Adjusting to the demands and rigor of college can be daunting—whether beginning college for the first time or returning to new commitments, increased course loads, or upper level classes. Jonathan Flaa, Program Manager in Academic Achievement, shares in this Q&A the many ways he and the resources his team offers stand ready to help students succeed at Northwestern, reach their goals, and take lifelong lessons of faith with them into life beyond the campus gates.
What brought you to Northwestern?
I don’t remember a time I didn’t’ know about Northwestern. My dad was the food service manager when I was a kid. I used to run through the courtyard and tunnels when the kitchen was still in in Nazareth Hall. When I was real little, the student workers would send me up and down the food elevators between the first floor and what is now the Great Room. It was a bit terrifying.
I also met my wife here (though she didn’t agree to go out with me when we were students), so there are a lot of memories.
Having the opportunity to pray with students is something we all love.
Do you have any favorite memories that stand out from your time at UNW?
I met one of my best friends during Orientation Week. We still keep in touch to this day. We’re both married now and have four kids each.
You’re back at Northwestern as an employee. What is your position?
I’m a Program Manager in Academic Achievement (formerly CAPPS). I teach a Study Strategies course and work closely with students on developing study skills and learning strategies. Some of the resources our team provides include:
- One-on-one meetings
- Academic workshops
- Academic coaches
- Subject tutors
- Writing Center tutors
- Disability Services
- Culture, Language, and Transition Program
I also work closely with staff in Student Life and Student Services. A representative from each of our departments meets once a week to talk through student concerns and to determine how we can we best support and come alongside them.
Advice for New Students: "Get to know people. Get involved. That’s how you connect. At the same time, don’t overcommit yourself. Try to give yourself a little bit of flexibility." —Jonathan Flaa, Program Manager, Academic Achievement
What are you most excited about for this school year?
We have a new name for our department—Academic Achievement—that more accurately describes what we do. And we have a new location! Our team is now all together in the same wing on the fourth floor of Nazareth Hall. We’re excited about that.
We’re also continuing to expand our tutoring resources, the workshops we offer, and the training we give to student workers. We have more and more students connecting with us every year.
What are some specific ways you work with students that come to you for academic support?
I meet one-on-one with students and in small groups to talk through how they can learn more effectively and best manage their time.
We host academic workshops—primarily in the first three weeks of the fall—for new, returning, and transfer students. And our team provides tutoring to help students learn how to take notes, study more effectively, and learn how to stop procrastinating.
If a student says, “I’m working really hard, but my scores don’t match up,” we’ll talk through what they’re doing right—because there are always things they’re doing well—and what they can tweak. The most important thing is for students to learn so they can take that learning with them when they graduate. But grades are also important. Learning strategies can be learned and developed to bring effort, learning, and grades in line.
Are Academic Achievement resources only for students that are struggling?
Our resources are available for any and every student, not just for those that need help—and they don’t have a cost. Students can schedule appointments online, or they can just drop in for appointments.
Some students feel ashamed or embarrassed to use the resources here, but they don’t need to. College is a different experience. It’s their education, but they’re not in it alone. Successful people always have a team around them.
One thing we often say is, “Successful students use their resources, and they’re proactive about it.” We encourage students to connect with a subject tutor or academic coach early on, before they have a problem.
How can students set themselves up for academic success right from the start?
We hold a “Syllabus Shock” workshop in the first few weeks of the semester. We encourage students to bring their planner, their syllabi, and a buddy. It’s a hands-on workshop to help them get organized so they know what they need to do for each class and when for the entire semester.
We also tell students to figure out which of their classes will be most challenging and what course material they really want to learn well, and then encourage them to connect with that subject tutor right away—before they get behind or begin to struggle. “Successful students use their resources, and they’re proactive about it.”
Northwestern talks often about whole person development. What does that look like in Academic Achievement?
Everyone on our team hopes that God will use us to make a spiritual impact in the students we meet with. And having the opportunity to pray with students is something we all love.
As we talk with students, they share their ups and downs and joys and struggles with academics. But there’s typically more than academics going on when they come to us—with their health, friendships, family. Academics may be why they came in the door, but as we talk we often realize there are other things that take precedence and need to be talked through.
Working with students through hurdles they come up against and then seeing how excited they are when they accomplish their goals is so rewarding. Our hope is that this will be something that will increase their faith and that they can draw on in the future; to see that God brought them through this obstacle, and that down the road he can bring people alongside them to help them navigate the next tough situation.
Can you give an example of how God used your team to meet a need in a student’s life?
The first example that comes to mind is a student who walked into my office following the two days of academic sessions during Orientation Week. He came by as I was getting ready to head home. He was visibly shaking. It was a busy few days, but my heart went out to him. I invited him to come in and sit down.
He grew up outstate, so his family was not close by. And he had been homeschooled. Coming to Northwestern was a big adjustment.
When he walked around campus to locate his classrooms after academic orientation, he found that one of his classes was in a “carousel” room in Knight Performance Hall. The carousel classrooms seat almost 200 students. He was overwhelmed by the size of it. As we talked, I gave him some suggestions, such as sitting toward the front of class to make the room feel a little smaller.
His concern wasn’t really academic; it was more about the adjustment to campus and college. All he needed was to talk it through and be reassured that things were going to be okay. He did really well!
Orientation Week just came to a close. What is your team’s role in Orientation Week?
Our main involvement is to introduce students to all the resources and tools available to them so they have a successful start to their time at Northwestern academically. One of our faculty members gives a talk to the incoming class on what to expect from faculty, and then there are several breakout sessions for students to choose from on time management, keys to academic success, a student panel on the differences between college and high school, and an introduction to Moodle, the academic online service students use.
Even if students don’t remember all the tools and resources we mention, they’ll know the people here care. And they’ll know where to go even if they don’t know what to do.
Encouragement for parents: Reinforce the mindset that successful students use resources and are proactive. It’s okay if things don’t come easy, but don’t go it alone. It takes a team.
What advice would you give to new students?
Really throw yourself into the whole college experience. Get to know people. Get involved. That’s how you connect. At the same time, don’t overcommit yourself. Try to give yourself a little bit of flexibility. You just don’t know how much time it's going to take to do everything well.
What encouragement would you give to parents?
Continue to pray for your son and daughter as you have been. Give your child enough room to experience this journey themselves, but continue to be an encouragement for them. Parents still have a huge voice in their kids’ lives.
Reinforce the mindset that successful students use resources and are proactive. It’s okay if things don’t come easy, but don’t go it alone. It takes a team.
And know that we pray for your child and are constantly working to connect students to friends, community, classes and academic resources they need, jobs, financial aid—whatever it might be. The people at Northwestern genuinely care.