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Jennifer Johnson, Forum Communications, Published September 14 2012

A welcome intrusion

Thief River Falls, Minn. - At Northland Community and Technical College here, one student success coordinator says he will hunt you down if you miss class.

Jason Pangiarella isn’t joking. He’s the lead adviser of an initiative intended to motivate students toward academic success.

“It’s not just cutting class,” he said. “If I detect the students are in any type of really vulnerable spot – if they have dependent care responsibilities, if they are working a lot of hours outside of school, if they are just chronically underestimating how much work they have to do for their classes, all of those can do it,” he said.

The Thief River Falls campus started the intrusive advising program with Pangiarella at its helm in 2007. Straying from more traditional advising methods, intrusive advising coordinators “forge a relationship with a student, whether or not they feel they need it,” and helps them develop soft skills like attention to detail and punctuality, said Pangiarella.

Faculty alert the college’s student services about any students at risk for academic failure, which can go beyond bad grades. Other factors, such as eligibility for Pell grants or being a first-generation student, can also flag students for the program, Pangiarella said.

Multiple follow-up meetings can be required, and the conversations can expand to include personal finances, tutoring, counseling or transportation issues.

Pangiarella will often wait for a student outside of class so they can talk. He doesn’t nag. Instead, he talks to them about the college’s expectations and how they can get the student to meet them, he said.

“Part of my function is to be the nexus for that student, making sure they close the gap between expectations and where they’re performing,” said Pangiarella, who is also a student adviser. “The way I like to think about it is I’m their offensive coordinator. My job is to help them get that football into the end zone.”

Community college students face a range of delicate challenges, ranging from a job layoff to a broken water pump in their car, that can throw a wrench in their ability to complete a degree, Pangiarella said. This year, he anticipates reaching out to up to 220 students.

“What we try to do is work with a student and tell them no matter what life throws at them, they’re able to persist in their degree plan and earn a credential from us,” he said.

Students are commended under the program, too. Supportive comments about a math quiz can bring tears to students’ eyes, and they can see that having a strong relationship with an adviser is incredibly powerful, he said.

“When a student feels like somebody is connected to them and cares about them, they are much more likely to seek out help or ask for assistance,” he said. “When they feel like they’re just a number, they’re outta here.”

Jaylon Gunderson, 18, has no problems with grades but still qualifies to be in the intrusive advising program.

Gunderson credits Pangiarella with helping him think ahead. They’ve been talking about his financial aid and preparing for life after Northland, he said.

“He’s helped me better myself for the future,” he said.

Gunderson, who plans on entering elementary education at UND, welcomed Pangiarella’s advising. He counts Pangiarella as a good friend and said he helped ease his transition into school in his hometown.

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Jennifer Johnson writes for the Grand Forks Herald