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Reflecting on Higher Ed's Integrated Approach to Student Success

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Many conversations inside professional circles of education grapple with how to measure student success. One area of exploration that often gets forgotten about is the impact on those striving to support students along their collegiate path.

I connected with two individuals whose administrative services inside higher ed are helping to shape trajectories of success. Dr. Mona Davenport is the Dean of Student Success at Eastern Illinois University (EIU), and Dr. Kate Ziemer is the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). Both offer meaningful insights into their present environments and the shaping of student life.

A unique vantage point comes to the surface by diving into the perspectives of student service offices to see firsthand what students want from their school experience. "Our students want a way to make life equitable," said Davenport. "They want to leave the institution they attend to have a comfortable and rewarding future. In many ways, Gen-Z is also about service and what they can do for the public good.”

Pandemic Silver Lining

COVID-19 inevitably affected institutions across the higher ed spectrum, with retention and enrollment issues still posing challenges today. For Davenport and Ziemer, the pandemic caused them to reexamine how they engage students academically, mentally, and socially.

Ziemer found her position in the academic affairs office at UNH highly impacted by the pandemic. "The disruption showed us that student needs should be tailored to different audiences,” shared Ziemer. “What we thought we were doing well was hidden from us. COVID-19 broke open the blinders and helped us see the students who were academically successful, but not thriving mentally or socially."

According to Ziemer, students who seemingly had it together suddenly dropped out of sight. "We needed to keep track of them better, which caused us to question and think deeply about our mission regarding student success,” said Ziemer. “Do we accept that it's not just an academic degree? It's more than that. To the student, it's about thriving, growing, and going to where you want to be.”

Davenport witnessed a mixed bag of pandemic effects at EIU, pointing to efforts that thrived and areas that needed more attention. "COVID gave us new options in how we need to function as an institution,” said Davenport. “Like other institutions, we have increased the number of programs online because we now know it can be done. Online works quite well for upper-level students; it's a plus. A junior or senior with experience and knowledge in their major can continue working on what they're passionate about and have adaptive skills. On the other hand, first-year students may need more in-person guidance.”

Social integration is part of the equation for Davenport and Ziemer, which marries technology with academics and social support pillars. There are a variety of quadrants at universities, from residential undergraduates and graduate degree seekers, to those in extension programs and commuter populations. With a large pool of students comes attention to diversity and the needs of the students served.

"We want to avoid saying, 'Students are.' As Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, I'm concerned with those I do not hear from," said Ziemer. "The pandemic taught us to pay more attention and balance what we are hearing and what we are not. While it would be easy to put on blinders and focus on ensuring the students are just getting a degree, it's important to recognize that students are discovering themselves and emerging as citizens. Our institution needs to be a safe place to experiment intellectually and test the boundaries of learning at all levels."

Peer Focused

With online models opening up, post-pandemic institutions like EIU and UNH are adopting additional measures to provide opportunities for student success. One such area is the evolution of tutoring using online methods and peer-to-peer guidance to bring more options to the needs of a diverse student population.

"70% or more of our students are financial aid eligible and have to get jobs outside of going to class every day," said Davenport. She shares that traditionally, institutions hire tutors to sit in a room and tutor students who come in during specific hours. However, it doesn't necessarily work for the lives of the modern learner.

"For the student working and going to school, can they go to class, work a job, find time for personal wellness and sit in a room to be tutored? No,” emphasized Davenport. “That's why I'm a proponent of tutoring online and in-person peer tutoring programs like Knack. Students have the availability of a tutor when it's convenient for them. From an institutional perspective, we only pay when the tutor is used."

According to Davenport, student success revolves around reaching all students, and efforts like innovative tutoring solutions are part of the equation. "We need to reach them where they are and allow them to get tutored when they can get to it," said Davenport. In some respects, the traditional educational model of higher ed that asked the student to find the resources is flipping. Institutions like EIU and UNH are now shaping options that cater to students' diverse needs and wants.

Peer mentors matter, according to Ziemer. "There are many wonderful examples across higher ed where faculty is looking to create peer learning environments with magnified pedagogical impacts,” said Ziemer. “When you have intergenerational peer mentors from graduate, postdocs, and continuing education, it creates a community that is more than single-subject tutoring alone.”

"Peer tutoring or peer-encouraged education makes it much easier to take something you've learned in one context and apply it in another,” said Ziemer. “When you bring in people with different ideas, as interdisciplinary students who are chemical engineers, civil discourse experts, and historians, together on projects, the student sees their expertise in a different context. Learning connects and is very self-motivating, increasing the learner's agency."

Community Building

Ziemer and Davenport's jobs are about community building that provides students with an enriching and energized environment. "It's why I make it a point to visit residence halls because they have to see us," said Davenport. "Some low-income or ethnic minority students are not used to conversation with folks. They call me Dr. D, but I prefer Mona. So it's important for their growth to interact and feel comfortable sharing, even if I am a dean."

According to Ziemer, students today are interested in finding the connection between what they are studying and the real-world application and impact on the world. She shares how for instance, a student interested in food sustainability needs discourse on whether to become a chemical engineer or a nutritionist. In addition, they might be looking to incorporate a job with a food bank to bring into the context of education and the connection it has to the campus cafeteria.

"It's about blending and how we create an energized environment in the academic setting,” said Ziemer. “It's about retaining, engaging, and letting students see their agency to impact the world around them while in college so that when they leave, they're already hitting the ground running.”

Common Language

Part of the community-building effort revolves around a shared language that needs to exist among faculty and staff. As Ziemer explained, "When I engaged staff on the Student Life initiative, that included the blending of psychological services, counseling, tutoring, academic supports, the focus used to be academic program centric. Now, our faculty is shifting to the student-centric side. The only issue is that many are talking in different languages, which can confuse the student trying to piece it together."

Davenport recognizes a similar challenge. "Everyone on campus needs to be all in," said Davenport. "It's one of the obstacles across the board in higher ed. In many ways, pedagogy is under review for change to get to the students."

Dr. Kate Ziemer and Dr. Mona Davenport are highly decorated academics that take their teaching and administrative duties seriously in their respective higher ed environments. To them, the university setting is much like an organism that lives and breathes with potential and promise. Part of their jobs revolves around setting up programs that integrate the college experience to provide today's students with successful environments that merge education with applicable life-building skills and experiences.

It is clear that the organism known as higher ed is morphing and changing with the complexities of the modern student in search of personalized environments that enrich and connect to real-world possibilities. It may just take a common language with all efforts from traditional academics, tutoring, internships, and community-building programs to lift higher ed to new successful heights.

Institutions like EIU and UNH recognize that higher ed involves more than just getting a degree—it should include the life-enriching objective of graduate success. In the words of Davenport, "I would love to know that every student I've had contact with is a better person."


Check out my previous Knack article and adjacent podcast episodes: 

Be on the lookout for my upcoming podcast interview with Dr. TJ Logan from the Ohio State University.