Fighting for Others, Fighting Together
My colleagues probably thought I was out of my mind, but five years ago, I stood up for an under-prepared and under-performing student during dismissal review with the expectation that she would raise her GPA during a summer enrollment. Both eyebrows and questions were raised as my director and fellow advisors pointed=out that the few grades she earned higher than C in her previous five semesters were in less rigorous courses than the two on her summer schedule. I justified my advocacy based on a recent appointment when she suggested she would change her major to something she thought she might be more successful pursuing. Though I sensed deep down that I was really advocating for her because of something I could not quite define. I wanted to see what she could do now that she met me and knew I was in her corner.
The hope I had for her turned to astonishment and concern when she sent me an email a few weeks later. Since dismissal review, she took it upon herself to add another class to her summer schedule. Now she was enrolled in two four=week courses and one eight-week course simultaneously—all in a new major. To make matters worse, she had already determined she was more passionate about her original major despite her struggle with the introductory courses.
Our policy prohibited withdrawals for students retained on final academic probation unless they needed to withdraw from the entire semester. Furthermore, our office email policy limited replies to informing students to call our office for an appointment reminding them that we do not advise via email or phone. Sending such an impersonal reply seemed in poor judgment regardless of our policies. I consulted with a colleague who reminded me that we had to treat everyone fairly and equitably, but I also knew I had a responsibility to this student I supported at dismissal review. I left a voicemail and bent the email policy. In the email, I briefly outlined the withdrawal policy while encouraging her with possible paths to success in her current enrollment and I urged her to see me promptly.
Despite a summer advising schedule limited by daily orientation programs, she was able to get an appointment within a few days. As she discussed the life challenges impacting her academic success, I realized why I was compelled to stand up for this student. She was a fighter. She was suddenly burdened by becoming the sole guardian of her siblings and it was beginning to take a toll, but it was clear she was unwilling to give up.
I expressed how much I admired her fighting so hard for the people she cares about. Then I posed a question: “Isn’t it time you start fighting for yourself too?” She looked up at me, dried her tears and sternly replied “Yes, and that s what I m going to do.” I reminded her that I have been in her corner so far and I would stay in her corner during this fight. She had to at least make up some of the grade point deficit by finishing strong in that rigorous summer load despite her desire to switch back to her original major. She smiled and assured me she would do her best.
When summer grades were posted, we were both hopeful and anxious to see how she fared. She was rightfully proud that the term GPA showed significant improvement over previous terms, but there was still much work to do. She still had to get back on track in her original major and face some courses that would be among her most challenging yet. She continued to fight and continued to see me every step of the way eventually graduating with a respectable 2.5 GPA.
Although we came from very different backgrounds we both work hard for others. The fight I saw in her epitomized what Al Pacino’s character in Any Given Sunday meant when he spoke of how life sometimes takes a toll but reminded us that life and football are a game of inches and “The inches we need are everywhere around us.” Sometimes advisors only have an inch of daylight to work with while facing high student-to-advisor ratios and challenging policies, but working with this student reminded me that “On this team, we fight for that inch.”
About the author:
Director of Academic Advising for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Northern Illinois University
Steve Estes not only helps students navigate academic paths but teaches, inspires and advocates for them as well.
Lauded for the “care, respect and personal interest” he offers each of the thousands of students he has advised since 1996, Estes is also known for “establishing and cultivating relationships” with colleagues to create nurturing experiences for students.
Those friends call Estes a “leader by example” who is just as generous with his time and enthusiasm in supporting their personal and professional growth.
“One of the things I value most about Steve is his energy and passion as a colleague,” says Cathy Doederlien, an internship coordinator in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“He is always so positive, upbeat and supportive. He is a realistic about the challenges we sometimes face, but he approaches everything with a positive attitude, always striving for the best possible outcomes for all involved.”
Students in every college feel his impact.
Estes has taught UNIV 101 every fall since 2005, serves on the Common Reading Experience committee and helped to develop NIU’s first pre-law Themed Learning Community.
Denise Rode, director of First- and Second-Year Experience, attended one of those TLC classes last semester.
“Steve took his class to the DeKalb County Courthouse to view a trial, which helped the students visualize one type of work they might be doing in the legal profession,” Rode says. “(I) witnessed the excitement, learning and sense of community that he and his peer and graduate student learners had created.”