Dr. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success recounts a study of students who were given a choice whether to view the papers of those who did better or worse than they did on an assignment. The fixed mindset students—those who believed that intelligence was fixed and they couldn’t get smarter—only wanted to see the papers of the peers who did more poorly than them so as to preserve their feeling of superiority.
On the other hand, those who embraced challenge as a means to getting smarter (the growth mindset-oriented students) asked to review papers that received higher grades than theirs. They wanted to get better. In other words, for them HELP wasn’t a four-letter word.
Getting help should be embraced, a theme that I hope I drilled home in previous posts (https://karlwreid.com/2013/08/19/no-pain-no-gain-get-in-the-zone/).
To be successful in college, you must adopt a mindset that’ll motivate you to connect with key administrators as well as with faculty. These are the folks who have your best interest in mind.
Here are a few steps toward making important connections with administrators and getting help.
GET TO KNOW YOUR ADVISOR AND OTHER KEY ADMINISTRATORS
When I was in college, because I was intimidated by my professors, I relied heavily on several administrators to help me make connections. My freshman advisor, Dr. Clarence Williams, was an angel, and continues to be an important mentor in my life.
You need a Clarence Williams, someone who knows you by name and can advocate for you if you run into difficulty. More importantly, though, that Administrator will push you to go see your professors or introduce you to other resources at the college that will help you academically, professionally, and personally. For me, there were others like him who offered me a job on campus or who reminded me that I was admitted on my merit. (Their words were particularly useful when I went through rough patches.)
In addition to your advisor, get to know your department chairperson and the administrative assistants of each of these key people. Don’t ever dismiss them because they’re “simply secretaries.” In most cases, they’re the most knowledgeable about the goings on and, if they like you, can easily slot you in for an appointment even if there’s no availability. It happens.
Most colleges have a student affairs function that offers tutoring and writing help for students to bring their content knowledge and academic skills up to speed. Take advantage of that. Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County tells his highly-selective Meyerhoff Scholars that if they don’t have an “A” then they need tutoring. I’ve added my own advise to his: If you don’t have an “A” then you need tutoring, and if you have an ‘A’, then you should be tutoring!
Regardless of how you’re doing at the moment, you should make a connection with the tutoring center, whether it’s located in your department (your major), related to the specific course(s) you’re taking, or connected to a central student affairs department. Once again, get to know them so that if and when times get tough, you know how to navigate this important service.
Forging relationships with the folks who can help you get smarter and better before you need them is the way to go. Who knows, you may have an opportunity to get paid to tutor. Getting paid to share your knowledge, develop teaching skills and to master the subject matter is a no-brainer (pardon the pun).
THE WRITING CENTER
I’d offer similar advice about the writing center. Writing is the sticky point for many students because many high schools simply don’t prepare you for college-level writing. More commonly, your English class was over-crowded or the teacher’s workload was such that they were reluctant to assign long papers because of the burden of grading them. And so, like me, submitting my first paper was a shock, both in its length and the poor grade with which it was returned.
Like the fixed mindset students to whom I referred earlier, your tendency might be to shrink back and bury your writing grade if you did more poorly than you expected or hoped, vowing to yourself that you’ll do better next time. If you were honest with yourself, you don’t know what “doing it better next time” takes. That’s where the writing center (and the tutoring center) comes in.
I recommend getting to know the folks whose job it is to give you an objective opinion about your writing ability, and provide specific tips on how you can get better. Give it one semester. Forget your pride or concerns about what your friends would think and walk in to set up an appointment. Schedule the visit several days before a first draft is due and get to know what resources they have available. These folks are experts at what they do. You’re not. You can always learn something from them, but more importantly, getting to know them will build your confidence. Trust me on this.
FIND A MENTOR
Earlier, I introduced you to one of my mentors, Dr. Clarence Williams. There were others: Dr. Bill MacLaurin, the Director of the Office of Minority Education, and Nels Armstrong, the Associate Director of Admissions. And while they happened to all be African American males, which naturally drew me to them, they brought different styles as mentors and played key roles at various points in my undergraduate and professional career. They also had something else in common: They all had my best interest in mind. The takeaway here is that you need a network of mentors, not just one.
Studies have shown that mentoring has proven effective for helping students overcome the barriers that prevent them from being successful in college, reducing the odds that students will leave college after the first year, and increasing self-efficacy (confidence). One of the most effective mentoring relationships that’s described in the research “entails friendship, guidance, counseling, a warm and genuine smile at times, referrals, and encouragement; it also means playing student advocate, navigator, proofreader, and alarm clock as needed.”
This was how I would describe my mentors in college (except for the alarm clock; none of them woke me up in the mornings, but they all woke me to many possibilities). Among your faculty and administrators, you’re looking for a kind and caring adult with whom you can connect on multiple levels—academically, professionally, spiritually, and personally. Having a network of mentors will certainly help you make the vertical connectional shift.
I titled this post, “Help isn’t a four-letter word.” Of course it is, but it isn’t a curse word in the pejorative sense. Rather, it’s a means to an end—to get better and smarter. Isn’t that why you came to college?
 LaVant, B. D., Anderson, J. L., & Tiggs, J. W. (1997). Retaining African American men through mentoring initiatives. In New Directions for Student Services (Vol. 80). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 49