Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Life Coaches Help Students Reach Potential

Doug Hensley

October 31, 2023

Thomas Kay

The campus resource is one more way the university works to make success a reality.

(This story is part of a series looking at examples of innovation on the Texas Tech campus. This installment looks at the role of life coaches.)

On a campus where young people are striving to find how and where they can have a significant impact on the world around them, Texas Tech University is constantly focused on providing resources to transform those dreams into reality.

Among the wide array of tools available now are life coaches who play a distinct and critical role in helping Texas Tech students make the move “from here” to “it's possible.” This is more than mere higher education alchemy, though. It is a student-centered approach soaked in detail and seasoned with practicality.

“Life coaching is a real asset,” said Thomas Kay, assistant director for university coaching and one of a half-dozen life coaches on campus who enjoys spending his workdays in the company of students. “It is not singing ‘Kum Ba Yah' or listening to gongs being hit or anything like that. It is talking about who you are, where you want to be, what your goals are and then how you're going to get there.

“We love coaching, and honestly, if we got to a place where we were bursting at the seams and I had to coach even more because we needed that availability, that wouldn't make me sad. We are not just for people who are struggling or just when things are going well. We're for anyone seeking improvement in their satisfaction with life.”

Kay is a 2019 Texas Tech graduate with a degree in theatre and history. It was during his undergraduate days when he plugged into what was once known as the Department of Student Success and Retention as a student assistant. As the university's vision first expanded and then crystallized, he saw his role slowly change.

“When I graduated, I found out just how much I loved working in higher education, and that is where I wanted to start my career,” he said. “I started as a student success coach and went through the training to become a life coach.”

All of Texas Tech's life coaches are certified through the International Coaching Federation. They now work in the Department of University Coaching and Student Achievement with a singular purpose – keeping Texas Tech students in school through their successful completion of a degree.

“Early, we would do some of our coaching over the phone,” he recalled. “It wasn't as much in-person as we get to do now. As it evolved, we really liked being in the space of life coaching. We feel it's a unique service, not necessarily that we do anything different from other places, but I am thankful the university has given us enough support that we can meet students on their goals or areas that maybe other support resources might not have the time for.”

Kay sees life coaches as complementary to other campus resources dedicated to student success such as academic advisers and student success specialists. Life coaches were reoriented last year to focus primarily on student life, further clarifying their role within Texas Tech's student success infrastructure.

Life coaches can be accessed through the Raider Success Hub or students can be referred to them by other on-campus personnel.

“We may help out academically, but we also help out with just life in general,” Kay said. “Things like adulting and figuring all of that out. It's how students talk about their goals. This past year it was a mixture of everything from procrastination to time management to motivation. Those are very surface level issues, though, and usually it's something else going on causing those things.

Among the major factors contributing to academic sluggishness are making the transition from high school to college and relationship disruptions.

“We might talk about how to they make friends or navigate relationships,” he said. “Maybe they have a significant other they want to move in with but still want to make sure they have good grades. We help them talk through aspects of life like that and better themselves, which is an abstract term, but that is really what they're doing.”

Because life can be messy and complicated, coaches furnish students with both an outlet and an action plan to overcome a variety of challenges often occurring during their college years.

“They come in and say they don't know what they want out of life and want help figuring that out,” Kay said. “We dig into that by helping them recognize their strengths. That's a matter of asking questions like, ‘What are you good at? Where do you see yourself?' Sometimes they haven't taken the time to ask themselves or been asked these things.”

Life coaches have access to a handful of tools and assessments where students can identify their strengths and then play to them in proactive ways that produce successful outcomes.

“Coaching allows us to give students a common language going forward where an assessment informs them they are good at certain things,” he said. “Then we talk about how they can make it their own and how they might need to adapt or adjust along the way.”

One helpful resource life coaches are in the process of rolling out is a hybrid classroom setting where students identify their personal strengths and then learn as a group about a particular topic such as time management or available midterm resources.

“That way, they can talk in a group setting through the lens of their strengths,” he said. “But then they can follow up by coming in and meeting with a coach to personalize the experience. We may talk about time management in a group of 30, but then we individualize it for students who need more assistance on that skill.”

For now, life coaches stay busy, although Kay would love to see the team get busier as the semester continues. Typically, a coach could see as many as six students in a day. In his role, Kay oversees the team's schedules and monitors engagement.

“My job is to steer the ship and make sure we don't crash,” he said. “This semester I will probably see a reduced coaching load unless we're just overwhelmed. I should see somewhere between 10 and 15 students a week, but we're hoping the other university life coaches can see 30 in a week.”

Access to a life coach may be a benefit not all students are aware of, so Kay said the department works to provide points of contact throughout the year. Among the previous outreach initiatives was a pop-up event in the free speech area nestled between the Student Union and the University Library last spring.

“We're looking for ways to connect with people who may be too busy or who can't come in for a session,” he said. “Pop-up coaching is one answer where we explain what our service is and do a quick two-minute session with them on their goals and what they want to achieve.

“We end by asking them, ‘What is one thing you could do by the end of this week to help you get started?' A lot of times, they say something like, ‘Wow, I like that.' That's because they walk away with something they can use.”

In other words, life coaches are not waiting for students to reach out. They were present at summerlong Red Raider Orientation events, reaching out and gauging student interest. 

“We are included in the Raider Success Hub, and they can schedule us that way,” he said. “Student success specialists can access and schedule appointments with us on behalf of students if that's easier.”

In addition to students, Texas Tech staff and faculty are also eligible for one life-coaching session, something Kay hopes to see expand in the future.

“We're working with HR (human resources) on a proposal to have coaching available to staff and faculty in a more formal way, but right now we can offer them one session,” he said.

Life coaches also have partnerships with other entities that allow students to access their services. For example, certain first-year students such as McNair Scholars are required to have a coaching session or meet with a coach a certain number of times during the semester. 

Similarly, there are Texas Tech faculty members who offer extra-credit opportunities for students who schedule and attend a coaching session. Finally, the state of Texas has a diversion program where students under 21 years of age found guilty of specific crimes can have their criminal record expunged by fulfilling several activities, including attending three life-coaching sessions.

“We checked with Student Legal Services about it, and they said we were the right department for the program,” Kay said. “Students can come in and check, but ultimately it's going to be what their attorney, the judge and the student have come to an agreement on.”

Coaches can track progress and quantify their impact. There are surface measurements such as how many student appointments are being made and how frequently certain students are accessing the service. Other indicators include grade-point average improvement and retention percentage of students served.

“We ask students how far they have progressed toward their goals,” Kay said. “But we know those goals can sometimes be very abstract. If a student says they want to know themselves very well, we ask them how they would quantify that?

“Sometimes we ask questions to find out what they really want, and it might be they just want to know what they're good at and want to do more of that. OK, that is a great goal that we can strive and reach for.”

There's more to it than that, though. Ultimately, there is the overarching emphasis on student success.

“We want to see if students are becoming autonomous and independent,” he said. “Do they believe they are in control of their lives and can change things no matter what circumstances might throw at them?”

Toward that end, students are asked to fill out a survey that gauges confidence, progress and problem-solving skills.

“We don't want to become a dependent service,” Kay said. “One thing we look at is the sweet spot as far as how often students come in. Is there a significant difference for students who have two appointments? Our sweet spot seems to be around three sessions because, generally speaking, they maintain their GPA, and they experience even more significant improvement with four or five sessions.”

For now, few restrictions are in place around how often a student can visit with a cap at once per week.

“It's all student-driven for us,” he said. “Ideally, every time they walk out of a session, they do so with an action plan. If it's time management, we come up with a plan, and that might be something as simple as setting alarms on your phone to remind you to do homework or it might be to go buy a planner. The complexity of the plan can determine how much we meet.

“If it's a family issue, like a student needs to talk to their mom and have a tough conversation, that can be trickier because their schedules may not line up, so they need more time to do that.”

Over the past two semesters, life coaches have led more than 1,300 sessions, and Kay was quick to point out the team has the capacity and the drive to grow that number.

“If someone is thinking about a session but worried about burdening us, it's not a burden,” he said. “We can handle more students. This service is one more way students can look back and say their time at Texas Tech was valuable beyond the degree they received.

“Our job is to help you figure out what you want out of life and how you're going to get there. We're not the only support service or resource on campus, but you never know how we can help you unless you try us out.”