course. In making course updates for fall term, I’ve tried to learn from spring and summer and to continue or prioritize updates that center students’ needs and demonstrate support.

I’ve made changes in large part based on what I’ve heard from students in class and what we’ve learned from OSU’s spring and fall student surveys—indicating that now more than ever, students need us to be mindful of workloads, policies, and personal needs. We can do this best from a point of connection and empathy.

Here are a few changes I’ve made to better support students in the sections I teach or coordinate.

Reference basic needs in multiple places.

Many students do not have access to basic needs like groceries, housing, and health care. Acknowledging this reality and responding can demonstrate you’re aware of what students are experiencing and are interested in supporting them. You can acknowledge basic needs in a syllabus statement, Canvas resource page, or announcements during/outside of class.

Incorporate a Where Do I Go for Help? page into the Canvas site.

This page from the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Remote and Blended Teaching Canvas template lists a variety of resources available to support students this term.

Create flexible policies.

Students value—and need—flexibility and understanding right now. I’ve removed all penalties for late work and emphasize communication when possible. I also note that I trust students to decide if they need more time on assignments; no justification or explanation is ever needed/required.

Offer sample language for asking for help.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say! Sample language can take stress off students who may be struggling to figure out how to reach out. By posting brief sample language in announcements, it’s easier for students to start an email and communicate what they need.

Make it easy to connect outside of office hours.

Whether this is email, Canvas chat, meetings, or another option, students benefit from having multiple ways to connect. One tool I’m trying is Bookings which is great for setting up meetings without the back-and-forth of finding a time via email. You can set meeting types and durations, sync with Outlook, and hold blocks of times for students to schedule.

These are just a few ways to support students. There are so many others! If you’re considering a course change or want to think about outreach or messaging to support your students this term, please reach out! I’m happy to connect via Zoom or Teams. You can also visit the ASC’s Campus Partners page or our Fall 2020 Toolbox for more strategies and resources to share with students.

Staff Picks – What We’re Reading

compiled by Chris Ervin

In this Staff Picks, we share what we’ve been reading lately. Our selections cover a range of topics and genres, each showing how we were compelled and engaged by the authors’ treatment of the desire to belong, to feel part of a communal experience, and to be valued for our unique contributions. We’re reading scholarly books, research reports, blogs, and novels—all of which are informing our work during this very difficult time.

We invite you, our readers of The Success Kitchen, to share what you’re reading with us. Fill out this survey with your own reading selection and your submission might be featured in the next issue of The Success Kitchen!

Sarah Norek

These days I’Pax coverm reading Sara Pennypacker’s Pax with my kids. It’s about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax, and explores the themes of uncertainty, loss, trauma, connection, and what we hold inside ourselves. So many of our students (our colleagues, ourselves) are holding a lot inside. And we may know so little from the outside. “He could offer only withness, and nothing else.” This from a moment when Pax lies down with another fox to be with him through a life transition. While I’m not saying we can’t offer more than withness, this line struck me in its closeness to witness—in being with another individual in a moment, a series of moments, an experience. I keep thinking about how I can be with students this term, even as we’re apart.

Clare Creighton

HMN Report coverIn the last month, Sarah Norek and I partnered with CAPS colleagues to create a webinar and a self-guided Canvas module on “Learning During Times of Stress,” (shameless plug: you can find it here). In the process of that work, I read the Impact of COVID-19 on College Student Well-Being report. I appreciated the report highlighting how concerned students feel about mental health. These results will impact how I approach student communication and student staff training on empathy, support, and self-care as they deliver services. I’m also mindful of how student experiences are impacted by current national events and am looking forward to learning how OSU students are doing based on our September student survey.

Chris Gasser

Discrimination and Disparities coverI’ve recently finished reading Discrimination and Disparities (2018) by Thomas Sowell. In his book, Sowell provides an economist’s interpretation of socioeconomic disparities and the relationship between discrimination and disparity by presenting research and questioning some of our most basic assumptions. In our work with students, we might find use of Sowell’s nuanced categorization of discrimination to understand disparities that exist within higher ed. As we seek to make the university a more equitable place, Sowell’s book challenges us to think about how our policies may or may not respond to different types of discrimination that exist within our current educational environment.

Marjorie Coffey

Screencap of Jesse Stommel's websiteJesse Stommel’s website—which highlights his work on critical digital pedagogies and building inclusive online learning communities—has helped me think more intentionally about course design, community, student needs, and assessment as I plan for fall. As examples, recent posts “Becoming a Student Ready Teacher” by Eddy Conroy and Jesse Stommel and “Designing for Care: Inclusive Pedagogies for Online Learning” encourage us to learn about our students—their everyday experiences, needs, and challenges—and to ask ourselves tough questions that can lead to pedagogical and policy changes that demonstrate care and compassion in our work.

Anika Lautenbach

The Sun logoFor years I have been reading The Sunand this magazine continues to provide a bit of solace and much needed breaks from the screen. Sometimes I only have time for the Readers Write section, which includes personal stories that give me greater perspective on the unique experience of each person. When supporting students, I find that empathy needs to be part of every conversation. It starts with listening, and I found The Power of Story to be especially compelling right now. It helps me remember that we must approach each other with compassion and find a way to connect.

Chris Ervin

Station Eleven coverI recently re-read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel—a novel following a troupe of actors and their orchestra through hardships before and after an apocalypse that erases most trappings of society that define modern life. Unlike other post-apocalyptic novels which often emphasize our ability to find common ground in the face of hardship, Station Eleven explores the relationship between humans and art, embracing the idea that creating, appreciating, and celebrating art is an integral part of the human experience, even in desperate times. Throughout 2020, we’ve faced a pandemic, advanced resistance movements to end systemic racism, and suffered egregious loss of life and of social connectedness, but we continue to celebrate the beauty and complexity of the human condition. Station Eleven tells us that’s okay, even when facing life-and-death decisions on a daily basis.

Reflections on the Remote Learning Experience Survey

by Clare Creighton

Over the past two weeks I’ve had the opportunity to work with Maureen Cochran (Director of Student Affairs Assessment) and Erin Mulvey (Transfer Transitions Coordinator) among others, as we researched, designed, and launched a survey to understand students’ current experiences with remote learning.

Survey Design & Response Rate

We sent the Remote Learning Experience survey invitation to Corvallis and Cascade campus undergraduates on April 23rd. Having reviewed sample surveys (HEDS COVID-10 Institutional Response Student Survey and Educause DIY Survey kit), we developed a set of questions you can preview through this link. The survey was designed to be quick to encourage completion. We also wanted analysis to be manageable, as we have used responses to reach out to students who are struggling. By the survey’s close on April 29th, 2892 students on the Corvallis campus had answered at least 75% of the survey–an overall completion rate of 16.29%. This low response rate should be taken into consideration when interpreting findings.

Academic Themes from the Survey

For brevity, I want to share just a few things from my experience working with the data. Given the lens from which I work, you’re going to read a particularly academic focus.

I coded open-ended responses to the question: “What would improve your learning experience in your spring term courses?” The responses reflect what many university students are likely experiencing given the reality of a sudden adjustment to remote delivery. I’d like to highlight two themes and takeaways that I’ve found applicable to my work in and out of the classroom.

Themes & Takeaways

Theme #1: Students are experiencing an increase in assignments, lectures, videos, and readings and are feeling overwhelmed by the workload compared to previous terms. Some students feel that perhaps instructors think they have more time now when, in reality, their workload has increased dramatically and many factors make it harder to complete work.

Take-away: It’s worth revisiting my expectations (of myself, staff, student staff, and students) keeping in mind the backdrop of the pandemic. These are challenging and stressful circumstances. It is hard to stay focused and work efficiently, and screen fatigue has a tangible physical impact. Students shouldn’t need to name why they are stressed or apologize for feeling overwhelmed. At the ASC, each of our team leads is checking in with student staff—do they want more hours? Do they need fewer? In my own work, I’m asking, how can I demonstrate empathy and understanding in the current situation?

Theme #2: Students expressed a desire for course consistency and organization that would help them plan and create routine. A predictable rhythm, clear expectations for assignments, increased access to instructors, and coursework posted earlier were among the “asks.”

Take-away: Previously, I considered myself very organized (although don’t look at my desk). And yet, I am challenged by the shift to navigate all communication, information, and interactions through a single device. I can use what I know helps me stay organized to help students. For example, I can send updates once a week in the form of a digest. I can be generous with deadlines and offer structure and reminders to support their process. I can adapt communication to help students understand the focus of the message (what is different and important) and any actions needed (what they should do).

Conclusion

As we begin planning for summer and fall, we have a chance to plan service delivery with a bit more leisure and intentionality. Even a return to in-person delivery for fall will be different than in the past. This creates another new learning environment and transition for students. I hope to honor the voices and perspectives captured in this survey as we address future delivery of our services and coursework.

Knowing the findings from the survey can help the OSU community better support students, we have disseminated survey information through a few avenues. Survey information is for internal use only. A PDF on Box provides a high level summary of responses as well as coded themes from open-ended questions. Please contact Maureen Cochran for access.

Student Staff Spring Training

Like many departments, the Academic Success Center (ASC) trains student staff over the course of spring term. In training, students develop fundamental skills and engage in extensive practice prior to supporting other students.

Anika Lautenbach, Lead Strategist for the ASC, is currently training new strategists. Whether consulting in-person or virtually, strategists help students locate resources, identify learning strategies/tools, and communicate effectively within the university.

Anika has taken time to answer a few questions about training and share several resources the OSU community can use when training student employees.

Onboarding Strategists

Q: Could you talk a little bit about the general structure for training?

AL: The initial Strategist training is typically broken into three group sessions. Each lasts about two hours and gives us the opportunity to…

  • Talk about the ASC mission and values
  • Discuss the strategist role in detail, as well as other ASC programs and services
  • Engage in team and community-building activities
  • Practice skills with the group before working with students.

Q: What are a few major topics you cover when training students for the strategist role?

AL: We cover what we call Fundamental Skills for Helping. This includes active listening, asking closed and open-ended questions, and validating each student’s experience and ability to succeed. We also focus on how to make effective referrals.

After initial training, new strategists observe experienced strategists and debrief consults. Debriefing gives them the chance to think about what went well, what was challenging, and how they can grow in their role.

One thing we really value is learning from each other, which includes seeking and offering feedback. It’s important for us to start this process early on. I like to share examples from my learning experiences to show that feedback is something we all can benefit from.

Q: How do you prepare strategists with strong knowledge of resources available to students?  

AL: Strategists often say one of the biggest benefits of the position is learning about resources. When we are on campus, I ask strategists to visit popular resources like the Undergraduate Research & Writing Studio, the Human Services Resource Center, and the cultural centers. Visiting as a group gives them an opportunity to bond while experiencing resources. With remote learning, I’m having them explore resources online.

At times, I have also worked with campus partners to acquaint strategists with resources and train on specific topics. For example, we had folks from the Ombuds Office talk with strategists about navigating difficult conversations, and the Career Development Center helped strategists identify ways to represent transferrable skills on their resumes and in interviews.

Q: What are some of the resources, tools, or information you rely on in training? 

AL: Unit 1 of the Peer Educator Training has been extremely useful when onboarding strategists. Unit 1 covers foundational elements of offering peer support, which include active listening and validation. I also use the reflection prompts to guide conversations around creating a welcoming environment.

Students also complete Kognito training to prepare for conversations with students in distress. This training gives strategists practice with skills to feel more confident working with actual students who may need support as a result of academic challenges or other life events.

Strategists also complete FERPA training. Even if they have completed this training for another campus job, I have them revisit the material so they feel confident working with sensitive student information.

Q: What do you enjoy most about training?

AL: A lot of creativity goes into designing training, and I learn more each time I work with a new group of students. I enjoy helping students develop new skills, getting to see them grow in their role, and finding ways to ensure they feel supported and confident in what they’re learning.

Resources to Support Your Training

All of the resources Anika described are freely available to the OSU community. In addition, the ASC also offers training for student employees. Commonly requested topics include making effective referrals, balancing work and academics, and facilitative vs. directive peer education. If you’re interested in learning more about ASC-facilitated trainings, please reach out to Marjorie Coffey, or submit a request using our workshop request form.

Silver Linings of Remote Work

The transition to remote working, teaching, and learning this term has been challenging for everyone. While we don’t want to sugarcoat those challenges or diminish them, we would like to share some silver linings of remote work that have encouraged us and, at times, surprised us. Click the image below to read about experiences across the Academic Success Center.

Silver Linings

Student Staff Picks: Tools for Finals Prep

As we head into the last few weeks of the terms, students are preparing  for final exams. While the study process and exams might look different this term, there are still many tools to help students prepare. Here are recommendations from our student staff based on what works for them and what they share with students who access ASC programs. Click on the visual to see the full-size version of each tool.

Term at a Glance

Term at a Glance

Maria, ASC Strategist

One of my favorite tools is the Term at a Glance worksheet. It allows me to visualize my midterms, final exams, quizzes, and large projects all in one place. It also prompts me to start on projects earlier, rather than putting them off until the last minute. Especially now, with the days of the week blurring together, being able to see when important projects and essays are due helps me to stay on track. I feel accomplished when I can cross off assignments that I have completed.

Finals Survival Guide

Finals Survival Guide

Hana, ASC Strategist

The Finals Survival Guide is incredibly useful for getting a head start on finals. Inside the packet, there is a large calendar [with] weeks leading up to final exams, so students can break down everything they need to do in order to feel fully prepared and confident going into finals. Along with the calendar, there are study tips and advice for how students can succeed in the last phases of their classes.

7 Day Study Plan

7 Day Study Plan

Theresa, Academic Coach

My favorite resource is the 7 Day Study Plan. It breaks studying into manageable chunks, so students can make tangible progress while not being overwhelmed. The best part about this worksheet is that it shows what to do each day and how to do it. It also has a page where students can think about what they need to study and how they can create the best study environment. All in all, it is a great starting point for students when it comes to test preparation!

Aarya, ASC Strategist

This tool can be used to plan for exams across various classes. I have been able to utilize it within STEM courses, writing-intensive courses, hybrid courses, and more. This worksheet has been especially helpful in the online learning environment because I can organize what materials I need, what I know, and what I need to know for an exam. The checklist feature is also helpful for keeping me accountable as I study throughout the seven day period.

Test Autopsy

Test Autopsy

Hana, ASC Strategist

The test autopsy worksheet is great for students who may not have done as well on a test as they would have liked. It creates a structured approach to evaluating their performance on a test. Instead of taking the grade they received as a testament of their entire understanding of a subject, the student can review each question to identify why they didn’t get an answer right. This allows the student to see exactly which areas they could put more energy and time into studying.

Studying Checklist

Studying Checklist

Hoan, ASC Strategist

My favorite tool to use when preparing for exams is the Studying Checklist. This worksheet is great for summarizing important concepts and ensuring  all of the topics will be mastered prior to the exam. It’s a great tool for students who have several challenging courses to keep up with. Seeing a broad overview of concepts will help students think about how to set up their study schedule. With this worksheet, students can plan their studying time based on the levels of learning needed for each concept: remembering, understanding, applying, and mastering.

Emergency Studying

Emergency Studying

Bo, ASC Strategist

My go to tool for studying is the Emergency Studying worksheet. I find that the term gets busy fast. [W]hen it comes to studying, I want to figure out the best use of my time. This tool helps me focus on what’s most important. [I]n doing so, I am able to create a study guide [and] a plan for how much time to spend studying each day leading up to the test. I’ve found that the Emergency Studying worksheet is beneficial no matter how much time I have before a test.

10 Questions to Ask Graduating Seniors Instead of “What Are You Going to Do Next?!”

by Abbey Martin

Let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that there’s a lot going on for graduating seniors right now. Many of them are overwhelmed finishing their degree and planning for next steps in an uncertain post-graduation world. Certainly they are being asked the question, “What are you going to do next?” by many people, which has the potential to add to overwhelm. In your own interactions, why not change things up? Let’s support students and also bring some laughter and levity into the conversation.

Here are 10 questions that look to the past and future without the weight of long-term goals:

  1. What’s something that you loved doing as a kid that you still love doing as an adult?
  2. What are you most looking forward to reading, watching, or doing this summer?
  3. If you had a YouTube channel, what would be your YouTube personality or the focus of your channel?
  4. If you were going to open your own business, what would it be, and why?
  5. What was the best class you took in college, and why?
  6. What are you most proud of in the last year or two?
  7. What’s one thing you hope will continue even after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted?
  8. What goal have you achieved that felt really far away your first year in college?
  9. What album, book, or movie has shaped who you are as a person?
  10. How have you surprised yourself while in college?

We hope these questions spur your thinking of even more fun conversation starters.

If you are planning a conversation with the goal of helping a senior process their next steps, check out the article Supporting Seniors’ Post-Graduation Thinking with conversation insights from ASC student staff.

Supporting Seniors’ Post-Graduation Thinking

by Abbey Martin

Take a moment to think about how you might feel right now if you were a graduating senior. Would you be excited? Relieved? Stressed? I’d likely be feeling all of these things (and more!). I might also feel disappointed that I’m missing out on graduation activities I’d looked forward to, or be worried about finding a job after college—especially right now.

While “what are you going to do next?” or “What are your plans after college?” are common questions, these can feel overwhelming for students to answer. I reached out to ASC student staff and asked what they’d find helpful in a conversation about next steps after graduation. Here are some questions and ideas they came up with:

How can I support you as you prepare for graduation and what comes after?

An overwhelming theme students shared was wanting to feel supported and cared for by faculty and staff as they navigate next steps. Some students would like to hear about tools and resources for career exploration. Maria, a strategist, noted that she’d find it helpful if faculty and staff shared their experiences and what they would have done differently post-graduation. Others thought check-ins with a professor would help them prepare for next steps. What’s helpful can vary by person. The best way to know what each student wants or needs is simply to ask.

What fields, career paths, or positions are you interested in? Tell me all of the possibilities you’ve thought of.

Many students shared that they don’t know what field they want to enter after college. They also mentioned feeling pressure to have an acceptable answer for those who ask. Catie, an Academic Coach, shared, “Usually the question I get asked is, ‘What do you want to do?’ Getting asked that question so much kind of forced me to come up with a routine answer that wasn’t entirely accurate but was at least something to respond with. I think [it] also subconsciously discouraged me from having an open mind about other possibilities.” If students are not ready to name one concrete path, we can support them in their exploration process.

What aren’t you interested in?

Molly, an Academic Coach, shared, “[A] tool that really helped me in finding what I wanted was being asked what I didn’t want… It made narrowing down what I could potentially want much easier.” Students may not be ready to fully commit to one interest area, but they may have ideas for things they definitely don’t want. Exploring those can be a powerful form of self-reflection.

What do you want your next step to be? What do you need to get there?

Focusing on the big picture can feel overwhelming, but breaking things down into smaller, manageable steps can be helpful. Some students simply want to process those next steps aloud. Aarya, a Strategist, shared, “For me, the answer [of what I’ll do next] has always been broad. I want to eventually become a doctor, but what [happens before that] has been—and still is—difficult to answer because the path is long, and the end is still far out of sight.” Other students echoed this sentiment, saying they would find it helpful to identify more immediate next steps vs. only focusing on long-term goals.

Focus on Supporting Students

If you have the opportunity to talk 1:1 with a student and support their thinking, keep in mind that the most important thing isn’t always what question you ask; it’s how you ask it.  I’d encourage you to try one of these questions in your conversation. Remember to listen well, validate often, and empathize. Each student I talked to wanted to feel like they had people on campus who supported them and who would listen to and think with them. Let’s be those people!

Want ideas for conversation starters or more informal questions related to the excitement around graduation? Check out 10 Questions to Ask Graduating Seniors Instead of “What Are You Going to Do Next!?”