“Sometimes tough love is exactly what students need. While most students may not realize it in the moment, eventually they recognize and appreciate our guidance and hard work on their behalf.”
Margaret Maciulla P '19, '21, '23, '24, director of learning services at Mercersburg Academy, knows there are no easy answers for achieving success, only consistent and steady work toward students' goals.
The learning services office supports students as they face obstacles, helping them develop positive coping skills to navigate future challenges.
“Sometimes students realize that they're hitting that state of overwhelm. They need help, they come in, and I can help organize their time,” says Maciulla. She helps students manage their tasks and responsibilities by asking valuable questions, such as “How can you schedule your work so you're not thinking about all of it tonight? Some of it is due next week. What do you need to focus on tonight? How can you break it down and plan it out so that you can concentrate on small pieces of work a little at a time?”
A high schooler who excelled at daydreaming, Maciulla can relate. Her time management skills were not refined until her sophomore year in college. She wants students to acquire those skills much earlier than she did.
“I somehow got into Georgetown, but I didn't have the skill set to manage myself,” Maciulla says. “I started asking my roommate, who did really well academically, and other people, ‘What are you doing? How are you doing it?’” Her peers shared that they were reading, taking notes, and studying a little bit every single day. They used free time during the day effectively.
“That was really a turning point for me. I realized how much time I had and how much of it I was wasting. I realized I had to buckle down and use whatever pocket of time I had. I was also working a full-time job (about 35 hours a week), so if I had any time between classes or between my classes and my job, I had to figure out what I could get done. I began to realize how much you can get done in an hour. Doing a little bit and then taking a break was actually really good for my brain. I realized that you don't have to sit for hours in a library to be ultra-studious. In fact, I realized that libraries are not a good place for me. They are too quiet. I thrived studying outside or in ‘the Basement,’ an area on campus where lots of students gathered. You have to do what works for you.” From experience, Maciulla knows when students are avoiding, procrastinating, and making excuses: “Sometimes tough love is exactly what students need. While most students may not realize it in the moment, eventually they recognize and appreciate our guidance and hard work on their behalf.”
The learning services classroom is open during the class day, Monday through Friday. Evening resource centers, which are open Monday through Thursday for approximately 2.5 hours, include the Writing Center, for assistance in “all things writing” (English, history, college essays), the Language Media Center for foreign languages, and the Math and Science Center. Students who excel in those areas are available to help, either in small groups or one-on-one, and faculty members are also on duty in the resource centers each night.
“The resource centers are a key component of the work we do in learning services because they are a continuation and extension of what we teach students during the day,” Maciulla says, noting that the centers also offer students an opportunity to learn from each other, which is a “powerful experience.”
The learning services office supports all students, not just those with a learning difference. “I have always focused on the whole learner and taken a holistic approach when working with students. If a student is struggling with something emotionally, then they are less likely to be engaged academically. It's survival. It is important to understand the students, know what they are experiencing, and help them identify what is interfering with their goals. What I'm finding, especially post-COVID, is an increase in the number of students who are struggling as well as an increase in the significance of their challenges. Our job is to help students navigate some of the emotional pieces of what they're experiencing right now so that they can get back on track academically.”
“Ultimately, we want all students to reach their goals and feel accomplished. Success can be measured by a student's level of confidence and sense of control. Academically speaking, success can be measured by a student's ability to plan, organize, initiate, and execute assignments and other tasks independently. By independent, I do not mean that students must complete their work alone, necessarily. Rather, I mean they can motivate themselves and attain their goals without being coaxed by the adults around them,” says Maciulla, who has a master's degree in special education. “Students should be able to plan ahead, block off work periods, set reminders, and complete designated tasks during those times. At Mercersburg, we offer students many opportunities to get help with adults and their peers, but it is up to the student to seek out that help when needed. When students reach that level of self-advocacy, I feel relieved and believe that they will find their way in college.”
Maciulla's goal is for all students to leave Mercersburg Academy with a set of tools that will help them navigate the next phase of their education.
“I hope students gain the confidence to admit when they need help and have the self-advocacy skills to seek that help,” Maciulla says. “I would also love for students to understand that all others have their own challenges, whether they are academic or non-academic. We offer support and a nurturing environment so students can take risks, learn from mistakes, and stay motivated to try again (and again).”