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Uncovering A Huge Mystery Of College: Office Hours


Many students show up for college and find it is a whole different world than the one they are used to, especially low-income students or those whose parents didn't go to college. For many, it can feel like there's a hidden set of rules. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny of NPR's Life Kit team with some help to sort out one of the biggest mysteries of college, that scary thing called office hours.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Ask just about any college student.

ANIAH WASHINGTON: Office hours are the most intimidating thing that I think anyone told me about.

NADWORNY: Aniah Washington is a sophomore at Amherst College in Massachusetts. And when she first got to campus, professors, they were the smartest people she'd ever seen. And this idea that she was just going go in and talk to them, ask questions...

WASHINGTON: I remember being absolutely terrified. And I was like, isn't that what class is for? Like, what else am I supposed to talk to them about?

NADWORNY: This fear is so universal that Arizona State University made a satirical video about it.


FRED COREY: You may be one of the millions of college students suffering from fear of meeting one on one with my professor or FMOOWMP.

NADWORNY: The video is edited like a pharmaceutical ad. The treatment they suggest for FMOOWMP...


COREY: Introducing FOH - faculty office hours.

NADWORNY: Once students try it, they report...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Everything fell into place. I understood what was going on in class. And I knew how to study for my next test. I'm hooked.

NADWORNY: This video is really fun, but there's an important message here. No matter how scary, office hours are a huge factor in a student's success, not only in college but even after in the workforce and in life. Sure, you can ask about that paper you're writing, but...

ANTHONY JACK: There's so much more than that.

NADWORNY: Anthony Jack is a professor at Harvard University, and he's the author of the "Privileged Poor," a book about low-income students navigating college. Think of office hours as a way for your professors to get to know you, he says, a place where your professor can transform into an adviser and ultimately a mentor. By going to office hours...

JACK: You gain access to institutional resources. You gain access to a professor's network. You gain access to a professor's support for adventures and experiences that you may not even know about.

NADWORNY: He says colleges and professors need to do a lot more to make office hours less intimidating. A good place to start - actually tell students what office hours are, not just when they are.

MONICA MCLEMORE: There is a power dynamic that has to be acknowledged. I completely understand why students avoid it.

NADWORNY: Monica McLemore is a professor at the University of California San Francisco.

MCLEMORE: That's why I think we need new models and new different ways to sort of test out and see how can we do it differently.

NADWORNY: McLemore holds office hours over video conference apps since many of her students are commuters, some driving more than an hour to get to campus. Kate Szumanski (ph), who teaches at Villanova University - she holds her office hours on the second floor of the library.

KATE SZUMANSKI: I'm taking my, quote, "show" on the road.

NADWORNY: Faculty offices can be intimidating, she says. So meeting students at the library or the student center, it can make them feel a lot more comfortable.

SZUMANSKI: Doesn't feel like it's that much effort, Elissa, honestly. It's, you know, two buildings next door to me, like, a five-minute walk.

NADWORNY: For students who are still wary, Anthony Jack at Harvard offers this advice.

JACK: Never, ever be afraid to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength.

NADWORNY: Plus, when you go to office hours, you're actually letting the professors do their job.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.