How Deep Should We Dive To Rescue Those Who Are Drowning?

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan in 1970, when she first dropped out of college

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan in 1972, when she first “dropped out” of college

– Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

Let me make a confession. I was once a college dropout.

My family had decided that, right after I had passed my Baccalauréat (the National exam taken at the end of one’s secondary studies in France) with honors, I should get into a cutthroat, two-year program leading to the highly competitive entrance exam into Normale Supérieure, one of the most prestigious of all French schools. My first year went well, but the pressure of the intense competition among students led me to fall apart during the second year. I became despondent, stopped going to class, and spent most of my days at the corner café, drinking coffee (in the morning) or beer (in the afternoon), and smoking cigarettes. To add to my woes, during that entire year, I had a boyfriend who was also depressed. Needless to say, things were rather bleak.

Of course, this was France. In the French higher education system, it is sink or swim. Your professors are there to teach and give exams; they barely know their students, and don’t especially care about them. At the end of that difficult year, I emerged fairly unscathed in terms of my academic results; I received at least partial equivalency to the first two years of French university studies. However, my English professor expressed some worry about my health – when my family had chosen to pretend that everything was fine. I appreciated that support (and still do).

I licked my wounds, quit school, worked for a year, and then spent a year in the U.S.A. I returned to live permanently in this country in 1975 and, by the fall of 1976, I returned to school as a “Born Again Student,” and eventually graduated summa cum laude with a degree in political science from the University of Delaware.

Marquis - Graduation

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan, with Marquis Lewis, who completed his language requirement with her

I am not telling you this story to focus on myself. I am telling it to show that my past is relevant to my present. Because of it, as a university professor, I am highly empathetic to those students who struggle under pressure – for whom the stress of demanding coursework, a nearly full-time job, a complex personal life, and other demons become so much that they are drowning and find themselves in real jeopardy of failing my classes.

But then comes the question: How deep am I willing to dive to rescue the drowning ones? And I came up with this, and here is what I tell my students: “This is a two-way road. I will go half-way to save you, but you’ve got to come the other half of the way.” Here is what I do:

  1. If I smell trouble, I talk to the student to find out if difficult circumstances are at the root of his/her academic struggles (not coming to class, not turning in work, etc.) – if that’s the case, I refer this student to Counseling services – I have actually walked a few students to Egbert over the past few years. My take is that students whom we teach these days are more emotionally brittle than ever.
  1. I make time to catch students up with the classroom instruction that they have missed.
  1. If they are very anxious about exams, I show them how to prepare for them.

For items 2 and 3, note that I don’t keep on doing this if the student does not make a real effort to come to class and to study on his/her own. I do not excuse irresponsible behavior – and constantly remind at-risk students that my help is contingent on their helping themselves as well.

Not everyone can be rescued, but I have had success stories. And I do realize that, for some students, the best solution is to be put on suspension, or to willingly drop out of school and return when they have matured or resolved life issues that were preventing them from doing well (after all, that’s how I personally dealt with my own issues…).

The time and emotional investment that this policy toward the “lost ones” requires is unfathomable, and I often ask myself why I try so hard to rescue them. Shouldn’t I be like so many other university professors who just say “Too bad, you fail” to a number of their students? Although I try not to be, am I a pathetic pushover?

In these days when we are constantly reminded of “retention” at all cost, what can we do – without killing ourselves – to ensure that even those students who are at risk succeed? I’ve described what I do, but I am sure that many of you have additional strategies. Consider sharing them here!


Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan (formerly Elisabeth Donato) is an Associate Professor of French at Clarion University. She likes reflecting on her teaching practices. Her goal is that her students become proficient in all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and, most of all, fall in love with the French language, the French people, and the francophone culture. Her research focuses on French popular culture.

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3 Responses to How Deep Should We Dive To Rescue Those Who Are Drowning?

  1. jslattery22 says:

    I’m impressed, Elisabeth, as I rarely have the time/energy to reach out to students unless they reach out first. However, I do a number of things to try to prevent problems: I learn students’ names quickly and small things about them, build metacognition and study habits, talk about growth mindsets, and work to actively engage them in the material.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drolivas says:

    I am also very much impressed! But I can easily relate to your story for various reasons… At Clarion, I have been trying to coordinate with the student services office that asks advisors to contact troubled students. Not all respond (this semester, only one of three came to my office to sign the “contract”), but I trust that more than a student every year is touched positively by our efforts and is able to eventually graduate. Even if they do not, I am positive that one more semester at CUP means one more semester that will help their occupation. Of course, the cynic in me asks “what about those loans or the cost of opportunity of working elsewhere?” I find comfort I n the statistical relationships between education and income, personal stability, lesser likelihood of unemployment, health problems, etc. Few professions have as strong evidence of their usefulness to society as ours (in spite of commentators, doubters, etc.)!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Dear Teaching Totally Techless | Hand in Hand

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