Westmont Magazine Guiding Students Over Academic and Emotional Hurdles

Student Success Coach Jada Fox '20 meets with a Westmont student

Imagine beginning your college career away from family, friends and everything that’s familiar in the midst of a pandemic. When Westmont launched the Student Success Coach (SSC) program in fall 2020, the timing proved to be ideal. Although not intended for a virtual rollout, the program has become one of the innovative ways Westmont helps its new and first-year students make the transition to college and thrive. The Center for Student Success employs six coaches who focus on the individual needs and experiences of each student. By supporting their growth, guiding them through challenges, directing them to resources and creating connections, the coaches empower each student to develop their potential and excel on campus and beyond.

Eileen McMahon McQuade

“All our new incoming students had a college start like no other as we assigned each one a student success coach,” says Eileen McMahon McQuade, associate dean of the faculty and professor of biology. “What grit and adaptability this class of 2024 has required. The coaches got the honor of serving as that extra support these students needed to navigate their unusual college start.”

While not required, more than 83 percent of new first-year students met with their assigned coach at least once in the fall semester, and 82 percent connected with them again in the spring. “This fact alone demonstrates how valuable students found these meetings,” McQuade says.

Each new student has unique experiences and challenges. While some express incredible enthusiasm and feel well-equipped from the beginning, others are less certain and encounter immediate obstacles. “I’ve helped students overcome their fear of immersing themselves

in a new environment and fitting in, encouraging them when the first wave of exams revealed Westmont’s rigor,” says Matt Pace ’16, a coach and a senior admissions counselor. “I pointed out the wide variety of resources available to them to ensure their success. COVID-19 obviously amplifies all the typical challenges new students face, so many of our conversations have focused on adaptability and identifying creative solutions.” 

Pace is pursuing a vocation in school counseling and says he easily decided to become a coach. As an admissions counselor at Westmont, he has worked with prospective students for four years. “It always felt strange to work so closely with students before they got to Westmont and then abruptly discontinue my support once they arrived on campus and became members of the community,” he says. “I wanted to keep the connection alive and offer insight and guidance as they navigated Westmont’s rich but often challenging terrain. After all, I’d convinced them to make this place their home!”

One coach who had trouble connecting with a student finally scheduled a Zoom appointment and sent the link. The student attended the meeting and reported struggling with severe depression. Right away, the coach got an appointment for the student with Westmont’s Counseling and  Psychological Services (CAPS)—and a follow-up session to check on the student’s health.

Coronavirus-related visa delays prevented one international student from arriving on campus until midway through the fall semester. The student then had to go into a 10-day quarantine in keeping with college policy. Unable to purchase books, the student attended classes remotely but couldn’t complete the readings. The coach contacted the bookstore, picked up the books and delivered them to the isolated student. “This kind of care and attention exemplifies how the coaches go above and beyond their duties to make sure all students have what they need to thrive at Westmont,” McQuade says.

Most of the meetings occur on Zoom, which creates a challenge in communicating and planning, but the coaches have used the online platform in creative ways to support students. A virtual workshop explaining Westmont’s online system for registering for classes reached more students because of its ease and flexibility. The College Hack program, which features experts talking about specific ways to improve study habits and other topics, offered short, 30-45 minute programs with targeted practical advice. 

“We’ve helped students gain insight into how best to choose their classes, prepare for academic advising meetings, implement easy time-management strategies, grapple with picking a major and decide between a summer job or internship,” McQuade says.

Coaches worked with CAPS to create “Westmont Reflects: A Year Through the Pandemic,” a three-part series of short videos that focuses on experiencing loss during the pandemic, managing feelings and low motivation and moving forward with gratitude despite the uncertainty of the future.

New students planning to enroll in fall 2021 can meet with their coach as soon as they confirm their acceptance to Westmont. “The coaches have already started meeting with incoming students for fall, helping them register for classes and sharing resources even before they arrive on campus,” McQuade says.

Student Success Coach Jada Fox, who graduated from Westmont in 2020, says new students asked questions about how to best explore their interests, pursue their major and build their lives on campus.

“Last fall, a first-generation student told me no one at home understood college,” she says. “At meetings with coaches, she—and other students like her—can get answers to their questions.”

Fox guided another student, who was exploring a double major while participating in theater, through regularly scheduled check-ins as a form of accountability.

“We provide a space to dynamically meet and support students in their foundational first year,” Jada says.