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student checking in at desk for learning specialist appointment The Center for Student Success is the home base for Beacon learning specialists.

By Gabrielle Russon

Whenever a freshman walks into learning specialist Melissa Mayor’s office, she shares a piece of herself, like how she is a sports fan or grew up in a military family — anything to build trust.

“The connection starts the first day I meet with them. I try to understand what their goals are, what their interests are. … Anything to get them to see me as part of their team,” Mayor said. “I am there for them. My goal is to support them. … We have to have that connection first in order for them to trust us.”

The learning specialists staffing the Center for Student Success know they must build strong connections with students — and parents — at Beacon College. It’s not easy though to put your faith in someone new if before coming to Beacon, your past was filled with academic failures, a lack of resources or you hadn’t found someone else who believed in you.

“The majority of students, we have to deal with trauma. … We have to undo what was done in the past, to make sure that students have this emotional engagement,” said Dr. Oksana Hagerty, the center’s dean who leads the 16 learning specialists handling the advising for most of the college’s different majors. “Engagement is the key word at Beacon.”

Building that trust, Hagerty said, is often the most difficult part of a learning specialist’s job.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently highlighted the role of the college advisor — a job stacked with challenges. Advisors at most schools are understaffed, underpaid and dealing with huge student caseloads which all leads to high stress and high turnover.

“It’s an emotional job. It takes a toll on you,” Hagerty said since learning specialists are invested in their students’ success which makes it feel like, “Every time final grades are out, it’s almost like my final grade. You’re scared to open the transcript.”

But college advisors play a critical role to a school’s success, the Chronicle reporting showed. An advisor may be the first face a student sees on campus. Advisers perform triage, directing students to the resources they need or intervening when students are struggling academically and are at risk for dropping out.

When college advising works, students stay on the path to graduation and schools overcome equity gaps. Advisers act as the glue helping schools run together seamlessly. At Beacon, learning specialists are in regular communication with department leaders and the Registrar’s Office.

Beacon’s learning specialist-model for advising is different from most traditional institutions, which means the challenges facing the staff are different, Hagerty acknowledged.

At Beacon, a learning specialist carries a much smaller caseload of 25 to 45 students compared to what you might find at a traditional college. For the first time, learning specialists will be working with the same underclassmen for two years in a row. When students are ready to move on as upperclassmen, they get a new learning specialist focused on helping juniors and seniors. Beacon’s model is designed to transition students who are adjusting to Beacon’s learning curve into independent, work-ready college graduates.

Beacon’s learning specialists don’t just schedule classes.

The specialists could go as far as helping underclassmen draft emails to their professors since some freshmen may never have taken the lead in their own education before and communicated with their teachers.

“You sometimes need that hand-holding, as long as you understand that you cannot provide it all four years, because then you are actually damaging the student, not helping the student,” Hagerty said.

What makes Beacon’s learning specialists so unique is their deep connections with students. They meet with students at least once every week and review students’ educational plans from high school to understand their academic journey and disabilities.

“We have the luxury of knowing the student firsthand,” Hagerty said. “it’s easier because I know what the students will respond better to, so I’m not setting up the student for failure.”

Learning specialists explain the value of taking certain courses, make sure students are ready for the next challenge and help students believe in themselves.

Hagerty often sees the learning specialists’ impact on graduation day when students thank the Beacon staff who helped them along the way.

“Almost always,” Hagerty said, “A learning specialist is mentioned.”