Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Alumna Profile: Marcia Cantarella (GSAS '92, '97)

A college education is a massive investment. Yes, we realize this is an NYU alumni blog, so we may be preaching to the choir here. But imagine--what if after such a large investment of time and money you were unable to pull through to the finish line? icanfinishcollege.jpgWell, fellow A&S alumna and former NYU Director of Academic Enhancement from 1991-1999, Marcia Cantarella (GSAS '92, '97), is an expert on the forces that impede upon a student's path to their degree. In fact, Dr. Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The How to Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide and she was recently featured on National Public Radio's Tell Me More discussing the topic. We had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Cantarella about this topic as well--why are some students not able to finish their college studies, and what can they do to change that? Dr. Cantarella also offers some advice on how make the best out of being an alum.

  Your book, I CAN Finish College, is a guide that offers advice for overcoming obstacles that often delay or prevent college students from receiving their degrees. What are the most common reasons for students to drop out of college? 

I think of them in as the three Fs. Fun, Finances and Fear. Fun is when a student released into the relative freedom of college discovers s/he is a party animal and has a rough time getting to that 8 am class. Students may go overboard in taking advantage of the freedom and lose sight of the point of college—getting an education. I have known girls from strict boarding schools who in the first semester started dating the local drug dealer. Or boys caught up in hazing with sometimes tragic results. Fun carried too far is a cause for failure – with maybe even life changing results. Financial issues are a big reason cited for dropping out. Students may not know how to access all the resources they should to pay for college, ranging from obscure scholarships to federal tax credits. They may take on too much in work to pay for school and then suffer the consequences as Nina the star character of the play “In The Heights” does. They may “drop” a class without deregistering and end up with both a bill they can’t pay and an F. Which takes us to Fear. Students are afraid of going to administrators, advisors or instructors to get guidance in navigating college. This fear can have disastrous consequences in falling afoul of key deadlines, policies or regulations. It can be as simple as not asking for help in writing a paper and then failing the course.

  Are there any lesser-known reasons that college students don’t finish their studies? 

This goes back to the items above. The fear of not asking questions or asking for help is huge but not discussed as much as the issue of finances. Students have a misconception about inquiry and college. Colleges are where inquiry thrives and people who ask questions are valued. Faculty begin their work with a research question. It is not a space where those in authority will look down on students for asking questions in class or asking for help outside class. They will think they are engaging the institution in the right way and support the student who comes forward asking to know or understand more . But too many students sit in a Bio 101 class with no clue of what is going on and praying that someone else will ask the question. So the whole class may suffer because no one asks. They are not then flocking to tutoring centers either or seeking out their advisors. The fear question is playing a part here. It is the fear of looking like you don’t know. But how could you know—you have come to college to learn about what you don’t know. So not knowing is normal. Asking is a good thing.

  In December, you were involved in an interesting discussion on National Public Radio where you spoke a bit about the importance of utilizing all resources that are available on campus. What do you recommend to students who wish to become more engaged outside of the classroom?

 One thing that is on everyone’s mind these days is getting a job after college. That is less about what you majored in than what skills you acquire in the major you chose, how well you do in it and then what else you have done. So having a great GPA in a field a student is passionate about is a key starting place but then there have to be other factors that constitute a whole picture or resume. Internships test drive careers and show what kind of worker a person can be, but community service and clubs and activities provide evidence of leadership skills, heart, organizing skills and interpersonal skills. They also add to the networks that will be useful over a lifetime. Going to the student activities office can be a starting place or offices that have affinity groups like the Multicultural Affairs office can be useful. Following interests, potential vocations or hobbies can be guides, whether it is politics, photography or community service.

  marciacantarella.jpgLooking back at your time at NYU, is there anything you wish you had taken more advantage of?

 I was working full time in the College of Arts and Sciences as Director of Academic Enhancement Programs and was working on my doctorate in American Studies. Fortunately my kids were no longer at home but my late husband and dog were. So I had little free time. What I missed were the lectures and events that are often free for students, and involve remarkable people and public figures. I also did not have the time to hang out with classmates or have coffee after class. My choice, the right one, was to go home and hang out with my husband. But students should know that they will likely never again have a chance to be as up close and personal with major political figures, opinion leaders and celebrities as they might while in school.

  On NPR, you also mentioned the concept, “stereotype threat,” coined by Professor Claude Steele at Stanford University. How might this concept hinder a student’s ability to finish college?

 I keep coming back to the fear factor (good name for a TV show?) Stereotype threat helps to explain why some of that fear plays out. When you are part of a group that may have a negative stereotype attached to it—minorities, the poor, women, gays, immigrants—you hesitate to engage in actions that may affirm that stereotype. So if a minority student feels that there is a perception that students of color are less smart than others then that student will hesitate to ask the questions or seek out the help in a tutoring office that a white student would not think twice about. Since many college students are low-income, minority, first generation and/or immigrant all these are groups that may be affected by stereotype threat that stands in the way of their feeling fully empowered to use the tools and resources others feel entitled to. And so they are more inclined to drift or fall away from the institution rather than deal with the discomfort of these real or perceived negative views.

  What motivated you to become an expert on why students don’t finish college?

 I have to say that it crept up on me. Having been a dean or senior administrator in highly diverse institutions I continued to find myself addressing the same issues or concerns. Students would be in my office trying to figure out how to choose a major, drop a course, speak to a professor, solve a financial problem, think about a career path. Whether at NYU or Princeton or Hunter, the conversations were the same. I began to realize that despite orientations, workshops (not always well attended), websites (not always clear or student friendly) or handbooks (and I designed the first one for CAS) students still had many, many basic questions that were not being addressed or understood. So I decided to put all these conversations in one place. I hope that students find I CAN Finish College to be a place where they can learn the language, the processes, the cast of characters and the rationales for engaging fully and successfully in the life of the college. And many of the lessons are in the stories of the students whom I have encountered along the way.

  Being in Alumni Relations, we are particularly interested in the last section of your book, “Being an Alumnus.” Can you tell us a little bit about this section? Do you have any advice for NYU Arts &Science Alumni?

 I have found that being an alumna, particularly of my undergraduate college, Bryn Mawr, has had lifelong benefits. They mainly take the form of relationships. One of my Bryn Mawr classmates who is an editor at NYU Press volunteered to read/edit all 350 pages of my doctoral dissertation! My networks have led to jobs and to lifelong friendships. You never know where you or your classmates may go someday. I recently had the pleasure of introducing some of my young men from the Hunter College Black Male Initiative to my Bryn Mawr classmate, Drew Faust, President of Harvard. These days (not true back in my era) students can get career advice and connections, a library card, and an email address forever. The big thing though is the relationships and the sense of affinity when you meet someone else who shares your alma mater. You know that you have a shared experience and frame of reference. It is very powerful.

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