This week my college did a phone-a-thon to reach out to previously enrolled students who hadn’t graduated yet, but who haven’t registered for the Fall. The idea was to remind them that the semester is coming, to clear up any issues they might have, or, if they’ve made other plans, to find out what those are and look for patterns.
That was the idea. But people don’t always fit into boxes.
I got my list of 80 people to call, and took my spot alongside 20 or so colleagues at long tables with phones. We had scripts written in a choose-your-own-adventure style.
Predictably, a majority of the calls went to voicemail; we had a scripted message for those. A few phone numbers were either incorrect or obsolete. When students answered, they were uniformly polite, either saying something like “thanks, when can I meet with an advisor?” or “thanks, but I’ve transferred this Fall to xxx.” In the former case, we’d offer information, and in the second case, congratulation. Sometimes they’d have issues or questions around financial aid or something related. I could answer the simple ones, but some of the more complicated ones involved a referral.
Occasionally a parent would answer.
One Dad answered with “yeah, I’m not surprised.” I wasn’t sure where to go with that one, so I just defaulted to information.
But my favorite one involved a discussion of the Community College Opportunity Grant program, which is NJ’s version of Free Community College. It applies to families with incomes of $65,000 per year or less, which rules out a lot of people in this area. When I told him the income cutoff, he laughed and said with gusto, “I’d have to divorce my wife to do that!” That wasn’t in the script, so I had to improvise. “That might be a little drastic…” He laughed.
With the advent of smartphones, I spend far less time talking on phones than I used to. This was probably the longest I’d spent on the phone in years. At least it wasn’t cold-calling; these were students who had previously attended for a semester or two and hadn’t graduated yet. I didn’t have to explain the college to them; they knew. And hearteningly, I only got one angry tirade all night. Out of 80, that’s not bad. I expected much worse, given past experience in other places. Several of them ended by thanking me for calling, which I didn’t expect at all.
That’s the part I’ve been thinking about since the phone-a-thon. The thanks seemed genuine, neither sarcastic nor pro forma. They seemed surprised and a little relieved that someone from the college bothered to ask if they were coming back.
It reminded me a little of the feeling, at 18 or 19, of not feeling entirely sure that you belong. An offhand comment, or the tap on the shoulder, can tip the balance in a positive direction. It’s a simple acknowledgement, but some folks don’t get much positive acknowledgement. It matters.
The summer before I started grad school, I came to New Brunswick to look for an apartment. Walking around the College Avenue campus of Rutgers, I got stopped several times by people asking for directions. I took it as a sign that I seemed to fit the setting. I’d be shocked if they remember that, but I do, decades later. At that moment, even an incidental acknowledgement made a difference.
I don’t know how many will come back this fall. I hope most of them do, and of those who don’t, I hope they have even better plans lined up. And score one for an older technology, and an even older idea. They still work.