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Legs and arm of a man lifting a heavy barbell in a gym
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One of the best parts about working in higher education is having the opportunity to be a part of college life—the athletic events, the student performances, the lectures. You have developed your own list, I am sure. Once in a while, those aspects do more than just entertain or enlighten—they offer a vivid and uncomfortable reminder of the hard work of fulfilling our institution’s educational mission.

The guidance from my new fitness coach right out of the starting gate was clear and expected: I needed to add some weight training to my cardio routine. She sent some short videos of beginning exercises and I headed to the fitness center, where my future would surely begin.

Within minutes, I knew in my bones what I had known only intellectually about what it felt like to be a new student at my college. Every barrier was suddenly real, not just a discussion item in a meeting. I mean, I’d been in gyms many times before—just as our students all have a long history in classrooms. But somehow this was very different. I was being charged with using equipment that was unfamiliar to me, trying to interpret jargon on the “how to” labels attached to each station. Is this what a syllabus looks like to a first-gen student, I wondered?

The motto here at Cuyahoga Community College is “Where Futures Begin,” which is pithy and catchy, and it may have played a small role in inspiring me to register for a campus 5K run a few years back. I had never run more than absolutely necessary in my entire life, and it took me months to build my endurance to a point of respectability. Now, I run almost every day, and at 52, I’m more health-conscious than ever before. So when our sport and exercise science program manager recently asked for volunteers for our fitness coaching candidates to get some required hours, I immediately signed up.

Everyone else in the entire room seemed to know exactly what to do, and I was certain that they were all exchanging knowing looks about my sheer ineptitude. Before the end of my first workout, I asked myself whether I really belonged there. DevEd math, anyone?

Above all, though, I pondered the long road ahead. This wasn’t like training for a 5K; it was more like preparing for an ultramarathon. In the desert. But even worse than that, I had no confidence that these workouts would lead to the results that the fitness coach promised. How long will it take before I see improved muscle tone? I’d ask myself. How do I even know that I’m doing it right? Besides, would improving my strength really matter to my life in the long run?

Quite suddenly, I felt like a new student. I was eager for my future to begin, but what a long road to that future. We ask students to trust our judgment about the benefits on the investment of their time and work, freely acknowledging that it may not pay off for years. Even then, it is understandable that they struggle to see the value in learning to their own goals. My fitness coach surely believes that my triceps should be stronger, but does it really matter? And isn’t that basically the same question that students ask about gen ed requirements? I’m not sure we always answer it well.

Without doubt, most of our institutions are working hard in so many ways to meet the needs of new students, from first-year-experience classes to expanded advising and a million other practices to “meet students where they are.” No one can seriously question our indefatigable efforts to help new students find their way.

Yet so many students don’t. Is the road just too long and arduous? Isn’t that why most of us stop going to the gym? The payoff may be too distant to justify the very real, very immediate pain. How do we encourage students to stick with it, to do the hard work now—especially at a time when so many are increasingly skeptical of the value of that work?

Adjustments and Reassurance

My fitness coach approaches these same challenges with strategies that may be useful in the academic classroom. She celebrates the small victories, recognizing that each point on the journey is its own success. At the same time, she is patient with imperfection, pointing me back to the path when I fail to follow through.

But above all, she is receptive to changing course as needed. We regularly adjust the what in service of the why. Further, it is clear that we can always revisit the why. If building my core no longer serves my goals, we move to something else. Isn’t that what a student-centered education looks like?

Above all, I am convinced that she cares whether I am working out. Do our students know that we see their success as our goal?

Whether in the classroom or the gym, the work is hard—and it should be. I know that building my strength will require sustained, intense effort. Students know that about learning, and most are willing to put in the work—at least for a while. They need us to consistently reassure them that they are on the right path or to help them get them back on that path when they stray from it.

As you start the fall semester, take a moment to ponder the daunting distance between where they are and where they’re going, candidly acknowledge that challenge to the students, and then provide some timely encouragement and correction along the way. As a dean, I have seen the impact of frequent faculty communication to students. When an instructor can genuinely empathize with students, maintain conversation that respects their needs and keep students apprised of how well they are doing, students typically respond with respect and appreciation. Put differently, those students want to please these professors because they know their professors understand them. I have had students come to my office in tears about a single moment in a class discussion or one comment in the margin of a paper. Tears of joy. That’s how much you mean to them.

True confession: I genuinely hate lifting weights. It is much worse than running, and running is painful and awful. But I haven’t skipped a scheduled session all summer, and I will continue to go, at least partly—perhaps largely—because I value the opinion of my fitness coach.

I need her feedback to keep me going. Students need the same from us and for the very same reasons.

William Cunion is academic dean, eastern campus, at Cuyahoga Community College.

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