Who wants better grades? Raise your hand — because that’s the key to it

Posted February 6, 2018

Mai See Xiong, a Hmong-American senior at UWRF, recalls going through her entire childhood education and even a semester of college with a fear of asking questions in class — all because her parents taught her that doing so was frowned upon and might land her in trouble.

In a recent printmaking class, however, Xiong didn’t hesitate to ask studio art instructor Nikki Schneider to re-explain numerous aspects of a project assignment — and now she works as a student mentor, allowing multicultural freshmen and sophomores to ask her questions they might lack the courage to pose in their classes.

“I had a professor in one of my classes, and she was always pushing the ‘Don’t be afraid of asking questions because the more questions you ask, the more I can answer for you,’” Xiong said while recalling a piece of advice from an instructor at Century College, the school she attended prior to transferring to UWRF. “So I decided it’s time to start asking questions and learn things the right way, rather than just trying to figure it out by myself.”

This single decision is what she cites for her enhanced academic performance.

“I started noticing that my grades were improving a lot. I was doing a lot better,” Xiong said, mentioning the fact that she was nearly meeting the academic expectations her parents had for her, a benchmark she had not previously been able to attain.

“In my culture and in my family, parents always have high expectations for their kids,” she said, “so if you get an A minus, they would be really upset with you.”

The demand for total perfection makes it tough to have conversations with her parents regarding grades, classes or schoolwork, Xiong said, “they’ve never gone to college or high school, and they don’t know the challenges you suffer through.”

Feeling well aware of the challenges college students face, she recently became a mentor with the UWRF Aspire program, which is designed to help students of color, among others, succeed academically. Currently, there are 46 students enrolled in the program, according to Jannie Gonzales, the Aspire coordinator.

“After just running some grades, our Aspire students were really successful this fall semester,” Gonzales said, mentioning that 20 of them got above a 3.0 GPA.

Much of the success that Aspire students achieve is largely attributed to the work of the 10 student mentors who work for the program, she said, because it provides mentees the opportunity to hear “any guidance our mentors can give to them after having taken some of the same classes themselves.”

In addition to the work or preparation of the mentors, there is another trend that seems to correlate with the achievement of students in the program.

“I’ve been seeing with our students, the more involved they are, the better they are with academic success,” Gonzales said.

Student involvement, however, is believed to contribute to academic success not just for students in the Aspire program but for students in general, according to Martin Olague, director of the UWRF Center of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging.

“Most studies show that when students are more active in participating on campus, they see great improvement,” Olague said. “Even though it seems like they’re taking time to do more things, their grades improve as they do more things.”

Regardless of how the students choose to get involved, simply participating in campus activities allows them to establish networks of support, according to Olague.

“Once a student feels a sense of belonging in a community, they feel more invested, and it trickles into everything else,” Olague said.

Although, when students choose not to become involved, even the relationships they establish with professional staff on campus can be a factor in determining their academic success.

“Sometimes new students have a hard time connecting with other students,” Olague said, “but when they connect with staff, a lot of times they’re better able to develop more connections and, ultimately, to succeed.”

Connections that provide people for students to share their situations with is usually what it takes to provide them with the support needed to progress academically on campus, according to Olague.

“The first thing I heard when talking to students,” he said, “was they felt like they were the only ones going through certain experiences on campus and there was no one else to talk to about them.”

Xiong plans to continue her work as a mentor in the Aspire program in hope of getting students to understand that “there are other students out there who will empathize with them, understand their situation and help them through it.”