Academic success coaches help students thrive

Without the support she received from her high school mentor, Cinthya Vieyra said she wouldn’t be where she is today: a professional academic success coach at the University of Washington Bothell.

Cinthya Vieyra smiling
Cinthya Vieyra, academic success coach

“A word of advice from Mary Cooper stuck with me throughout my academic journey and career: perseverance,” said Vieyra. “To always keep going. Things may change and challenges will arise, but always have resiliency in your actions.”

As a first-generation college student growing up in a single-parent household, Vieyra often lacked the guidance needed to succeed in school. As a woman of color, she noticed the barriers she ran into looked different than those of her white peers.

Her mentor understood these structural differences and instilled in her the belief that as a minority student, she should “never forget that your potential is boundless.”

It also motivated her to become a mentor herself.

From mentee to mentor

Cooper nurtured and reinforced Vieyra’s confidence while supporting her underlying potential to develop. She connected Vieyra with scholarships, set up field trips to potential colleges and listened to her career goals. She offered much-needed academic guidance toward those goals, Vieyra said, making dreams that before felt seemingly distant become a reality.

These kinds of lessons and assistance are the same that Vieyra has since brought into her own mentorship of students throughout her career and currently at UW Bothell.

“I was the type of student who really needed that role model in my life,” she said. “That’s where my drive comes from when working with students as their mentor. I want them to have the support in school and in life that I received.”

Vieyra received her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in leadership and public service from Notre Dame de Namur University in Silicon Valley. She went on at the same institution to get a master’s in education with an emphasis in curriculum and instruction. As Vieyra recalls, her high school mentor continued supporting her through higher education, helping her set short- and long-term goals.

A calling to help

One of these goals was to find a sense of belonging on campus. So with Cooper’s encouragement, Vieyra found a job in admissions as a first-year student. She went on during her second undergraduate year to direct the orientation team. As a junior, she worked in career services.

While Vieyra’s original plan was to become a teacher, all this work with fellow college students — made possible with her own mentor’s help — helped her realized she could help students struggling with the same things she went through in the same ways her mentor helped her.

Her first job after graduating was as a college coach for a nonprofit organization working with public and private institutions nationwide, where she mentored more than 120 students.

“First-hand experience made me better equipped to support students, as many of them were first-generation,” Vieyra said. “A major concern was access to different resources, including how to navigate their financial aid package, and how to balance school and work. Many of the conversations I was having were like the ones I had with my mentor.”

Confidence and self-advocacy

Help with understanding the nuances of financial aid is only one element of how academic success coaches help students. During their meetings — which vary from just once to once a week or simply as needed — coaches and students review class assignments and break them down to manageable sections. They go over exams. They build calendars to help the students stay on track to graduate. And they develop academic, career and social goals.

“We talk about setting aside initial hardship and moving on to the tools and resources that can help them stay accountable now,” said Vieyra. “A huge part of my job is teaching students to advocate for themselves.

“Sometimes they just need to ask questions to get the help they are seeking,” she noted, “but asking those questions is a form of self-advocacy, a skill many students haven’t practiced.”

Vieyra said she works to foster self-confidence in students, as from her own experience she knows that students with more confidence will be more likely to advocate for themselves. If students need extra help with their coursework, she also encourages them to talk with faculty during office hours or send an email to set up a Zoom meeting.

“Some students haven’t had the experience of meeting one-to-one with a professor so learning various ways of doing so can be really powerful,” she said.

Success in many forms

Vieyra recalls in particular the growth of one student she met with once a week during autumn quarter. The student needed help navigating campus resources while also wanting to be accountable for their studies.

“This student was very shy. They came in not knowing how to talk to professors or how to navigate Canvas, the learning management system where they can access course content, submit assignments and collaborate with peers and instructors,” Vieyra said. “This student really wanted to succeed so we covered a lot of ground every week. At the end of the quarter, they told me they felt confident as a student and no longer needed to continue our weekly meetings.

“I let them know I was very proud of them,” she said, “and that if they come across another barrier at any point, they’re more than welcome to come again.”

Many students who seek her out have imposter syndrome — particularly first-generation students — and are especially hard on themselves, Vieyra said. She also recalls a student who had a goal to keep their grade point average above 3.5 in all classes. Then the student received 87% on a final exam and was unhappy.

When she asked the student how they prepared for the exam, she was surprised they went to office hours, attended tutoring sessions and created study groups — all the steps for success they had talked about. “It turned out the class average was 60%, so in fact the student did fairly well,” Vieyra said. “We discussed that in fact it was just a really hard class. The student left our meeting feeling good that they actually rocked the exam!”

Knowing a way forward

Helping students own their own accomplishments and then celebrating them is one of Vierya’s greatest joys in working as a mentor and success coach.

“I am most proud when they no longer need me,” she said, “and always leave them with the words of my own mentor: Perseverance is everything. Always keep going. Things may change and challenges will arise, but always have resiliency in your actions.”

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