Engaging Faculty as Partners in the Retention Enterprise

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Dr. Kathleen Ross
President Emerita & Director ISIS
Heritage University

When the Institute for Student Identity and Success (ISIS) started at Heritage University in 2011, we focused on identifying under-addressed factors in the retention and graduation of New Majority (first-gen and/or low-income and/or minority) students.? We wanted to identify and then tackle an issue that wasn?t currently recognized as vital, rather than merely adding to the innumerable national and institutional initiatives to increase retention.? What surfaced in our search was a genuine surprise.? We found that very few projects were focusing on faculty practices that responded to the specific challenges which New Majority students face in persevering and succeeding in high- er education.? The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) came to the same conclusion in 2012 when they published an Issue Brief: ?Supporting First Generation Students Through Classroom-Based Practices.? (Available at http://www.ihep.org/Publications/publications-detail.cfm?id=158).

What was even more intriguing in our initial research was an observation about faculty that was evident but usually considered irrelevant: most university and college faculty are not themselves First Generation college attendees.? For most, at least one parent and at least a few other family members had lived through some college experiences and had first-hand immersion in university culture.? Why is this important?

Because it shaped the outlook of most faculty toward his or her own personal experience of entering into, navigating, and successfully negotiating ?the college challenge.?? A faculty member who was a non-first-generation student now looks from that viewpoint at the students sitting in class, seeing them and ?reading? them from the standpoint of the faculty member?s own experience.? And yet there are many subtle or subliminal yet highly significant differences between these two sets of experiences.? This is not an academic discipline-related phenomenon.?? These underlying issues which often shape the faculty member?s effectiveness with students are the same whether the professor?s field is philosophy or physics.

To explore this issue, we chose a few New Majority junior and senior students at Heritage University to serve as Research Assistants and sent them out to their fellow undergraduates with a simple interviewing task.? Ask them for examples of faculty members who have ?gone above and beyond? to help you succeed, or ask who have been those instructors in whose classes ?you have learned the most.?? Then ask probing questions to find out just what the named faculty member did to facilitate learning and student success.? Since the majority of Heritage University students are first-generation and ethnic minorities, and 90 ? 95% of Heritage freshmen receive Pell grants, we knew the interviews would be tapping New Majority students.? We compiled interview transcripts to identify faculty members who were frequently mentioned, or who were described as having innovative strategies.? Based on in-depth interviews with these instructors, we began to identify ?Breakthrough Strategies.?? To qualify, a strategy must be something that can be used across various disciplines.? It must specifically address a challenging situation that the faculty member frequently encounters with students.? It must represent an insight into a barrier or stumbling block associated with being a New Majority college student.? And it must be a specific faculty strategy that can be shared in a 3 ? 4 minute video.

With grant assistance from the College Spark – Washing- ton foundation, our research project has begun to result in professionally-produced short and pithy videos.? In each one a faculty member shares a ?Breakthrough Strategy? which addresses a specific challenge that the faculty member was experiencing.? The videos point out issues which are usually ?under the radar screen? for typical faculty and administrators, often due to the difference in a faculty member?s own experience as a college student in comparison with the current experience of students who are first-gen students.? Research sometimes identifies this difference as the dissimilarity of life experiences for working class families versus middle class families (including lower middle class).? As university professionals we generally presume that attending college is ?leveling the playing field.?? But we forget that leveling a field only happens after a significant amount of surveying and measuring to determine the precise places that are uneven, the causes for the dips or humps and the best approach to leveling each, and then finding and operating the equipment which actually creates the newly leveled field.? This is an apt analogy for what we are trying to accomplish through the ?Breakthrough Strategies Videos.?

One example is in the video titled ?Time and Place to Study.?? In it, the faculty member reminds us that most first-gen students today come from homes where no one ever brings work home, because the typical jobs cannot be done from home (farm labor, house- keeping, construction).? Home has by default been defined as a place where constant human interaction? takes place, and where all those currently present in the house are engaged in activities for the good of the whole family community.? This is not a place where a student can bring home a challenging reading or writing assignment and expect to go into a separate room, undisturbed, to work alone for an extended period of time.?? In the typical New Majority student?s public high school, most learning took place during class time, or in required and scheduled study halls or library time.? If this is the mindset of commuter first-gen college students and their families about college learning, how and where and when will they establish new in-depth study patterns which will allow real college-level thinking and learning skills?

To date, we have produced eight short Breakthrough Strategies Videos which are available for viewing free of charge at www.heritage.edu/ISIS .? Each of them describes and illustrates a focused strategy that has shown good results for New Majority students and the faculty who are using them.? Three more videos are in production and will be released in early fall.? We are also currently working with a two-year college and another four-year university to identify additional effective faculty strategies which we hope to share through future videos.

Faculty are the heart of any college learning experience.? It is our hope that the Breakthrough Strategies Videos project will give more faculty insights into the way of life of typical New Majority students, their family environments, communication norms and expectations.? As they relate this information to contrasting aspects of the traditional academic milieu, faculty can try the strategies described by their peers in the videos.? They can send us new ideas for future videos.? They can also deepen their own understanding of today?s college classroom and develop their own unique strategies to help their students enter successfully into the college experience.? Wouldn?t it be great if the first eight Breakthrough Strategies Videos could be expanded into a library of many more insightful and practical videos, thus equipping faculty everywhere to lead the New Majority entering students into tomorrow?s New Majority College Graduates?

Kathleen Ross is the Founding President of Heritage University in the Yakima Valley of Washington State.? After 28 years, she transitioned to a new project – the Institute for Student Identity and Success at Heritage University. Her academic background is in Cross-Cultural Studies and Higher Education Management from Georgetown University and Claremont Graduate University.? She is a member of the Catholic Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.? Her email address is ross_k@heritage.edu. ?

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