Organize Your Work, Prioritize Your Success

red leaf on stonesErica McLennan works in the Division of Academic Success and Institutional Effectiveness as the interim Program Coordinator for the iFALCON Title V grant and as a staff member for the Developmental Education coordinator.

I have two jobs.  Not like most people do though; I have two jobs in the same office.  I work both for the Developmental Education coordinator and for the Title V grant. When I first took this position, I thought, “piece of cake, I can handle it,” but I began to realize how difficult it was to keep the positions separate.  There are duties that can go together, like making copies of two different reports that have important but separate deadlines.  There are important events and meetings for each job, and I have to treat them both with the same amount of energy and dedication.

The first few weeks I piled work on my desk, and every time something was needed, I would sort through the mess, wasting time and feeling very inadequate.  I would try to find something on my computer but nothing was in folders; I would be so frustrated knowing I did the work, but couldn’t remember what I named it.

With one job, I felt I had the time to stop and file things, to name folders, sort through emails, and create orderly check lists, but not with two jobs.  With two jobs the day goes so fast that,  before I know it, I look up and it is time to go home (still with a pile of work on my desk to be finished).  I had to do something and quick or I would not be able to keep up.

The first thing that had to change was how I filed things in my computer.  I created folders for both jobs, and then within those folders I created more folders for the different things I was doing.  I took the time to sit down and file each item so that I wouldn’t be wasting so much time later.  It feels faster sometimes to save it anywhere and move on, but it actually wastes more time in the end.  I devised a system of saving things so that I could easily retrieve them, a system that was recognizable to me (the person before me had a system, but it made sense to her, but not to me; everyone has their own way of being efficient).

After fixing my computer mess, I cleaned my desk.  A clean desk isn’t necessarily a sign of an organized person (I know lots of friends with organized messes), but in cleaning I set up file folders and notebooks in a way that I would recognize them.  I had my alphabetized items, my meeting minutes by date, and then I have that folder of “To Do” items that I hadn’t gotten to yet, but I absolutely need to do soon.  This at least put the important things right in front of me so they don’t get lost and I wouldn’t have to apologize for being late with them.

The last thing I did was to have a separate To Do sheet for each job.  I tried putting them together, but it gets confusing when you are setting up a meeting and can’t remember which person needed the meeting.  By making two clear lists I know which boss to call and what department to put requests under.  This also helped me cut down on how many times I had to call them to remember what to do.

I know that many of you have school and work; this is also two jobs.  Sometimes it is difficult to prioritize, because one is important to your future, but the other is important to help you survive now.  Each has its place, but without organizing the big things, you won’t be able to fit the little things in.  Trying to organize might consist of using your iPhone to keep a “to do” list, or it might include a paper calendar; I can’t tell you what works best for you, but I do know that if you find a system that works (allowing you to work more efficiently and not constantly looking for lost work), follow through by keeping the system up.

I learned a lesson a while back that helps me keep things into perspective.  I was given a Mason jar (one that is used in canning jam or jelly), 4 large stones, small stones , and a bag of sand (those things we handle every day that have to get done).  I was told everything will fit in the jar, but if you don’t put them in the right order they will overflow.  When you place the largest stones in first (those things with the highest priority) you ensure there is always room for them. Then you add the smaller stones (those things that are important but not high priority) because they take up more space than the sand.  Then when it looks like nothing else will fit, you can add all the sand (the small tedious things you still have to do, but can fit them in anywhere).  The sand fills in the cracks and crevasses, making your jar full.

If you spend your time worrying about the little things, the items that don’t have a lot of importance, you won’t leave enough time for the bigger things.  It is like spending all your time deciding on a title for your paper without actually writing the 10 page paper.  I know there will always be times where you need a break from having two jobs (or three if you have kids/family you help take care of), but if you organize your day so that you have time scheduled to be able to just sit for a minute, or to watch your favorite sit com, you won’t have to sacrifice homework do to so.

Organization doesn’t come naturally for most people; it takes discipline, but once you break down and do it, managing your schedule provides structure and allows you to be more efficient, reaching your goals with much more purpose than before.

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Extreme Focus, Cramming, and Knowledge Fatigue: A Visit to Paris

photo of Dr. Steve CliffordDr. Steve Clifford is a professor of English and co-coordinator of the iFALCON Title V grant.

In grad school, I studied modernism, writing in my dissertation (and later book) on the work of Ernest Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence. But it was a freshman lit. course in college–a course which confirmed my interest in an English major and in which I met the professor who would become my mentor–that I discovered the fiction and art of the modernists in Paris after World War I. See the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris for the whole cast of characters: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Man Ray, Picasso, Dali…

But it took me all this time to finally set aside the time, along with a few years of saving money, to finally visit Paris.

The City of Lights was all I hoped it would be, particularly because my wife and I stayed in Montparnasse, the neighborhood where the artists and writers of the modernist period lived and worked. When I wasn’t wandThe Sorbonneering from the cafe Hemingway wrote in, to the bar Henry Miller lived above, I roamed the Left Bank: more artists and, in particular, students studying at one of the most prestigious universities in the world: The Sorbonne. Enjoying a cafe creme or a cote du rhone at La Place de la Sorbonne (my iPhone pic, right) among the students of the world made me want to pack up and move to Paris.

But even as I enjoyed leisurely walks around Paris, I found that I had to focus harder than I was used to for a very basic reason: I don’t speak French. At least not well. I took high school French way back in the ’70s, and brushed up on reading French for grad school in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but recalling enough vocabulary and sentence syntax to communicate took major effort. Simple communication I take for granted in California required all my attention. I had to focus intensely to hear others’ spoken French, to recognize accents and regional pronunciations, and to comprehend their vocabulary. Then, after piecing that language together on the receiving end, I had to figure out which vocabulary to choose to respond with, and then how to pronounce it in a way that resembled French, another arduous process for a relative newbie to the language. Add to that my anxiety about how slowly I heard and responded, and the desire not to seem like a complete idiot (or worse, a clueless American tourist), and I found that the simple act of communication was highly stressful.

By the end of two weeks attempting French, I found that my vocabulary had increased significantly, partly from recalling my earlier studies, and partly by hearing new words and phrases used in contexts I’d remember. On the one hand, I felt I was getting better at French.

But by the end of that period, I also found I was suffering from major language fatigue. While I knew how to string together a simple, if not graceful, sentence in a cafe–“Pour ma femme, un verre du vin blanc, et pour moi, un verre du vin rouge, s’il vous plait“–I discovered that I couldn’t say what I knew. I’d stumble over words I should have been confident in, or I’d invert them ridiculously (“un vin de verre blanc,” a wine of the white glass), even though I knew the more correct way to say it.

And then the second-language interference kicked in: living in southern California, you begin to learn basic Spanish words and phrases, and these began to interfere with my basic French, as when I’d launch into “Bonjour, Senor,” or “Combien ca coute, por favor?” (“How much is that, please,” in a crazy mix of both French and Spanish.) My head knew the right answer, but I couldn’t always get my mouth to say it. My focus had become exhausted.

The experience caused me to think about focus and comprehension for students. My approach to French was essentially like cramming for an exam: I waited until I had to perform and studied intensively in a very short period of time. While I had some success, I could have been far more successful had I spent a greater amount of time before the trip taking a French class or two, recalling my old knowledge and building new skills and comprehension before I had to use those skills. My language fatigue, and the silly errors I made despite knowing the right answer, were very like the kinds of errors a student might make on an exam that he’s crammed all night for.

Ever crammed for an exam and found yourself banging your head, thinking, “I know this!” but unable to come up with the answer? Cramming feels like focus, but for short-term memory rather than for true comprehension. It might be called a misuse of focus; I was focused on comprehending for a very short period of time, instead of being focused on not only immediate comprehension but on retention and mastery for a longer period of time. If I want to achieve that, I really have to continue working on my language skills by hearing and speaking French, probably in a class that would help build my skills.

Happily, the French were very kind and patient, helping me with my French or assisting in English. In an exam situation, though, a student isn’t going to find the instructor quite so kind if the exam responses are wrong. What’s worse, having the “I should know this!” experience in the middle of a chemistry or history or automotive exam can be discouraging, causing the student to want to give up. Why set yourself up like that? Give yourself the time and space required to build focus over the course of weeks, not hours, and you’ll discover that with dedication and careful organization, mastery of a new and difficult skill is achievable.

Can You Use $500? Apply for an iFALCON Scholarship!

The iFALCON campaign and the iFALCON Club will award 2 scholarships this spring:

1. Focus Scholarship: $500 Award

o   To qualify: Minimum 3.0 GPA

o   Completed 12 or more units at Cerritos College

o   Currently enrolled in 12 or more units at Cerritos College

2. Advance Scholarship: $500 Award

o   To qualify: Minimum 3.0 GPA

o   Completed 20 or more units at Cerritos College

o   Currently enrolled in at least 6 units and no more than 11.5 units at Cerritos College

To apply, submit a 500-word autobiographical response to the following question:

How do you FALCON* to achieve your academic goals?

We want to hear your story about how you achieve academic success. Don’t create a grocery list of the 6 FALCON skills; instead, tell a detailed story about how one or two of those FALCON skills have helped you achieve success in a specific class or assignment, or how they have helped you identify weak study habits and turn them around.

*(Check out the website for the 6 FALCON skills that lead to academic success.)

You’ll need this short essay and a copy of your Cerritos College transcripts (unofficial transcripts are acceptable). Apply online at the Cerritos College Foundation’s website:

Indicate whether you are applying for either the Focus or Advance scholarship. Open to AB 540 students.

Apply NOW! Deadline for applications: Friday, April 15.

Finish Like A Marathoner

Lynn Serwin is a professor of English at Cerritos College and co-coordinator of the iFALCON academic success campaign. Visit the iFALCON website at

Did you see any images from the Los Angeles Marathon this past Sunday?  I think this was the most intense storm we’ve had in the southland since that torrential “40 days and 40 nights” of rain we had back at Christmas, but despite that crazy rain and biting wind, tens of thousands of runners completed the marathon.  Drenched, soggy, and achy beyond belief, they crossed that finish line in Santa Monica with faces of pride, joy and accomplishment unlike any I’ve seen in a long time.

Photo by Katie Falkenberg at the LA Times website

I recently started jogging with a running group.  They meet every Saturday morning at 7 am and break up into groups.  I’m in the pre-conditioning group.  These are people who are just starting out, and we build our endurance every week.  Week one, we walked for 5 minutes and ran for 1.  Now we’re up to running 5 minutes and walking one.  Last week, we did 3 miles.  Next week, we’ll be up to 5 miles.  When it’s cold or raining, I just want to check out and not go.  But then I look at those people who ran in that slippery, wet marathon this weekend.  There’s so much training, so much build up.  Do you think they wanted to give up just because it was going to be hard?  I sincerely doubt it.  It’s just putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile, and that’s the way marathons are run.

College is one long marathon.  It’s a lesson in perseverance and dedication, much like the lessons learned by marathon runners.  College is not easy.  There’s a lot to learn and negotiate.  You’ve got to learn the structure of the college, especially in terms of how you register and attend classes.  You need to learn expectations of professors, which are widely varied, but you’re expected to adapt to them all.  You must function on self-motivation and commitment.  As a student, you also need to recognize that you are a learner, like me in the pre-conditioners.  I could in no. possible. way. run a marathon. ever!  But the leaders of my group tell me otherwise; countless others have gone before me, so I follow their lead, and I learn.  As a learner, you have much to gain from others’ experience.  See what they do, do what they do, and you will succeed.  Hundreds of thousands of college students have gone before you.  And they survived.  Not only did they survive, but they thrived, and now they’re living lives as productive, active, and thinking members of society.

This week on campus, the iFALCON posters and website have been commandeered by a simple but powerful message: FINISH.  Resist the W. Don’t take the W. Beat the W.  This means, don’t simply give up and withdrawal from classes  just because you’re overwhelmed, stressed, or looking for an easy way out.

Your first line of defense against the “W” is to speak to your professors.  Find out their office hours, visit and talk with them.  Sometimes, a professor can direct you toward the right department or person who can help with whatever situation may be impeding your finishing their course.  Other times, the professor can help you get into workshops or study groups that can help you improve your skills and ease your stress.  Whatever you do, get help.  Most of those marathon runners, while ultimately completing that marathon on their own two feet, had a ton of people along the way who helped, from running partners, groups, and trainers to family members and friends to cheer them on.  You can have the same support system at Cerritos College.  Check out the iFALCON website and click on the “W” banner at the bottom of the page.  iFALCON has many resources to help you persevere in college.  Watch a video of someone who has struggled.  Learn some strategies for overcoming stress.  Or check out the other blogs of former Cerritos College students who’ve gone on to universities.  Their experience here has been a part of their academic journey–a journey that does have a finish line, and a journey with much support along the way.  Make FINISH your goal.

Back to the iFALCON home page.

OK, Show of Hands–Who Thinks College Should be Easy?

Lynn Serwin is a professor of English at Cerritos College and co-coordinator of the iFALCON academic success campaign. Visit the iFALCON website at

I love the beginning of a new semester with shining, happy faces sitting in my classes, waiting to be inspired and dazzled with knowledge. Wait, is that a dream I’m remembering, because in reality, very few students arrive at college with a unabated desire to absorb every possible tidbit of the wonder that is collegiate life.  In fact, I think most students come to college to figure out what they want to do with their lives.  Some have steadfast ideas that have been in their heads since childhood, knowing that college is the stepping stone to get there, like becoming a nurse or psychologist, but some others don’t really know, prior to stepping foot on campus, exactly what it means to be here.

I think I was one of those students.  My parents both worked at the university–my mother as a secretary and my step father as a professor, and my going to college was a bygone conclusion, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that college was what I wanted to do.  I had dreams of artistic, writing endeavors, but I didn’t see the real path of college as the avenue to get there.  I sincerely thought job experience would be more important than college.

I transferred after my freshman year, hoping to live a little further away from home and have that kind of young-adult independence that grips 19-year-olds like a vice.  I found an apartment, that my parents agreed to pay for as long as I excelled in school, and I worked a retail job, selling shoes in the mall, to subsidize my income.  After all, I needed money to go out, to live it up at restaurants, night clubs, and parties.  Then I tried to fit school into my busy life.  I went to class, but I didn’t link up with anyone, I never sought out my professors for help, and I scarcely studied.  After a few semesters of this, I found myself on academic probation.  No problem, I’ll just study a little harder next semester.  Maybe I’ll work fewer hours, I thought.

Honestly, at this point of my academic career, I felt like college was pretty easy.  I took large lecture hall classes, I wrote papers for English classes without really trying, and I found the easiest math class with the shortest amount of time in class.  Obviously, my best thinking was not moving me forward in college; it was just barely keeping me getting by.  And I didn’t care.  There was plenty of time, in my mind.  There was always tomorrow, next semester, or next year to hunker down and get the work done.

Another semester goes by, another semester on academic probation.  That June, we had a large, family party celebrating my older brother’s graduation from college.  My parents were so proud, our neighbors and friends came by with congratulations and commendations.  I thought to myself, soon, this will be me.  But that was not the case.

A letter arrived from the university that day saying that I had been disqualified and told not to come back the following fall. Shock! Devastation! How could this be?  I was going to class.  I was working at college (sort of).  I watched as my brother got ready to begin the exciting aspects of adult life that come after getting a college degree like a job with vacation days and insurance.  I watched his happy face and all the people slapping him on the back and saying, “Nice job, Sonny.  Good for you.  You’ve got the world in your hands now…” yada yada yada.  I couldn’t hear it anymore.  I knew at that moment that I had screwed up.  I only hoped I could fix it.

I was able to convince the college to take me back, but they still kept me on probation for a couple more semesters. Those old habits were hard to break.  I needed to wrap my head around the fact that college really was work.  I had to study more than I thought.  I had to see my professors, especially in history, which was the worst subject for me, because I just couldn’t get it on my own.  I needed to do exactly what I thought I didn’t need to when I first came to college–learn to be a college student.

Things changed, ultimately, and I finally graduated, after 6 1/2 years with a 2.15 GPA.  That’s barely passing.  But I passed.  That experience turned around my view of work as something you do to get to the next phase of your life.  It’s something you do to better yourself, make your life meaningful, and prove to yourself that you can do it.

And I believe you can do it to.  So, c’mon, do you think college is easy?  Are you just getting by or are you trying to learn something?  How do you balance your outside obligations with your studies?  Are you like I was then, or are you motivated and driven, like I am now?  It’s on you.

Back to the iFALCON home page.

A Case Against the All-Nighter

Lynn Serwin is a professor of English at Cerritos College and co-coordinator of the iFALCON academic success campaign. Visit the iFALCON website at

I remember once being at an end-of-the-semester celebration with several faculty members and a room full of hopeful student teachers. The students asked us what our best tips were for studying for finals.

There were the basic “go over your notes,” “arrange a study group,” and “read your texts” suggestions, but by far the most popular tip from faculty for these students was, “pull the all-nighter, just like we did in college.”

Wow, was I shocked. I have never, never in my life pulled an all-nighter at anything. I need my sleep. I mean NEED it. My brain becomes fuzzy, unfocused and I feel physically sick when I am functioning on too little sleep.

But this is a practice on which students pride themselves. I hear students in my classes on the day a big assignment is due.

“I got 3 hours of sleep last night,” one will say.

“Oh, yeah?” retorts another, “I think I actually fell asleep for about 20 minutes.”

This is not only not healthy, but research indicates that it can actually be detrimental to your academic success.  A study conducted by psychologists at St. Lawrence University, a small liberal-arts college in New York found that students who got the appropriate amount of rest actually had higher grades than those who didn’t. The study’s authors said that the difference in grades was “pretty striking.”   The findings did not surprise Dr. Howard Weiss, a physician at St. Peter’s Sleep Center in Albany who said, “Certainly that data is out there showing that short sleep duration absolutely interferes with concentration, interferes with performance on objective testing,” he said.

In other studies conducted at University of Chicago and Harvard Medical School, researchers found that sleep actually helps restore memories lost during hectic days. In their findings published in Nature, the researchers tested subjects and then re-tested them after a good night’s sleep.  The “test subjects who listened to a voice synthesizer’s murky speech understood more words after a night of sleep than counterparts who were tested just hours after the training, with no sleep.”

I think this is all very interesting and further supports my assertion that studying all night is a horrible practice that makes you cranky and doesn’t really accomplish the goal that you intend it to.  If you’re practicing good iFALCON habits of mind, you will have been studying all semester.  You’re comprehending your subjects because you’ve been linking up with professors to fill in the holes in any sketchy areas.  You’ve been linking up with other students in study groups each week to make sure the material in deeply ingrained in your mind.  You’ve been advancing in your subjects by reading ahead and making connections between material you’re learning and your life, creating relevance.

So as we head into finals week next week, consider avoiding the all-nighter.  Your memory and your grades will thank you.

See the iFALCON website for more tips on how to study effectively and manage your time as you head into finals.

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Learning by Teaching, Both Discover New Ideas

photo of Anthony JaimeAnthony Jaime is a Cerritos College student who plans to transfer in fall 2011. On November 20, 2010, he presents his work on American noir fiction and Raymond Chandler’s novels at the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research at Pepperdine University.

From a young age my younger sister was diagnosed with autism. The news not only rattled our extended family but it also drove both of my parents into a state of denial. Naturally, they couldn’t face the fact that their child was anything but “normal,” and so for a few years “autism” was an unspoken subject in our household. Because of my parents’ inability to overcome their own self-loathing, my sister did not receive the proper and early intervention that is crucial for young autistic children. Her erratic behavior and tantrums drove a significant wedge in my parents’ patience, marriage and in their ability to remain united in a support group for us children who couldn’t grasp our sibling’s condition. On of my roles became that of the pacifier when my sister would become too disruptive around our family, visitors, and particularly strangers.

Since I was a year older than her, my sister and I were thought of as the ideal companions. I became a guide for her, a protector against other neighborhood children who were quick to judge and torment her. In a classroom setting she was notably unruly, easily aggravated, and would fling toys, pencils, and books at the teacher and fellow peers. During recess the children would corner and taunt her for her behavior, and I would then intercede and protect my sister from judgment. It is around this time that she was able to receive the proper therapeutic help that she was deprived of when first diagnosed. Communication and expression, for one, was a severe problem for my younger sister who spoke very little if anything at all. Anything she could say or express was often in broken sentences and generally indiscernible. Her therapist said that focusing on reading aloud to her could do wonders for her development. Being the avid reader of the lot, my role naturally changed from my sister’s protector to that of her instructor.

I taught my sister to read. Books became a shared portal for both of us to momentarily escape into, but more so for her because she lacked the tools and the natural ability to do so. Words granted her that very ability. They introduced her to an array of new ideas, unlocking a closed door into her imagination and creativity. By reading aloud to my sister, I not only provided her with a link to endless worlds but also sparked in her a cognitive change. She quickly gained the capability to pick up words auditorily by recognizing and comprehending them from my having read to her, and thus applying them into her own developing linguistics.

In two years I witnessed the advancement of a young girl who sprung from a seemingly hollow darkness and into an enlightening new world where language represented more than just strange symbols on paper. She became much more articulate in both speech and in her writing, causing many that came into contact with her to overlook the disability altogether. School became a pleasure for her as opposed to a source of apprehension and anxiety.

Just as my sister discovered the magical aspects of words, I too discovered an innate love for teaching. The idea of teaching had long been present in my childhood because the majority of my family members were instructors. However, I never truly believed I could achieve such state because of my own social awkwardness. That very perception of myself has dissipated as I have grown and matured as an individual, writer, and scholar because of the enriching experience with having taught my sister to read.

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