Admins plan springboard for student success
Through a two-year program called Foundations of Excellence, the Department of Student Affairs and the Office of Academic Affairs are working together to assess the University’s first-year student experience and develop a strategic plan to recruit and retain new students.
The program, developed by John Gardner at the Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, operates on the fact that a successful first year at UH creates a springboard for students to excel in their following years.
“It’s just like building a house,” said Daniel Maxwell, co-chair of the initiative and associate vice president and chancellor of Student Affairs. “If you have a really good foundation, you can build a couple of floors and know it’s not going to go anywhere.”
This year, the program is in its assessment year. Maxwell and co-chair and Interim Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Success Teri Elkins Longacre are leading a group of faculty, staff and students divided into nine dimension committees.
Each committee focuses on an individual aspect of the first-year experience, and after months of research from surveys and analyzing current practices at UH, the committee forms a final report. The Steering Committee then develops a strategy with detailed plans to enhance the first-year experience.
The Steering Committee meets regularly, but its real work comes in May, when it will connect all of the reports into one, University-wide plan. Students from the Student Government Association and the Orientation Team program serve on some of the committees, Maxwell said, and SGA President Cedric Bandoh serves as a member of the Steering Committee.
“My part of the Steering Committee is to be the voice of students as we tie together all the work that the dimension committees have done and all the data that has been developed and coming to that long-term plan … on how we are going to address all the issues that have been brought up by the different committees,” Bandoh said.
Some of the other committees focus on aspects of first-year experience such as philosophy and transition, but one of Maxwell’s critical considerations is to keep in mind student diversity.
“Being such a diverse campus, if I don’t take into consideration that they come with different experiences, and therefore are going to perceive UH differently, than I’m going to do an injustice if I say, ‘OK. Everyone has to walk this way, (and) you’ll be OK,’” he said.
The program has earned success across the nation at more than 500 institutions, and UH has many schools to use as benchmarks. Longacre said the top priority of the program is to increase campus and academic involvement.
“The big picture that comes out of this process is to increase student engagement and student learning,” Longacre said. “Ultimately we want (to) better retain students, graduate more students and graduate them more quickly. But all of that starts with engagement with faculty and with their peers, participating in activities on campus, and through that, the actual learning process.”
Bandoh, who said he is particularly passionate about enhancing the first-year experience, wants to make sure students are getting the advising they need.
“I’d like to see our advising get better in some colleges,” Bandoh said. “Some colleges do it well, and some colleges can do it better.”
One program that Bandoh hopes will be a part of the implementation phase is what he calls a “strong and robust intervention program” for freshman- and sophomore-level classes that are deemed high-failure-rate courses.
“What the intervention program would do is, if you were in one of these classes after that first test or assignment, and you didn’t do as well as you’d like, there would be someone within the student support area who would intervene and help you find tutoring or whatever the case would be, before it is too late,” Bandoh said.
Another initiative that enhances the first-year experience has already begun in residence halls. Major-specific wings or floors in freshman-only residential halls create a hub of similar students to foster a positive learning environment.
“Residential Life and Housing has started developing these residential learning communities for students who are all living in the same wing and might all be interested in a particular major,” Longacre said. “And so they can have activities in the residence halls that are led by faculty or staff members that are about a particular interest.”
These learning communities, Bandoh said, will also encourage more students to live on campus and benefit from this program.
“While you’re living on campus, you have that close-knit group that you can study with, right there in your residence hall, as your support group,” Bandoh said. “Most of us need that support structure, in terms of making us successful. I would have loved that.”