Ensuring a Successful Academic Journey: Insights from Mildred Van Bergen, Director of Academic Support, Long Island Center
By Vickie Moller-Pepe, student, Long Island Center-Hauppauge Unit and 2011-2012 student representative, Student Affairs Committee
June 22, 2012
As director of academic support for the SUNY Empire State College Long Island Center, Mildred Van Bergen works with students on many levels to ensure their academic success. From interviewing incoming students and reviewing their transcripts and writing samples, to working in conjunction with faculty members to embed academic support in the programs of existing students, to offering ongoing academic counseling and one-to-one instruction, Van Bergen’s breadth of experience has afforded her a great deal of insight into what it takes for students to succeed on a post-secondary level.
During a recent interview, I asked Van Bergen what advice she has for students who are unclear about the direction their studies should take. She suggested that after first consulting with their primary mentor, students would benefit by taking a look at the things they enjoyed doing when they were younger. “Did you like tap dancing lessons as a kid? Well, then let’s look at the history of some type of dance in another culture, or time, or place—or dance in the future,” Van Bergen said. She added that taking classes that you connect with in some way will open up to other things and, eventually you can see what you might want to concentrate in.
For students who struggle with time constraints, Van Bergen offered, “You have to find time. I used to think, ‘It’s only 10 minutes, why bother?’ But if I have 10 minutes after my son gets on the bus, I can make three beds, load the dishwasher or put the laundry in—I can accomplish a lot, so that when I get home, things are done.” She applies the same principle to reading or writing. “In 10 minutes you can certainly read—even if it’s two or three pages—and make notes in the margins. Then, when you come back to it, you know what you read and you move on.”
Making a to-do list and planning ahead are two other time-management skills that Van Bergen strongly encouraged. “Making a list is very important because if it’s written down, you’re more likely to check it off—it’s called ‘making a plan’,” she remarked. She said that if you need two hours at the library on the weekend, you have to plan ahead to find that pocket of time and make arrangements for who will take care of your son, or your daughter or your mom.
“Working independently forces students to be more structured and is more difficult than working in an environment where they have to be in class from 2-4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday or follow a book or specific guidelines,” Van Bergen said. “You begin to value time more, and you take more ownership of your learning. You become your own mentor in a way… so it’s empowering to be an independent learner.”
Van Bergen also stressed the importance of students becoming more technically aware. She advised that they do something they are afraid to do utilizing technology, “because that is where all the learning is heading. Maybe take an online class or a workshop using Elluminate,” Van Bergen said. “You don’t want to just close your eyes to it. You have to get comfortable with it.”
In addition, Van Bergen urged that students take advantage of the academic support services available to them. She said that she enjoys seeing students who, through the benefit of academic support, begin to take ownership of their learning—understanding what is expected of them, doing the writing that is required of them and, ultimately, taking with them the tools that they acquire. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as keeping things in the same tense and why that is important, or knowing how to check themselves or the importance of asking for help when they need it,” Van Bergen added. “I can see when they get it. When I see them empowered, that makes me feel empowered.”
When I asked her to define success, Van Bergen said, “If you can be busy on a project and that busyness makes you happy, I think that is success.” She added, “you have to find your outlet independent of others—not that you don’t involve others—but find something that comes from you that makes you happy—something you don’t wait for to come knocking on your door.”