October 07, 2008

First-Year Experience task force seeks input

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When students start their first year in higher education, having a support network can mean the difference between sticking it out to earn a degree and leaving early without one.

A group of students, faculty and staff at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is working together to make sure students who start their first year at SIUC make it to the next year, and ultimately the finish line by improving their initial academic and social adjustment period.

The SIUC First-Year Experience, a comprehensive, campus-wide effort to support freshmen through what can be a tough adjustment period, is in the planning stages. Mark A. Amos, associate professor of English at SIUC and director of the effort, said students entering the University in fall 2009 will be the first to benefit from.

“It’s absolutely crucial that we support the students we admit, giving them the best tools available to be successful,” Amos said. “At its base, this effort is about connecting a student -- to peers, to faculty and to programs already in place. Because if you’re connected, you don’t fall through the cracks.”

The program is modeled on aspirational goals, using evidence-based approaches in a collaborative, campus-wide effort. Organizers will strive to link the University’s vision, mission, values and strategic goals to formulate a program that supports new students.

“Right now, our goal is to create a program that supports and interacts with first-year students through every phase until they have earned enough credits to become sophomores,” Amos said. The program, when in place, will help every kind of first-year student, from those who need extra support to those who excel.

“We want to give them the true Saluki experience,” Amos said.

Amos said Interim Chancellor Samuel Goldman is fully supporting the effort, which currently is in the self-study phase. Two email surveys -- one aimed at first-year students and one at faculty and staff -- will hit campus inboxes today (Oct. 7) and Wednesday, seeking feedback on their experiences and suggestions related to topics including orientation, admissions, housing, financial aid and others, in an attempt to gauge how well the University supports first-year students. Although the emails do not originate from an siu.edu address, they are legitimate, Amos said. The email to students is from Amos, while the email to faculty and staff is from Goldman. Both, however, have a “webebi.com” address, which is the company conducting the survey.

Both Goldman and Amos are encouraging the SIUC community to complete the survey.

Amos and Julie Payne Kirchmeier, director of University Housing, are acting as co-liaisons working with the Policy Center on the First Year of College, a non-profit higher education research center that specializes in creating such programs through a specific process. That process, called the Foundations of Excellence Program, helps coordinate the University’s efforts to create its own first-year program.

Amos said SIUC has known for a long time that it needs to support incoming students, and it has numerous programs in place to do so.

“One thing we’re trying to do is become an umbrella over those efforts and research what we have in place so we can take a more cohesive approach,” he said. “We need an overarching philosophy to unify our approach.”

Kirchmeier said the email surveys will provide key information for the effort to move ahead.

“It is crucial that the task force hears from more student voices than those who serve on its 10 committees,” she said. “A solid return will give us the kind of information crucial to the work our committees are undertaking as part of the Foundations of Excellence initiative. The information and suggestions we gain from the surveys will be critical to the work of the committees as they look at ways to improve all aspects of incoming student life for the first year (including) recruitment, admission, courses, student services, retention, and persistence. Improvements in these areas will also benefit all Southern Illinois University Carbondale students.”

Organizers have assembled about 100 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff to sit on a task force made up of 10 committees aimed at developing the foundations of the program. Each committee is co-chaired by someone from Academic Affairs and someone from Student Affairs, which stresses the cooperative nature or the effort, Amos said.

The committees, led by a steering committee, will formulate a proposal and submit it to Goldman early in the spring semester. After further refinements, the committees will dissolve and Amos and the rest of the steering committee will be in charge of implementing the program starting in August 2009.

The goal includes connecting students with all aspects of university life, including academic, social and developmental experiences, Amos said. While the program is still in development, Amos said there are a few elements he hopes it ultimately contains. Those include:

• Support for students taking the courses that pose the highest risk for first-year students.

• Testing and placement for incoming freshmen.

• A coordinated effort from admissions through orientation and housing, financial aid and so on, to address any communication or other problems that might exist.

• A policy of giving first-year students early feedback from faculty, so that they know without a doubt how they are faring with their class work.

Amos said the task force is working closely with Student Development and others to ensure the program focuses on ways the University can help first-year students succeed. The program also takes into account the many programs already in place, such as freshmen interest groups, or “figs,” living-learning environments in residence halls, the Center for Academic Success and efforts such as University 101.

In the future, Amos hopes the University will expand the program to other populations, including older, transfer students who are starting their first year in the University setting. He also sees the new program as a strong recruiting tool for SIUC.

“Once it’s up and running we should feature this program,” he said. “It should address the trepidation some parents might feel about sending their sons and daughters to a large research institution. This program says, ‘we’ll take care of them.’”