Student Question: “I just finished my first year. I’m not doing so hot.”

Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 15 comments

(Remember that low cost textbook Gates grant I wrote about a while ago? We are gearing up for a huge milestone and I’m in charge of that milestone. So, please be patient if I miss a few blog steps. In the meantime, with the timing of the term, I had planned to blog about failing grades… again. I’ve received two student e-mails recently about the topic. This one really got to me, so I’m diverting from Word. Wednesday. to feature it. I know many, many students are in this student’s same position! My hope is that many of you will comment with some supportive feedback, as well. As usual, any identifying factors have been removed).

Dear Ellen,

I just finished my first year of college and I’m not doing so hot. I will most likely be placed on academic probation. I was planning on living away from home next term but will have no way to pay for it nor classes, books, etc. if my financial aid is taken away.

I haven’t talked to my parents about it yet because I’m waiting to see if I’m actually placed on probation first. I am scared because they have no idea I’ve been doing this poorly in school.

I’m a first generation college student and have been figuring out everything involving college on my own.

Please, any information or advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.



Here is my response (and I’d love for this student to hear yours!):

Dear Student,

First of all, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been struggling, but know that you are not alone! There are a ton of first-year students in your same situation. It isn’t broadcast, but the students are there. I know that doesn’t necessarily make your situation better, but feel heartened to know that you are far, far, far from the only student who has come to college and had an extremely hard time the first year.

Second, can you give me some insight into what happened with your classes and what you believe is leading to the possibility of academic probation? Let’s keep this focused on the work and the process of the work, not on any self-blaming because that’s not productive and we can’t go back and fix that, right? You can only look at what is required for your classes (i.e., X-number of study hours) and what you need to do to make that happen. Were you overwhelmed by the amount of work? Was it the time factor? The teaching style of your profs? Did you seek out any assistance? Did you talk to your profs about the struggles you were having?

What concerns me about your note the most is this statement: “I’m a first generation college student and have been figuring out everything involving college on my own.”

Oh goodness… why?

There is a whole college full of people who are there to support you :-) . Professors, academic advisers, counselors, librarians, tutors, all sorts of support staff… You are not meant to do this alone!

If I can encourage you to do nothing else in this e-mail, I want you to PLEASE get those resources going before you go back to school, and this includes going to meet your profs early and say, “I have been struggling my first year in college. I really want to do better this year. I would like to meet with you on a regular basis to monitor my progress. Do you review work early?”

Third, I totally get the part about being a first-gen student. I was a first-gen student, too. I’m wondering about the lack of dialogue with your parents regarding college. Is it possible that you might have gotten a lot of support from them, knowing that you were the first in the family to go to school? Of course, I don’t know the dynamic within your family, but in many cases, transparency and proactiveness is typically so much better than secrets and reactiveness–even with the hardest of situations.

I bet your parents really want to see you succeed. Would they would join your academic success team, so to speak? I would bring them into this conversation immediately, if for no other reason than to just take the weight off of yourself. Sit down in a quiet moment and say, “This is a very difficult conversation for me to have. I’ve been concerned about your reaction and have wanted to solve it myself before coming to you. School has been extremely hard for me and…”

Of course, BEFORE you have this conversation, I would find out about a) the academic probation and if you are actually on it; and b) the ramifications to your financial aid. Get your facts first so you and your parents can make some informed decisions.

Student (I did use the student’s name here…), I have seen many, many students at the end of their degrees who started their education this way… struggling, failing, wondering if they were going to make it through. It takes a lot students time to find their way in college. But the key is that YOU have to get the college resources to uphold you. The support is there. If that is the lesson that you had to take away this first year, then I think that is one valuable lesson!

Failure is part of the journey for many of us. I failed out of a whole term when my father died. It took me six years to return to school (maybe you saw that previous blog post). The failure or the academic probation doesn’t have to define you. What will define you is what you do now that it’s happened. So, let’s figure that piece out.

I’m glad to continue corresponding. I know you can get through this!


Programming Note: I have heard from this student and know a little more about the particulars of the situation. It is far, far from hopeless and is actually very hopeful. But I’d love for the student to hear from more voices other than mine. I’ve asked Student to watch the blog. I’m going to continue with the dialogue in the upcoming days. My hope is that if there is another student out there struggling–please work through the particulars of your situation–and go get the support you need from your family and from your college!


  1. Yes I have seen this with many students and I recommend to go to each teacher in each class and tell them you are having trouble and can they meet with you each week to help you. Also it is a good idea to go to all group study meetings and prep meetings the teachers holds for tests. Please go to the financial aid office and meet with a counselor to let them know what is going on so you don’t loose your financial aid. Finally try to meet with your advisor and get a tutor..all they things will show the staff that you really want to put your best foot forward and “make a change’

    • Jodi, thanks a million for your thoughts. The financial aid piece is always such a huge one. Does academic probation automatically mean a loss of financial aid? Ellen

  2. Dear Student,

    You are not alone in your struggles with college. Many first year students feel overwhelmed at some point, but as Ellen has said there are plenty of people willing to help you if you seek them out. Colleges especially want to help first generation students succeed.

    I work with juniors and seniors to help them get ready for college and I also have a son that is a first year student, so I know how hard a full academic load can be, especially at this time of year. When I finally convinced our son to go and speak to his professors (he was heading towards academic probation), he was very pleasantly surprised how “cool” and helpful they were. It helped him know what to do to improve and helped him turn around his grades. He was also surprised to realize that his professors did not know he was a first year student, one even commented “that explains a lot.” Another student I know spoke to her professor about not doing well on multiple choice tests and he had her come see him after every class and would verbally quiz her to see that she knew the information and she ended up with a B. Most colleges have academic support areas that are very helpful.

    I hope there is still time for you to speak to your professors before exams. Ellen has given you lots of great advice, so I hope you can get things back on track. She is absolutely right when she says that you don’t have to go through this alone. Good Luck!

    • Claire, this is such valuable advice. It is so true that students have no idea how much a prof might be willing to help until they actually go tell a prof what’s going on. I also think that even seeing profs after the fact is valuable. A student may decide to retake a class with the prof again–then they’re ahead of the game! Ellen

  3. Some of my students are in similar situations, and are starting to feel the pressure. Summer classes are a great way to help improve the student’s GPA, and could possibly take the place of a failing grade. Find a local community college, or attend a class at your institution to try and increase your GPA. Taking another class isn’t going to fix the problem, and each student needs to examine why they weren’t successful. Identify the stumbling blocks and you will be in good shape.

    • Eric, thank you so much for writing. I think taking a summer class is a fantastic idea to slow things down and take smaller steps. Ellen

  4. I’d just like to encourage this student as well because the lesson they are learning is a valuable one that doesn’t apply only when you’re in college. When you do finally get your degree (as I’m sure you will because you’re being proactive and accountable) and go out into the “real world” to get a job, you’ll find the same rules apply. Your boss (or even a client) is going to give you an assignment one day, assuming they gave you all the information you needed, and they’re going to be surprised when the project’s not done the way they intended because you didn’t understand it well. Developing the skill of asking questions, seeking clarification, and admitting when you don’t understand can be a humbling experience, but it’s crucial to future success.

    There isn’t a single human being alive who hasn’t been in your shoes. The circumstances may have been different. But we’ve all fallen short of others’ expectations for us, and our own expectations for ourselves. Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge where you’re at. Then determine to figure out what you need to do to get where you want to be. And don’t let fear hold you back, ever. You’ve got great things to contribute, so make it happen! I believe you can do it.

    • Hi, Tara,

      Wow, what a powerful, powerful comment. I’m e-mailing the student right now to request that they read these comments, just in case they haven’t looked :-) . I really appreciate your words. You are absolutely right. We’ve all been stuck even after college. I am stuck all the time on fitness, which is my Achilles heel as an adult–and I dislike asking for help with it… but I do!


  5. Hi Student,

    I just want to applaud you first of all to reaching out to Ellen with your problem. More students than you can imagine struggle in their first year and quietly disappear, never asking for help. You are so on the right track here, and I am impressed with your initiative. As Ellen said, the best thing for you to do now is to compound that initiative and be proactive in every aspect of your college life.

    I wrote a book called Community College Success that is all about connecting with people to help you in college when you are a first generation college student.

    When I started college I cried in the advising office because I felt so alone.

    But the key was building a community of mentors and friends to help me. Everyone needs that community, and no one can do it alone.

    So in addition to what you are already doing based on Ellen’s great advice, I would encourage you to:
    1) Meet with the student activities coordinator and try out a few clubs. Then join one and go to all of their meetings and activities. Make friends and share your struggles. Find friends who will lift you up.
    2) Meet with all of your professors like Ellen said, and ask for their advice. When someone sees how much you are, I promise they will bend over backwards to help you as long as they see you trying as hard as you possibly can.
    3) I would get some books on or the library that share the secrets to success in college. The links to my favorites are below. And if you ever want to hear more from me you can check out my blog at

    Best College Success Books:
    How to Be a Straight A Student by Cal Newport:
    How to Win at College by Cal Newport:
    Say This, NOT That to Your Professor by you know who:
    And yes I have to share my book too only because I wouldn’t have written it if it wasn’t meant to help people like you :)

    And finally, I’ve received many stories in my inbox of students who have had one-point something GPA’s and have turned things around and gone on to great things. Just think what an inspiration you’ll be when you’ll be able to share your story and tell others how you were able to turn it around.

    All you have to do is dedicate yourself by talking to people and reading books. Invest your time, and you will reap great rewards.

    You are going places!! :)

    • Isa,

      Thank you SO much! I absolutely wanted your perspective, not only as a fellow first-gen student, but also because I know working at Seminole State (although just for a couple more days :-) and through the stories in your book, you have seen myriad students in this position, as I have.

      I appreciate your words. You know how to inspire you came through to do it again!

  6. Oh my, how I empathize with this student. My son had a very difficult first year away at school – and he had all the support in the world. He didn’t think he would even be able to return to school for his sophomore year, but they did allow him to come back, despite two semesters on academic probation. He HAD to get a 3.0 to be able to continue…and he did! Something just clicked – whether it was maturity, or perseverance, or sheer terror – it worked. And he’s doing it again this semester, also.

    Ultimately the strength and drive to succeed must come from within, no matter how much support and guidance you have from outside. This student can do it, just like my son did – I have faith!

    • Sharon,

      This is such a meaningful and important perspective you’re offering! Bravo to your son for making this happen! How inspiring!

      (Darn tears in my eyes!)

  7. This is, unfortunately, more common than we like to think. Your student has gotten lots of wonderful advice and support here – both from your original blog post and from these comments. At College Parent Central, we tend to think about this situation more from the parent perspective. It is difficult news to hear as well as to give – and that is why your student is so concerned.

    All parents are different, and will react differently. However, I think there are four basic things that all parents will appreciate in this situation. Your student might keep them in mind. 1) Honesty. Being straightforward and direct is crucial. Don’t pretend things are better than they are. 2)Responsibility. Taking responsibility for your actions (or lack of action) shows maturity and understanding. Don’t try to put the blame on others. 3) Understanding. Knowing what caused the problem is a step toward fixing the problem. If the student can’t figure out the cause, at least being open to getting help in understanding the cause is a big step. 4) A plan of action. Although no parent wants to hear that things went wrong, having a plan of action to move forward helps. The plan of action may simply be a plan to get help making a plan to improve. But the student “owns” the problem and the solution.

    Ultimately, the life lessons learned from failure are sometimes the most important lessons of all. Taking the long view and the winding path are often difficult roads, but it is still possible to reach the goal of college success.

    • Vicki, this came in over the weekend, but I didn’t want to miss responding to it. Thank you for the parent perspective, once again! It is so critical! I think just like students need to approach their professor with what they’ve already done to solve their own problem, this is exactly how I’d want my son or daughter to also approach me–with their plan of action. I love that aspect of what you’ve discussed here. Thank you for providing support to this student. I agree with you that it is so incredibly common. Ellen

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