Conversation Around the Thanksgiving Table

Hindsight is 20/20. We’re all great Monday morning quarterbacks. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Whatever the cliché, it comes down to students lamenting in January what they should have done throughout the semester to ensure their academic success.

As we finish out the Fall Semester, our students need to evaluate their status in each class and figure out just what effort they need to put in to cross the finish line with the desired (and sometimes required) outcome. You can help them with this crucial assessment.

As you search for topics of conversation around the Thanksgiving table, you might want to nudge them in the right direction with some targeted questioning. Start by asking who teaches each class. If your student doesn’t know the professor’s name (and it’s the final weeks of the semester), that could be a red flag. Ask your student about each course specifically — what’s the most interesting thing about the class, what work is outstanding.

Ask your students if they received an Early Warning. If so, what did they do to ameliorate it? An early warning is an electronic notice that a student is struggling or failing to meet the attendance requirements. Not all professors send warnings to students, but we know that when students receive them they often are able to get their act together and improve.

Ask about pre-registration. What are they scheduled to take next semester? Students should be done with spring registration by the time they come home at Thanksgiving. Students who are engaged and content are usually excited about registration and about what they are taking next semester.

Ask about their roommates – what’s the most annoying thing about the roommate? What’s the best thing? What are they thinking about housing arrangements for next year?

Ask if they read their university email. Reading email is the difference between success and failure. There are nearly 10,000 students at Seton Hall. It would be nice if we could send a personalized text to every student each time there is important information to convey. But the reality is: we send emails. Students complain they get too many so they don’t bother to read them. Really? There are financial ramifications that affect you, the parents, when students ignore emails. Late fees are imposed on tuition bills, students are charged for health insurance when they already have family health insurance. All of these situations stem from students ignoring their university email.

Ask if they did the extra credit. In my 35+ years of college teaching, I have observed that it is the students who DON’T need the extra credit who do the extra credit (which may explain why they don’t need the extra credit!). Every chance I get, I ask students if their professors have given them the opportunity to earn extra credit and I urge them to do it, just in case.

Ask them what’s the worst case scenario? I find this an enormously helpful question. This is best illustrated with a real-life slice of my life. During the summer, my son is scheduled to start a new job and I am doing my best to not ask too many questions or to be too pushy. So I keep my mouth shut after I asked, “All set for Monday?” on Friday evening and he replied, “Just got to fill out a few forms.” On Saturday, I couldn’t contain myself and asked, “Got those forms filled out?” but again backed down when he said he was on it. Fast forward to Sunday evening when I am sitting down to a re-run of 60 Minutes and he turns on the printer and it’s dead. A half-hour goes by as he fiddles with the connection, the cartridge, the scanner and the computer. Nothing. So now he is faced with the worst case scenario: he will go to work on the first day unprepared and with his homework not done. Not exactly the message you want to convey to a boss. So he turns to me for help at the 11th hour and I succumb. We head to Seton Hall on a Sunday night, open my office and print out his paperwork. He is extremely grateful and I resist the temptation for about half the ride home, but I can’t hold back any longer. “If you had imagined the worst case scenario for your procrastination, this never would have happened.”

I have sometimes described this as “Just in case the engine falls out of the taxicab,” which memorializes the time the engine fell out of the taxi on the way to Newark Airport for a trip to Hawaii. Thanks to my keen ability (honed by decades of motherhood) to imagine the worst case scenario, we still made our flight.

Our dean of Freshman Studies, Robin Cunningham, has a favorite saying for students, “It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish.” The university has the resources to provide your students a strong end game, from tutors-in-residence, the Writing Center, the Academic Resource Center and our end-of-the-semester tutoring event, Tutopia. And there’s still plenty of time to finish strong. Happy Thanksgiving!

‘Tips from Tracy’

Back when I was a journalism professor teaching Seton Hall students how to understand and write the news, I gave them little tidbits of advice that I alliteratively dubbed “Tips from Tracy”. I used to make the students write them down and spit them back at me as extra credit throughout the semester. Little tricks of the trade – when to use “which” and when to use “that;” how to figure out what the lead is in a complicated story; how to estimate the size of a crowd; or, how to find a story on a slow news day. I didn’t realize I had made any impact of the students until 25 years later when a student from back in the day called me to ask about one of my Tips from Tracy.

His call made me nostalgic for those good old days in the classroom, but it also got me thinking about what my “Tips from Tracy” would be today, now that I am the vice president in charge of so many aspects of student life. I’ve been working with college students for 30 years and for the last 16 I’ve specialized in 18 year olds, so I think I have a pretty clear picture of what works and what doesn’t. I actually fancy myself an expert on the topic.

My advice is pretty simple and guaranteed to work. If a student follows these simple rules for success, a college degree is sure to follow. Feel free to share it with your students.

1. If students are only going to listen to one piece of advice, this is the most important: go to class. As Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is merely showing up.” At Seton Hall, there is a direct correlation between showing up for class and extracurricular activities and being successful. Students from big universities will brag that they never go to class and it doesn’t make a difference, but here at Seton Hall, professors know when you aren’t there. And it matters.

2. Stop Multi-tasking. Yes, yes, this is the generation that thinks they can do more than one thing at a time, and they probably can. But they can’t do it well. If a student can write a B paper while they are texting, listening to Spotify and streaming House of Cards, imagine what success they could have if they turned all that stuff off.

3. Ask for help. The biggest hurdle our students have to success is their pride and their inflated confidence in their ability to study and learn difficult material. College is hard. We have the support students need, but our tutors don’t knock on doors and force their way in to provide assistance. The students need to come to us and seek help before they are in dire straits. We have tools and techniques that can help students thrive. Their first stop should be our Academic Resource Center. Our first-year students need to think of their Peer Adviser and their mentor as their safety net.

4. Bumps in the road are a part of life. The successful student is the one who is being resilient enough to pick up the pieces and move on. Yesterday, I sat down with a junior who was struggling. She had a lousy spring semester. In the last three years, she had meandered through several different programs and majors and hadn’t found a good fit. Her GPA in her major was dismal and she was beating herself up about bad decisions and roads not taken. My message to her was simple: this transcript doesn’t have to define who you are. Grit your teeth, steel your shoulders, pick up where you left off and move on. Life throws us curve balls. The students who learn to cope with the hard reality they encounter in college are learning life skills that will make them strong.

5. Practice the etiquette of adulthood. Students need to be on time for class, turn off their cell phones, learn their professors’ names, write formal emails that use correct spelling and grammar, and act appropriately. All of this is training for the world of work.

6. Sleep. Dr. Oz tells us to power down our devices two hours before bedtime. I would be happy if students just moved their phones away from their heads and didn’t check their feeds during the night. This is a generation fueled on caffeine who are clueless about down time. Students are more productive and more successful when they are well rested.

Just six little tips from Tracy. If your kids are anything like mine, they’ll probably ignore you. But share this with them anyway. It actually could make all the difference.

Family Traditions

I am feeling nostalgic about my mother’s Thanksgiving stuffing — not necessarily in a good way.

Nothing lights up Facebook faster than a “Do You Remember?” post like this: “Name something that your mother/grandmother cooked that was your favorite.” I’m one of nine children (and seven of us keep in touch regularly on Facebook). Throw a question like that out into the universe and the memories fly.

My poor mother, now gone a year, worked miracles feeding a family of 11 on my dad’s salary. Lots of potatoes with traces of meat.  The Facebook memories included her pork chop casserole (hated it); stuffed peppers (edible); her stuffing (a mush of sage, stale bread and celery, hated it, too); her baked beans (never tasted them); and, alas, a bizarre concoction of ground beef and watery gravy she called “Collops.” Turns out that it’s actually a real Scottish recipe, one that Allrecipes.com calls “a delicious way to stretch ground beef.” Not the way my mother made it (although my brother Jim would disagree with me). I always tried to get an invite to my girlfriend Joanie’s house on nights that Collops were on the menu.

As Mom got older and was unable to cook, she lamented that she missed her own cooking. A few of us would try to replicate her recipes (although nothing had been written down) and bring her dinner. She scoffed when Jim had the audacity to add parsnips to her beef stew. She was annoyed that I undercooked the vegetables. She possessed a sharp palate that detected spices she had never used. Garlic in her spaghetti sauce? Impossible.

Now that she’s gone, a conversation about her cooking congers up the happy memory of a massive, round kitchen table with each of us in a strategically assigned seat designed to keep potential outbreaks of wrestling or elbowing at bay for 30 minutes each evening. Food memories are so strong. We can smell the aroma and nearly taste the food, or gag again if that’s what we did on that particular evening.

Thanksgiving is around the corner, your sons and daughters will be coming home to you. Remember that home-cooked food at Thanksgiving is about tradition, comfort and family. Want to conjure up happy memories? Prepare a home-cooked feast your returning college student couldn’t get in the finest restaurant!

Here on campus we recognize that just about now students are longing for their parents’ home-cooking, that very same cooking that they turned their noses up at a few short months ago. With this in mind, the University hosted a “Taste of Home” dinner on November 17, featuring out-of-state regional recipes. Students submitted suggestions for Gourmet Dining Services to cook that evening. It was a fun way to allay home-sickness and remind each other of the diversity of our backgrounds.

We are an empty nest at my house now. Our youngest lives nearby and comes home for dinner on Thursday evenings (along with one or two baskets of laundry). He’s not looking for Chinese take-out or a fancy roast, he asks for our pot roast, beef stew or chili. Home cooking a la Gottlieb — comfort food.

I’ve never had much interest in cooking and I have no illusions about my talents in that regard. I’m sure that our three children in decades to come will poke fun at mom’s meatloaf, dad’s noodles in a cup and my special interpretation of “chicken fish,” (don’t ask!).

My sister Peg always says, “Food is Love.”  Enjoy your children around your Thanksgiving table this year and pay no attention when they gag at Grandma’s turnip recipe. Trust me, even if it never makes it past their lips, it will be a part of the family food lore forever. Happy Thanksgiving!

January 2016

At an alumni reception to celebrate Seton Hall veterans, the keynote speaker stated that his year in Vietnam as a second lieutenant back in 1969 was one of the best years of his life.

“Everything I have done since then has been easy,” explained Ret. Major General Donald F. Campbell Sr.

His words resonated with me. Not that I have any experience in jungle combat, but I too had a life-transforming experience as a young woman. When I was 26 years old and a newlywed, I moved with my husband to Belgium where I learned to speak French, found a job, established a household and became a mother – all of it thousands of miles from home. In those days telephones in Brussels were considered such a luxury that you had to add your name to a waitlist to acquire one. I had to write my mother an air-mail letter when I had a question about the baby not sleeping. And three weeks later, I’d be lucky to get her response. It was a hard time. And it was the best of times.

Communication is obviously different in this world of instant chatter, but life-transforming experiences still shape our character. The independence and problem-solving skills I learned so far from home have helped me countless times in my life. And even more important has been the growth I experienced from learning about and immersing myself in another culture.

All of this brings me to the point of this column: that Study Abroad could be the single most important thing your student can do during his/her time at university. I realize it is an added expense to an already expensive endeavor, but the good it does is immeasurable.

The most traditional form of study abroad takes a Seton Hall student to another university for a full semester, occasionally a full academic year. Seton Hall has formal exchange agreements with many universities abroad. In addition, there are third-party providers that lead students from other universities on organized study abroad semester. Semester at Sea, a floating university that stops in dozens of ports in the course of the semester, is an exotic option. Students can be as adventurous as a semester in far-flung Australia. Some students like attending university in England or Ireland because the language is familiar (sort of!). I know a student who spent a year in Russia, another who went to China. Students coordinate their class schedules with their faculty advisors so that the course credits will all transfer back to Seton Hall when the experience is complete.

A smaller and less expensive commitment is our faculty-led tours that typically occur during the summer. Many departments sponsor study tours for 10 days, two weeks or a month. These programs are convenient because they count as Seton Hall class credits, with no extra paperwork or bureaucracy. This is often a great option for a student who is daunted by the many tasks associated with the paperwork surrounding study abroad.

Yet another option for an international experience is the Division of Volunteer Efforts (Dove) annual international service trips. There is no academic credit involved but in many ways this volunteer service is even more enriching to our students. Students who are interested in participating in this activity should stop by the Dove office to learn more about it.

For students interested in study abroad, their first stop should be our Office of International Programs in Presidents Hall. The trained professionals there can walk the student through the many options available to them and then help them negotiate the paperwork.

Freshman students should be weighing their options and factoring an international experience into a four-year academic plan. Sophomores should be laying the groundwork for a junior year experience or a summer tour.

When I think of all the gifts I have given my own children that eventually ended up in a pile for the Goodwill, I know that helping them achieve an international experience was one that will stay with them their whole lives. It might not be for everyone, but it’s worth looking in to. It just could shape your student’s life for the better.

March 2015

It’s that time in the semester when a young person’s thoughts turn to the idyllic prospect of moving off campus next year. As the person ultimately responsible for the life of our students outside the classroom, I personally take comfort in the story I tell myself every evening: that all our SHU students are tucked cozily in their residence hall rooms (the fantasy includes an 11 p.m. bedtime as well!). Now that we have increased the number of beds on campus, there’s more room for everyone. Keeping our students on campus is my preference.

Of course, I also have to concede that many students see the chance to live off campus as a natural progression of their independence and self-responsibility. My own son, who graduated last year, lived off campus for his senior year. And even though I worried more, he saved some money and learned life skills. Now that he’s graduated and living on his own about 800 miles away, he has the coping skills to be alone. It’s not for everyone, but for some students, it’s a chance to establish a credit record (when you are responsible for the utility bill in your name), learn to cope with adversity (when the pipes freezes), and figure out how to budget your money and manage your monthly obligations. For some, it’s the logical next step before graduation. But before any of your students make the leap, I hope it’s something that you give a lot of thought to as a family.

Before your students sign their names to the dotted line of a lease, we have a resource for them. Our online tutorial walks students through the process of finding an off-campus residence and alerts them to the questions they should ask and the pitfalls they may encounter.

My first concern for all our students is their safety. We have two transportation services at Seton Hall – our shuttle, Shufly; and, our night-time service, Safe Ride. Students who are looking at off-campus housing should be referring to our Safe Ride zone to make sure the apartment or house they choose for next year is inside this map. If they choose a property within this wide zone, they can be assured that late at night they can get a ride home to their residence. Students who decide for whatever reason to live outside the Safe Ride zone should be thinking now about their transportation needs, especially after dark.

Students also want to make sure that their choice of housing is safe, in good repair and warm. They need to ask about hidden charges: water, utilities, internet and cable.
Finances also come in to play. Students promise their parents that their living arrangements will be cheaper than living in the residence halls, but it’s a little more complicated. Rent has to be paid all 12-months of a lease. Whose name is on the lease and how much rent security do you need to pony up? You might never see that money again. Then, there’s the monthly gas, electric, cable, internet, and water. How is that going to be paid and whose name is on those bills? It can be cheaper, but you have to plan ahead.

Students who live off campus are then commuters to the university and, most importantly, residents of a town (usually South Orange). They need to remember their obligation to be good neighbors. No one wants a noisy, disruptive gaggle of students in the house next door. If our students are old enough to live independently, they have to be responsible enough to consider their neighbors.

All of these issues should be hashed out before taking the big step of moving off campus. I hope I have given you a framework for an important heart-to-heart conversation.

November/December 2014

I was a first-semester freshman when I had my “epiphanical” moment. Sitting in a calculus class listening to my professor drone on about the value of Sigma, I was overcome by dread, and then it came to me: I hate this. It took the rest of the semester to extricate myself from a future as a math teacher; it took another semester to discern that I wanted to study journalism, and still another semester to convince my journalist father that this was not a dead-end path to unemployment.

So, I speak with personal experience in addition to my decades as an academic adviser when I caution parents that, now that the excitement of the new academic year has been tempered with the reality of homework and tests, we are heading into the annual period of student self-doubt.

Some students are simply fatigued from cramming information and big ideas into their heads. They just need some time away from studying and a few stress reduction techniques and they will be fine. Other students face the realization that their plan of study and their career goals need adjustment.

I call it the “epiphanical moment.” You won’t find that term in the OED, but it’s my way of capturing the “aha!” moment students need to have when reality hits them.

Here at Seton Hall we try to facilitate a student’s personal epiphany with outreach through the Career Center and interaction with a student’s mentor or academic adviser. Our new Sophomore Center (in Mooney Hall 14) works with all second-year students but gives special attention to the sophomores who are directionless. We know that sophomore year is especially crucial because students are pushing up against the credit limits so that lack of a major will delay graduation or prevent them from registering for classes.

For our first-semester freshmen, this fall semester often serves as a reality check. I’m not the only freshman to realize I hated my major. In the first semester of college, the course work intensifies and students need to make a leap to a higher level of math or science if their dream of med school is going to happen. Many students realize that they don’t have the grit or the inclination to sustain the intense seven years of study to be a doctor.

I use the doctor example because that is the most common epiphany we see in freshman year. If all the people who thought they wanted to be doctors as high school students actually became doctors, we would have a huge physician glut in the United States. Instead, we see a natural weeding out of all but the most passionate. This process happens in all the disciplines, but is most prevalent in the sciences, perhaps because the course work is so intense.

If your son or daughter is going through this epiphany, you can support them by listening and encouraging. And know that this annual reshuffling of dreams and life goals is a natural part of the maturation process. Very few of us are actually working in the jobs we aspired to as children.

Urge your students to meet with their mentor, to visit The Career Center and to take advantage of workshops and guidance that is available to all students. There’s a major out there for everyone; sometimes it just takes a little insight and coaxing to figure out what it is.

September 2014

In the fall of 1987, I sent my big girl to kindergarten. And every year since then, I have sent a child to school. I hang my giant “Back to School” sign on our front door, humming “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and spring for new shoes and/or a backpack.

So it is with a heavy heart now that I anticipate the opening of yet another school year. My baby, 22-year-old Tom, graduated (from SHU!) in May and flew the coop. He’s gainfully employed in North Carolina. While that is something to be celebrated, I am a bit snifflely right now about my empty nest status. And not only is Tom far from his mom’s grasp (488.2 miles away), but that big girl I referenced above is moving 2986.1 miles away to San Francisco. So our empty nest is really quite empty. I will adjust.

But for those of you who are celebrating the milestone of sending your first child to college, cherish the quiet. Take one child out of the complicated mix that we call modern family life, and it really does change the dynamic. Enjoy it. And give your college student some room to breathe and grow away from the family.

I tell my students that it’s time to change and that I even changed my name when I went to college. It was my way of becoming the person I wanted to be. Students have this one opportunity in life for a “do-over” on the way to adulthood. Transitioning to college is a time when you can analyze your faults and make adjustments. No one knows the you that you were before.

Your student’s transformation might not be as dramatic as a new name (my Mom still calls me by the old one!), but your children will change when they go to college. It’s a good thing. At its best, college provides students with a graceful transition to the “real world.” Here’s hoping for an excellent school year filled with good adventure, opportunities to grow spiritually and intellectually, with a little bit of good fun sprinkled in. Go Pirates!

May 2014

2014 SHU Commencement

2014 SHU Commencement

To quote that great sage John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Life caught me off-guard last week.

I have a distinct memory of bringing three-year-old Tom to nursery school. He wrapped himself around my leg screaming while his teacher pulled him away and shooed me out. I raced to Seton Hall University for my 9 a.m. class, walked into my class and burst in to tears.

Fast forward 19 years to the Izod Center on May 19th when that baby walked across the stage and I had the rare honor of handing one of my children his diploma. There was a whole lot of living between those two events, but I wasn’t paying close attention.

Can I be melancholy and jubilant at the same time? Where did the time go? The countless concerts, baseball games, parent-teacher conferences, field days, marching band performances and bake sales – finished. Now there’s something to celebrate! But it is bittersweet, this last milestone of my son’s childhood.

I told my 90-year-old mother that now that my three children had all graduated from college, I was done. She burst in to laughter and shook her head knowingly.

Still, it is an accomplishment. As a college professor turned administrator, I really wanted my children to graduate from college. The road was littered with bumps, but ultimately each of our children was successful. And that is something to celebrate. Here comes the roller coaster we call real life!

Tracy Gottlieb, Ph.D.

January 2014

Every year I make a few New Year’s resolutions. This year is no different: I have yet another chance to get it right. But in addition to the usual lose 10 pounds and exercise more litany that has been part of my resolves since I was old enough to step on a scale, I have also committed to continued self-improvement.

My brother-in-law writes a list of 100 resolutions every year and then at the end of the year tallies his scorecard for a personal evaluation. His goals are modest: read six books, go to the movies five times, clean out the basement, paint the upstairs bathroom. But I’ve always admired his clarity of purpose and his ability to articulate a model for living a good life through a list of 100 simple good things.

In the interest of brevity (and mostly because I don’t want to clean the basement or paint the bathroom), I’ve come up with a list of 10 great things I want to do this year to improve my life. I present them to you here in the hopes of inspiring you too to live 2014 as fully as possible.

  1. Stop with the worrying. My ability to worry is near limitless. My wise mother-in-law told me not to worry because I would always end up worrying about the wrong thing. She was right.
  2. Sleep better and longer (see previous resolution about worrying). I am very good at falling asleep, but not so good at staying asleep. I do not have the answer to this one, but I will before the year is out.
  3. Read more. I used to read 50 books a year; that number has dwindled to about 15. There is plenty of room for improvement.
  4. Turn off the TV. My capacity for mindless television is insatiable. I have been known to sit in front of a marathon “Say Yes to the Dress” broadcast for hours. It needs to stop.
  5. Hike farther. 2012 was the year of the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey — all 72.2 miles. 2013, we tackled the AT in NY. This year? Who knows? But it has to be better and longer.
  6. Let my children live their lives (see resolution #1 – again). I have three great kids who have shown themselves to be great young adults. Let them live their lives the way my folks let me live mine. Enough said.
  7. Take up Mahjong. I used to play when I was a teenager and I can’t remember a thing about it except that it was a fun and relaxing way to pass the evening with my friends.
  8. Have an excellent adventure. Every year must have adventure, especially the older I get. Last year, I went to China. It was the adventure of a life time. This year? Stay tuned.
  9. Start crocheting again. Thirty years ago, I made an afghan for everyone I knew. Those blankets are old and smelly. It’s time to do it again.
  10. Be a better person. Gossip less, be kinder, pray more often, give generously and love expansively.

Just ten little things. Try it. It could change your life. Let’s hope it’s a great year.

December 2013

One of the things we do well at Seton Hall is celebrate Christmas. Our President, Dr. Gabriel Esteban, has brought his deep devotion to this sacred holiday to our community in a special way. The academic calendar being as it is, much of the holiday spirit occurred in years past after our students had gone home. We’ve changed that now to create an early celebration that all of us have come to love: Christmas at the Hall. The big pine in front of President’s Hall is festooned with 43,000+ lights. Who cares about Rockefeller Center when Seton Hall has our blue hat festival with carols, treats and  the tree-lighting?

This year is even more special as members of our community have pledged to perform “12 Acts of Kindness” during the holiday season. This was the brainchild of nursing student Hillary Sadlon who performed 22 Acts of Kindness over the summer to celebrate her 22nd birthday. Then she decided to keep up the good work during the Christmas season. So we at Seton Hall are following the example of one of our own. Maybe it will translate into a kinder, gentler student who comes home to you at Christmastime.

Here’s wishing a happy, healthy and holy Christmas Season to all!

Go Pirates!