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Reimagining Holistic Support through Student Success Coaching at George Mason University

Student Success Orientation, Transition and Retention
December 6, 2021

Student needs are constantly changing on college campuses. To support the evolving student needs, college campuses must also change and adapt. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, George Mason University (Mason) was developing and implementing an institution-wide success coaching program to help students navigate their evolving needs and transitioning to a higher education space.  However, the climate on campuses shifted significantly with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is likely to change the landscape of higher education forever. Supporting students through coaching has become more important than ever before.

The Student Success Coaching unit (SSC) was established to allow for students to have a more consistent experience, enhance and improve their time at Mason, and to eliminate the Mason Shuffle (the phenomenon where students are redirected to multiple offices to get an answer to their one question). The Success Coaches at Mason have played a key role in supporting students in their transition to online learning, navigating the political climate and racial injustice, and providing guidance on the eight key focus areas in our coaching methodology (academics, well-being, finances, managing commitments, effectiveness, school community, career exploration, civic engagement, and commitment to graduation).

What is Success Coaching?

Success coaching focuses on various aspects of a student’s life that affect their journey. Mason defines success coaching as “helping students transition to college, make the most of their student experience, and work through their own definition of success” (Student Success Coaching, 2021, para. 1). The role of the success coach is to “help students identify resources to enhance their Patriot experiences. Success coaches work with students to help them develop and implement personal, career, and academic goals. Success coaches provide support and encouragement to help students continue writing their story while at Mason” (Student Success Coaching, 2021, para. 2).  Coaches ask intentional and strategic questions around the student’s experience to create a personalized plan focusing on their present and future goals.

How is Success Coaching done?

Success coaching has become a highly practiced method of support that a number institutions including Georgia Tech, Arizona State University, Old Dominion University, University of Denver, Clemson University, and University of Washington amongst others use to support their students holistically.  Mason has committed to providing personalized success coaching to 7,500 incoming freshmen and transfer students. These students are assigned a Success Coach by the first letter of their last name. However, all Mason students have access to a coach. The coaching philosophy to student support is we never turn away a student. Any student who wants to access a success coach will receive coaching.

The SSC team connects with students through email, text, social media, and phone calls. Following the initial communication, student meet with their coach to set goals that the student act upon. Each student meeting differs depending on the needs of the student. An example of the appointment structure includes:                        

  • The coach will introduce themselves and explain what coaching is and their role
  • Students will discuss why they chose Mason, their major, where they are meeting from (home, apartment, residence hall, etc.) and get to know the Success Coach better
  • Coaches will review the focus areas and determine with the student which one they want to focus on during the meeting
  • The Coaches will have a strategic conversation with the student about their area of focus
  • The Coach and student will work together to strategize a best path forward and create goals for the student

In the post-success coaching survey, data show that 97% of students who met with their Success Coach were satisfied or extremely satisfied. Students who meet with their coach are returning to Mason at higher rates than students that have not met with a coach across many of Mason's contemporary student populations: transfer students, out-of-state, off-campus students. Students develop critical organizational and time management skills.  The students shared that they “find the coaching very helpful, and it allows me to better organize the things that are going on in my life here at Mason.” Yet another shared “My success coach has helped me a lot with time management, how long I should spend doing work for each class and still having time for a break and myself. It has made my experience so much more enjoyable.”

For institutions thinking about implementing a student success coaching program some questions to consider are:

  • Do you have existing structures in place to create a coaching program or do you need to start from scratch?
  • Do you need to hire new staff? Do you have existing staff that can fill the role of a coach?
  • What budget constraints do you need to consider?
  • Who needs to be involved in the development and implementation of coaching? 
  • Do you want to serve specific student populations or all students?
  • What departments will this initiative affect?
  • Who are your potential naysayers and who are your champions?
  • Find the people who will be in your corner and advocate for the initiative. Use your champions to help convert your naysayers.
  • Do you have senior leadership buy-in?
  • Keep the reason why this initiative is important at the center the development and implementation of the program or project.

Now in its second year of operation, the Success Coaches at Mason have made a large impact on the success of the student populations. The team is looking forward to expanding its services across all Mason students as the unit grows.

About the Authors:

  • Dr. Adrienne White is the Director of Student Success Coaching at George Mason University.  As the Director, Dr. White led the efforts to implement the student success coaching program across the institution. Dr. White has worked in higher education for over 12 years, ranging in experiences from residence life, co-curricular programming, living-learning communities, off-campus student services, student success and retention initiatives, transfer programs, advising, and success coaching. Dr. White received her Bachelor’s degree in Audiology from the University of Tennessee, a Master’s of Science in Education in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Indiana University, and her doctorate from George Mason University in Education, specializing in Higher Education.
  • Whitney Gaston is the Assistant Director of Student Success Coaching at George Mason University. As the Assistant Director, she specializes in the coordination and implementation of the division’s success coaching program and supervises professional Success Coaches with the goal of increasing the retention rate of first-year students. Whitney has a variety of experiences at both the 2-year and 4-year institutions. Her passion is to invest in students and help them to become the BEST version of themselves as they write their “Mason story” and cross the finish line to graduation. Whitney received her Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Social Science (Psychology/Sociology) and her Master’s in Public Health in Community Health, from the University of South Florida.
  • Micah Hodges is a Success Coach with the Student Success Coaching unit at Goerge Mason University.  He coaches students at Mason through a holistic lens using a coaching methodology on 8 areas that impact student success. Micah has been working with students in this capacity for over a year and half. His previous roles include functional areas within student leadership, academic support services, career services, and residential life. Micah earned his Bachelor of Music in Music Industry and Master of Education in College Student Personnel Administration from James Madison University.
  • Susan Schott is a Success Coach for the Student Success Coaching unit at George Mason University. As a Success Coach, she engages in holistic success coaching through use of a coaching methodology based on 8 different areas that affect student success. Susan has been serving students in a student success capacity for two and a half years, with previous roles involving coaching, advising, and health and wellness. Susan received her Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from James Madison University and her Master of Science degree in College Student Personnel from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.