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College: How To Do More Than Just 'Get By'


Now we'd like to talk about education, as we often do, and we know that college students are back on campus for the spring term, and we have to assume that a good number of them are not feeling so great about the first term. Why do we say that? In large part because, as we've reported previously, the data shows that too many students are struggling, not just to get into college but to finish within a reasonable amount of time.

For example, of all the full time students who enroll in two year institutions, only 30 percent actually graduate within three years. That according to the U.S. Department of Education.

We wanted to find out more about what it takes to excel in college, so we've called upon Melvina Noel. She is the author of the book "How to Thrive in College." She is an adjunct professor at Montgomery College in Maryland. That's a two year community college in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MELVINA NOEL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, can we get your perspective on why it is that so many students aren't graduating from two year community colleges, even within three years? Why do you think that is, based on what you've seen?

NOEL: Well, I think it's because they're struggling. They really don't know what college is about. It's like when you go somewhere that's a foreign place and you have to learn the rules of the road, you have to learn the language. And college really does have its own - it has its own language.

MARTIN: I notice that you teach a lot of non-native speakers of English. You teach a lot of immigrant students or students of immigrant backgrounds, as well as American-born students. Are there similar things that people are struggling with or are they different?

NOEL: They're the same. Now, you know, it's not the same in terms of - non-native speakers have the language problem, but with regard to - students come, they don't know the layout of the college. They just want to come to the first class. They have no idea that there's going to be homework. It's amazing to me. They will come without pen, without pencil, without paper. And I say this thing. I go, so you thought I would be serving tea and cookies on the first day?

MARTIN: You also told us, and you also say in the book that a number of these students, because they are adult learners, are juggling a lot of things in their lives. They generally have jobs. They often are married or partnered, and they often also have kids. What role does that play in their ability to deal with the college environment?

NOEL: It's humungous. This is why I really thread it through my class - organization and time management. They have to learn how to organize and balance that life and that's very difficult for them because you have to make a list of what you want to do. You have to figure out how to fit that college life as a part of your regular life, and that requires sitting down and making a plan.

MARTIN: Literally making a plan.

NOEL: Yes.

MARTIN: One of the other things I learned from the book is the role of mobile phones is huge in the classroom environment. You say that you often have spouses calling during class and it's not an emergency. It's just what? Pick up some milk?

NOEL: Yes.

MARTIN: That kind of thing?

NOEL: Yes. A lot of us teachers will start and say, and turn your phone off. And I'll say, well, turn it on vibrator. OK? Because there are some real emergencies. But do not have your phone on. I say, and didn't you let people know that this is the time that you would be in college, that this is your class time? This is the first thing that you need to do, so nothing should be ringing anyway, unless it is an emergency.

MARTIN: Let's wheel it around and talk about the whole purpose of your book, which is how to thrive in college, so let's talk about that.


MARTIN: How to thrive in college. What's the first thing that you tell students to do when they arrive in your college?

NOEL: Right. The first thing is you need to be present, and when I say present, they think I mean physically present. When you get into the classroom, you need to be physically, mentally, spiritually present. In other words, I always say you shouldn't be thinking about the fight you had with your husband or you have to pick up your child from school. You leave all your problems on the outside of the door as if it's a suitcase. Leave it on the outside, come in, be there for the whole hour, two hours. Then on your way out, you're welcome to pick up any problems or anything that's in that suitcase.

And that's a difficult thing for anybody to do, you know, because - and I can be talking and you can see that that person is drifting off, not because I'm boring or anything, but they're drifting off. And I say, come back to class. That is the number one thing. You paid all that money, you bought the books and everything. Be present.

MARTIN: What's the other thing you urge people to do? You mentioned organization is a big issue for people and I think a lot of people who come from environments where their parents are educated, everybody in their family is educated, really can't understand what you're talking about here. And talk a little bit more about that.

NOEL: Organization. Right now in my class I require that they get a spiral notebook and a three-ring binder, and the reason is - here is what will happen. A student will come me in my office hours and they say, oh, I want to show you this paper. And I say, OK. And I sit there. It takes at least five minutes for them to find that paper. They're looking through this. They're looking through that. I said, you should know exactly where that paper is, so if you have a binder and you put your notes in this place, the grades in that place and different areas, if you have a spiral notebook for your notes, if you have a notebook for each of your classes - OK - keep your grades. Something could happen. The school could burn up. You don't have your grades, you don't have proof that you made that score.

So organization means keeping all your papers in a certain place, knowing where to put your hands on it, making sure your homework is where it should be, not at work. Many times students come. I left it at work. Well, what can I do with that? You're an adult. When you finish your homework, put it in your book bag or wherever and put it by the front door, and if you feel like you're going to forget that, put a post-it on the door that says don't forget to bring your book bag. It'll work.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about how to thrive in college. That's a book by Melvina Noel. She teaches at Montgomery College. That's a two year institution in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in Maryland.

Now, you use the word thrive in the title of the book, and you say in order to thrive you have to get a new attitude, like the Patti LaBelle song. You say that you need to fall madly in love with wanting to learn. I mean how do you do that if you really don't? Maybe you've been badly taught in the past. Maybe you've never had a great teacher. Maybe you're really only there because that's the only way you're going to advance on your job. How do you do that?

NOEL: You say, well, I paid all this money. I stood in line for the books. I registered. All of these things you did because you wanted to come, so already there's a sense of love there, even if it's a required thing. OK.

The second thing I tell my students is to be present, present moment thinking. You paid all that money, did all of that to be in this classroom. Enjoy yourself. They're like, you know, sad or frowning the first day. They're coming from work. They're coming from home. They've been very busy. They're tired. I know this. I teach a 5:00 class.

And the first thing I say is, you're tired, right? They said, yes. You're coming from work, right? They say, yes. I said, guess what? You're off now. This is your time. It's not a spa, but almost. Guess what? I'm at work, so who should be sad here?

MARTIN: Well, let me - let's talk about you. How did you come to this work?

NOEL: To teaching? To writing?

MARTIN: Yeah. To teaching and to having this kind of interest in particularly students who don't have the kind of gilded backgrounds that would make teaching easier.

NOEL: Well, I guess because my mom said - after I had two degrees, my mom said I was a professional student. I loved going to school, so you know, I have five degrees now and I just love it, and even when I wasn't in school - one summer, I didn't have - I wasn't taking any classes. I went to the library and I was getting a lot of books on astronomy, astrology, because I want to learn about the skies, and people said, oh, you must be taking a course. I said no, I'm learning this for myself.

It's in me. My mom used to take us to the library and we'd get 10 books apiece and we'd have reading practices and competitions at home, and so it instilled in me, I think, a love for learning.

MARTIN: Isn't it hard for you to teach students who don't have that, since you don't even probably remember a time when you didn't have that?

NOEL: No. It's not hard because for me it's exciting to make them love it. And I don't want to say make them, but I'll say things that go - don't you just love that? Did you see what you just learned? Isn't that beautiful? And, you know, in the beginning, they're like, OK, this lady's a little bit off here.

But after a while, they start laughing or they say, I get it, because there is a moment. I don't believe you can come in my class and leave without having a sense of something else. Energy. You know, that energy passes over for everybody, for anything.

MARTIN: Do you think that anyone can learn to love learning?

NOEL: I believe it. Absolutely. You need something that's right for you. We might have to find it. OK. It's just like books. Somebody might say I hate books, but find the right book and you will turn them on.

MARTIN: If someone is listening to our conversation right now and is not having a very good day at all, just got those first semester grades, perhaps is not happy with them, is wondering whether he or she should even bother going back, what's the most important thing you would want to tell that student right now?

NOEL: Don't give up. Never, ever, ever give up. There's no reason to. You know, it's just like life. There are bumps in the road. Smash them down, get up, brush yourself off and do it again. Tomorrow will be a - well, the sun will come up tomorrow. It's really true.

MARTIN: Melvina Noel is author of the guide "How to Thrive in College." She's also an adjunct professor of reading and writing at Montgomery College in Maryland and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Melvina Noel, thanks so much for joining us. Come back and give us a booster shot.

NOEL: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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