What Batman can teach us about college success

Kate Zoromski is one of Lawrence’s Associate Deans of Academic Success. She works with students in a variety of capacities – from transitioning to college, to facing challenges, to life after Lawrence – to ensure their college experience is a meaningful and productive one. She wrote this post for us in 2014, but it has such good, timeless stuff in it that we want to share it with you again.

(You can learn more about the Center for Academic Success and other services it provides here.)

As I write this, I am preparing to send my second (and last) child off to college. Like so many parents, I am grappling with how quickly we got to this point. I recently came across a picture of her taken on the first day of kindergarten.  She was wearing a bright pink backpack that was nearly as big as she was. Her sweet little face reflected a complex combination of excitement and nervousness.  I remember thinking at the time that I was feeling much the same way! Was she ready? Was I ready?

No doubt, we’ve both learned a lot since then.  But it occurs to me as we get closer to freshman year that we’ve managed to circle around to that same place.  We shopped yesterday for a new backpack (more size-appropriate and not pink).  When she tried it on in the store and looked in the mirror our eyes met, and I know we were both thinking the same thing.  Are we ready for this?

As the parents of college students, we worry about whether or not our kids have what they need. Have we thought of everything they could possibly need for their dorm room? Do they have all their books and school supplies? Do they know where to get their meals or wash their clothes? Do they have enough money? But we also worry about less tangible things:  Are they ready to handle the challenges that come with being a college student? What happens when they need something and we’re not there?

I can’t help but feel that – at least in this one area – I have a slight advantage. I work with college students every day of my professional life. I have watched this journey unfold for thousands of freshmen over the years (including one of my own). And I have learned to trust in their capacity for change and growth, even when they doubt it themselves. I believe my kid can do this. And I believe your kid can, too.

Of course, we all hope our child’s journey will go smoothly. But in college, as in life, they will inevitably face challenges and disappointments. Those of us who work closely with transitioning students know well that how students view the challenges they face significantly impacts their success – in and out of the classroom. And there are simple, easy ways parents can positively impact their children’s ability to handle difficult times.

The research backs me up on this. As parents, we tend to think of our role in our child’s college experience in practical terms; it’s hard not to think of it that way when you’re on your fourth trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond!  But there are also some less concrete things we can do to set our students up for success during their college years.

Help your student understand that struggle and challenge are normal parts of a college experience (and life).

As seasoned adults, we understand struggle and growth go hand in hand. It’s a natural part of life. But, in my line of work, it is not uncommon to meet students who feel strongly that struggle means they simply do not have the ability to succeed. They feel it is a sign of failure, which they perceive as something very negative. And, worse, they feel they must hide the fact they are struggling so no one else discovers what they believe is a weakness. Understanding that challenge and failure are things we all face in times of growth will help students develop the resiliency they need to be successful. If your student knows that their experience is normal, they are more likely to press on.

You may remember this Michael Jordan commercial from a few years back.  He explains in clear terms that he has encountered more than his fair share of failures, but he believes those challenges are what made him so successful.  It is so hard for students to understand sometimes, but failure and success inextricably intertwined.

Encourage “interdependence.”

We spend much of parenthood preparing our students to be independent.  We work hard to make sure they can take care of themselves once they head off on their own. But I often find that students internalize our messages about independence as “if I ask for help when I need it, it means I’m weak.” In fact, they will actively resist seeking out the very resources that could help them overcome the challenges they face. I tell students that what we mean when we stress independence is not that we feel they need to handle everything on their own. We simply mean “we don’t want you to be dependent.” These are two very different ideas!

We want our kids to learn how to solve their own problems so they will be able to take care of themselves. But utilizing resources is one of the ways we build the skills we need to succeed. We learn from others – professors, academic advisors, housing professionals, tutors, peer leaders, counselors, and student success coordinators, for example. Talking with these folks provides a solid pathway to success and in no way signals weakness.

Did you see Batman Begins?  Remember the scene where Bruce Wayne consults with Fox about getting his Batman suit? Fox provides the information and the resources Bruce needs to become the superhero we all know and love. The funny thing is that no one thinks Bruce Wayne is a failure for using the resources available to him. In fact, we all think he’s a brilliant superhero for thinking of Fox and all the technology available in his department. Why is it, then, that our students hold themselves to a higher standard?  Why do they think that asking for help is a sign of weakness?

When we emphasize independence, we run the risk of being misunderstood, which means students don’t get the support they need and deserve. If you can help your child to understand that everyone uses resources to be successful, they will begin to develop the skills they need to face and overcome the obstacles they encounter during their years at Lawrence. Encourage them to be interdependent.

I know better than to tell you not to worry about your student.  I remember asking my mom shortly after my first child was born, “When do you stop worrying about them so much?” She chuckled knowingly and simply said “You don’t.” Will I worry about my own freshman in a few weeks? Absolutely. But it helps to know that she is capable of the kind of change and growth necessary to make it a successful year. Our students are headed into one of the most impactful experiences of their lives. Together, we can help them overcome the obstacles they will face and ultimately find success.

– Kate Zoromski, Associate Dean of Academic Success

All the Tools for Success Under One Roof

Kate Frost is one of Lawrence’s Associate Deans of Academic Services. She works with students in a variety of capacities – from transitioning to college, to facing challenges, to life After Lawrence – to ensure their college experience is a meaningful and productive one. She wrote this post for us in 2014, but it has such good, timeless stuff in it that we want to share it with you again.

(You can learn more about the Center for Academic Success and other services it provides here.)

“The first few weeks of my freshman year were awful,” a student recently told me.  “I came into college feeling relatively confident about my ability to be successful because I’d done really well in high school.  I was at the top of my class.  But then I failed my first calculus quiz.  And I just started to unravel.”

In the Center for Academic Success, stories like this are not uncommon.  Facing challenge can be especially difficult for incoming students, many of whom have experienced high levels of success in the past.  Struggle can feel like failure.  And failure can make us feel like we are unraveling.

Like my colleagues, I understand that students are much more complex than a quiz score or even a GPA.  Students need different kinds of support in order to reach their academic goals.  They need choices.  And it helps if those choices are easy to find and easy to access.

We recently reorganized our entire center with this in mind.  The Center for Academic Success is now the home to all of the following, all in one place!

Tutoring.  Peer tutoring has been a strong part of what we do for many, many years.  About 80% of our students will have utilized the services of a tutor during their time at Lawrence, which says a great deal about the quality of the peer tutors we employ (and we employ over 200 of them!)  The culture here enforces the idea that tutoring is not just for students who are struggling.  Students at Lawrence understand that there is wisdom in strengthening skills at any level.

Academic Accommodations/Accessibility Services.  We recently added a new coordinator position that focuses almost exclusively on providing accommodations/accessibility services.  We understand that having the appropriate support in place, in and out of the classroom, can make all the difference for students who have physical or sensory limitations, attention or cognitive processing deficits, learning disabilities, or physical or mental health conditions.  .

Academic Skills Building.  We offer workshops and individual sessions on academic skills like time management, organization, critical reading, note-taking, effective study and exam preparation.  We also provide online tools which are available to students at any time.

Academic Counseling.  Sometimes students are feeling challenged but need help unpacking the problem.  One-on-one academic counseling allows us to understand a student’s experience more deeply in order to help them find the resources that would be most useful.  We provide cognitive and affective strategies that allow students to develop coping strategies they can continue to use in the future.  We also suggest other resources on campus that might be helpful to students.

Success Course.  We offer a for-credit, discussion-based course called Investigating Academic Success:  Cognitive and Affective theories in practice in which we provide more in depth analyses of current, evidence-based success theory.  Students then have opportunities to apply those theories to their own lives.  Emphasis is on self-awareness, effective problem solving, increasing motivation, development of appropriate coping strategies, and lifelong learning.  Students tell us the course increases their resiliency by giving them better strategies to use when they face challenges.

English as a Second Language.  ESL courses are offered each term to support students’ study at Lawrence.  A limited number of directed study and tutorial courses are also available for students interesting in pursuing a specific goal in a one-on-one or small group class.  The Center also provides ESL tutoring for students seeking assistance with their English language skills.

We even also have a lounge, a lending library, and a computer lab available for students!

I asked that student who felt she started to unravel freshman year what advice she would give a new first year student now that she has been here a while.

“Don’t wait to get the help.  I’m not kidding!  I had no idea so much help was available here.  When you feel the first thread start to come loose, head over!”

Kate Frost
Associate Dean of Academic Services

Counter-intuitive thinking about return on college investment

This morning, as I was catching up on an old podcast while shaving, an interesting insight came to me.

(Warning: exercise extreme caution while simultaneously handling a razor and an interesting insight. Failing that, have a bandage handy.)

This particular podcast, NPR’s “Planet Money,” covers a wide range of topics, from how LeBron James is the “most underpaid athlete in the world today” to Duke’s $30,000 tuition discount. If you’re looking for an interesting peek into the finances of a major private research university, I encourage you to listen to the latter—and I highly encourage you to listen to it while doing something safer than shaving, like fluffing pillows.

The Duke story centers on the notion that, despite its approximately $60,000 cost of attendance, students who attend Duke are getting a $30,000 off-the-top discount—the argument is that it actually costs $90,000 to educate a Duke student after accounting for physical attributes of the campus, financial aid, salaries, lab facilities for big-name researchers, and other items.

The accounting isn’t what caused me to jump. As someone who works at a private college, I wasn’t surprised to hear what I already knew: colleges and universities are extremely expensive to run. (This is true even for public colleges, which, through their states’ budget support, are also able to heavily discount their real costs.)

My “a-HA!” moment came in the closing two minutes of the podcast, where the hosts pose the obligatory summary rhetorical question: Is it worth it? Or more accurately:

If you’re a student… are you getting a massive discount on the cost of your education, or are you subsidizing a giant educational edifice that you as an undergraduate student will barely come into contact with? [The answer: it depends on what kind of student you are…]

The question—and especially their “it depends” answer—forced me to rethink my perspective on the challenge that families rightly have been putting to every college in the country with increasing frequency: what is the return on the investment I’m going to make in your college?

We colleges—Lawrence included—usually answer that question with some combination of the following:

  • profiles of alumni with either (a) cool jobs, (b) nifty titles, (c) jobs at nationally-recognizable entities, or (d) some mash-up of all three;
  • lists of employers, graduate and professional school placements;
  • percentages of recent graduates who are employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.

These may be answers, but they’re not necessarily the right evidence for return on investment. They also suggest a simple input/output relationship: if you attend our university, then this can happen to you, too.

But here’s the other part—which brings me all the way back to my “shaving incident.”

The return on investment question is deceptively simple: “If I invest X, what might Y be?”

But X and Y are way more complicated.

Because X is not just your cost of attendance for four years. It’s also the degree to which a student takes advantage of what the college has to offer:

  • If the school offers research opportunities for undergraduates, will you take them?
  • If the school offers the services of its professors to help you craft a meaningful and relevant curriculum, will you use them?
  • If the school provides a rich extracurricular life—filled with athletic, musical, and other activities—will you participate in or support them?
  • If the school offers a city community beyond its campus as a place for work, play, and service, will you get out into that community?

Even if a student answers affirmatively to all or even some of the above, Y is difficult to predict—and Y becomes less predictable (and, presumably, more transformative) the more students engage all of the elements of X.

College isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—a passive experience. You can act upon it. Different colleges will provide you different student communities, physical and cultural environments, and degrees of flexibility in which you can shape them—and be shaped by them.

What is the return on your investment in a college?

(You know where this is going.)

It depends on how you invest yourself—not just your money—in it.

Homemade food, old friends, great conversation, and environmental economics

If you’ve visited Lawrence University over the past few months, you may have spotted me behind a sliding glass window right off the main lobby of the Admissions Office in Hurvis Center, staring intently at my dual monitor.  But last Thursday evening I found myself in the mustard-colored Greenfire house laughing with old friends, their faces glowing in the warmth of funky lights.  And what made the night truly lovely was the special guest I encountered when I got there.


As a student I was very involved with Greenfire, one of the main environmental clubs at Lawrence.  The house, where a handful of club members live and cook and are merry (and where I lived all of my senior year), happens to sit right across the street from Hurvis Center, which means I have no excuse not to frequently visit my friends who still live there and consume their fresh food creations (and, okay, wash some dishes while I’m there).

When I stopped by Thursday for a group meal, held in the house four times a week, I walked into the living room and saw Professor of Economics, David Gerard, sitting on the couch with his plate in his lap, in deep discussion with two students.  (Professor Gerard taught me Environmental Economics during a particularly beautiful spring term at LU.  The morning we had class outside, I remember feeling almost overcome by the scent of blooming lilacs while we analyzed the value of putting a price on carbon pollution.)

On Thursday the Greenfire club was kickstarting a series of lectures held in the comfy old house.  When I saw Professor Gerard digging into broccoli mac and cheese, he was gearing up for his talk on the economic viability of carbon sequestration.  What always amazes me is just how deeply interested Lawrence professors are in their areas of expertise, and how willing they are to share that expertise with their students.  Professor Gerard enjoys discussing the economics of natural resource extraction so much that he gave up his entire evening to do just that with a bunch of millennials.

During dinner, the atmosphere was no different from the nights when the house is not hosting a VIP.   We reminisced, filled our plates with seconds, talked about our weekend plans, traded ideas for why the candied walnuts in the salad tasted so perfect.  And that’s something that makes my alma mater so special.  It’s not difficult to come across homemade dinners (besides Greenfire, there’s the Sustainable LU Garden co-op and the McCarthy Co-op), friends, mindfulness–even professors–all in one place.

~Caitlin Buhr (Lawrence 2013), Data Operations Assistant



Three cheers for the liberal arts from a somewhat-less-than-objective-but-interesting-nonetheless source

I am posting to Admissions@Lawrence with some trepidation after my colleague, Andrea Hendrickson, wrote such a beautiful piece last week about how to tell colleges you’ve decided to go elsewhere. (If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. It’s a gem.)

I feel like a museum curator, who, charged with relocating the “Mona Lisa,” has replaced it with “Dogs Playing Poker.”

The following is one of those more utilitarian pieces you would expect to see pop up just two days before the National Candidates Reply Date. (That’s May 1, for those of you who haven’t circled, underlined, drawn stars around it—or all of the above—on your calendar.)

Repeating a theme we have addressed here often: the liberal arts, it turns out, are in demand by employers. Our friends at the Association of American Colleges & Universities* recently released a report digesting their findings from a national survey of 318 business and non-profit leaders: It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success

*Bias alert: AAC&U is a nearly 100-year-old organization dedicated to supporting liberal arts education.

You can probably tell where this is going…

Here are a few key findings:

  1. Nearly all the employers surveyed (93%) say that a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major.”
  2. In addition to those three capacities, more than 90% of those surveyed believe it’s important to hire people that demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning.
  3. This one we really like: When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, 74% would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.
    • That description, by the way, says: “This approach to a college education provides both broad knowledge in a variety of areas of study and knowledge in a specific major or field of interest. It also helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as intellectual and practical skills that span all areas of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.” (We don’t know what the other descriptions read like, so it’s difficult to judge what the comparisons were, but we’re heartened that employers value this type of experience.)

The takeaway?

How about, “Huzzah for the Liberal Arts?”

Which, come to think of it, would have been a better title for this post… if I were posting it in the late 1500s, which is when you may have been more likely to hear an occasional “huzzah!”