Coming to university for the first time can be an overwhelming experience for many students who have never been out in the wider world before. Some of them will be faced with more people — of all different kinds — than they ever had prior, as well as challenging ideas and concepts. In order to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks, it’s crucial for institutions to provide a personal touch, so new students feel welcome and safe as soon as possible.
Co-host of The Interview Charles Sin spoke to Erin Grisham, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (SA) at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (UWO) about the importance of engaging students as soon as they arrive (and even earlier) in order to increase their sense of belonging and connection with their new community on campus.
SA was a second career for me. Prior to coming to Higher Education (HE), I worked in politics. But then my husband and I relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona due to his job and I got a position at the university there. I was very fortunate to work my way up in the SA division and had lots of opportunities. As an undergrad, I had been heavily engaged in student government — all part of my interest in politics — but my work there was actually SA. I just didn’t realize it at the time! So I always joke that my career has come full circle.
The earlier we can introduce these concepts to students, the better. One of the things we found works really well is introducing training modules for students prior to their arrival on campus. We also incorporate a discussion around those issues with students at Titan Takeoff, our summer orientation. We really take the approach of introducing from the outset that these are our values as an institution, and when you arrive here, we are a community, and we want you to embrace them.
Technology has fundamentally changed the SA profession. Even pre-Covid, we were looking at ways to use technology to engage with students. It started in our enrollment and admissions practices, and how we were connecting with students — chats, video calls, phone calls, etc. But then the pandemic forced us to pivot very quickly to offering our programs and services virtually. It helped us understand that you can still have meaningful student engagement in a virtual environment and that we could do it well.
We also use data about student experience collected from tech to inform our programs and services, help us adjust our policies and practices, drive our outreach to students, etc. We have to work really hard to connect with students now and using data in a proactive way helps us do that work.
One of the things I’m most excited about is this year we’ve hired student success navigators — a staff of thirteen folks who work with students from the time they apply for admission all the way through their first year. It’s a very personal connection for students early on, and then that person continues to support them. We really hope that it helps students become connected and engaged with the institution and build resilience and success.
That program really evolved over more than a dozen years. What we did at NAU was use data on our incoming freshmen. Based on demographics and other factors, we would assign a caseload of students to and office or program. That group of staff became responsible for those student during their first year. If a faculty member or resident advisor (RA) ever shared a concern about a student, that staff would reach out. It was a way for us to be proactive in making sure we were connecting with them in the moment when they needed help as opposed to waiting until the problem grew and was too much.
We also used a case management approach to students who had financial holds or other things that were limiting their progression. All in all, it was very successful in improving our first-year retention rates over time.
Our new system president, Jay Rothman, considers engaging students around these issues a top priority. He’s been hosting coffees with students at the different campuses, and I think they’ve appreciated the opportunities to talk with him directly. The UW System also did a survey this past year to help us inform our programming and approaches. I think again it really goes back to engaging students early in those events, and helping them understand we’re a public institution and should be a marketplace of ideas. You may not agree with that speaker or that presentation, but you don’t have to go. And if you do, you have to be respectful. We have to be willing to engage with different points of view, and really be critical about the information we’re digesting.
Begin having those conversations as early as you can in terms of their transition and arrival on campus. That really helps start to share our institution’s values, what kind of community we are, and what we want for our students. Be very intentional about what kinds of engagements and programs you’re providing. We have to be inclusive of all ideas. You can’t let it happen by chance. It has to be a systemic approach, and you have to drive it.