Maryville’s Life Coaches Help Students Navigate the Complexities of College

This fall, Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo., began using life coaches as a way to help students develop their personal, academic, and professional selves and to increase the holistic value of their college experience.

By pairing students with life coaches, Maryville is facilitating conversations about career paths “right out of the gate,” says Jennifer McCluskey, vice president for student success at the university. In this way, they’re ensuring that students discover their strengths early and build upon their natural talents to find careers that are best suited for them.

Maryville life coaches (from left) Kathy Dougherty, Aretha Hardrick, Brady Griffith, Esra Uysal, Karlla Dozier, and lead life coach Penny Greene
Maryville life coaches (from left) Kathy Dougherty, Aretha Hardrick, Brady Griffith, Esra Uysal, Karlla Dozier, and lead life coach
Penny Greene

“A handful of schools have what they call ‘student success coaches,’ but they focus on students’ academic careers,” McCluskey says. “Our life coaches are focused on students’ futures.”

Maryville’s five and a half life coaches — “half” because one life coach spends part of her time in career and professional development at the school — act as “accessible, available, and approachable” mentors for students on topics that cover the entire collegiate experience, from roommate conflicts to financial concerns.

One tool McCluskey says life coaches are using is the Clifton StrengthsFinder, a common assessment tool in the business sector. This questionnaire, similar to a personality test, identifies an individual’s natural abilities and areas for potential growth. This helps the coaches suggest areas for personal development rather than focusing on students’ weaknesses.

“Identifying a student’s top five strengths helps them find a major that is a natural fit,” McCluskey says. “It’s meant to begin conversations. For example, for a business major, this might help them decide which specialized area to go into.”

Beginning with about 420 incoming freshmen this fall and continuing with consecutive classes, life coaches are available to students throughout their time at the university and after graduation, even if they change their course of study.

“It’s common for students to change their major at least once, and usually in that situation, they get shuffled among different advisers in different divisions,” McCluskey says. “Now, if a student changes [his or her] major, the life coach stays with [him or her] and knows the whole story.”

McCluskey predicts that having someone who “knows the whole story” will help personalize the mentee-mentor relationship and lead life coaches to recommend appropriate faculty mentor matches for students based on their field.

She also thinks the program has great potential for first-generation and low-income students who often come to college without the skills needed to navigate university life.

“The program provides a clear go-to person for low-income and first-generation students,” McCluskey says. “Faculty advisers are wearing multiple hats, but life coaches are focused on life coaching — the holistic approach to advising and leading a student to success.”

Maryville’s life coaches are not counselors, although they are trained to refer students to therapists if a situation calls for such measures. Instead, they come from a wide range of backgrounds, including organizational leadership, residential life, business management, and law.