Lessons learned for retention from the EOP program and other student voices
Chrisel Martinez UA ‘16, Brittanyliz Echevarria UA’17, and Jim Stellar
Both CM and BE worked for an enhancing the student experience (ESE) retention team at the University at Albany that was looking to collect student stories that revealed something about what caused undergraduates to stay, or not, at the university.
CM interviewed students and staff in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) as it has a freshman-to-sophomore conversion rate 10% above the university average.
BE took notes on generic evening student focus groups (Pizza with the Provost; and Coffee, Cupcakes, and Conversation) co-run by the Academic Affairs and Student Affairs Vice Presidents and she interpreted those notes after the meeting.
Both are also members of EOP and work in administrative offices at the University at Albany. Both filed reports with the ESE Let’s begin with EOP.
Let’s here first from CM and then BE and then try to make something out of their observations.
Student’s ability to learn and function most importantly within a college environment depends not only on the professors, but also on the strength of the relationships with adults and peers. The EOP prides itself in its strong family values. From the beginning of our 5-week summer program, the importance of group identity is instilled, in order for us to build strong relationship with those around. We not only build these powerful connections with our fellow EOP classmates, and counselors, but we are also introduced to a wide array of other EOP students and faculty members to better help us navigate throughout our collegiate experience.
Most of the students within the EOP program come from households with low socioeconomic statuses. Therefore, we have experienced comparable lifestyles, and are all on the similar journeys towards self-empowerment, growth and prosperity. As an EOP family we are aware of the individuals counting on us to make positive changes in our lives for the betterment of our personal livelihood, and our loved ones as well. Hispanics, and blacks tend to be underrepresented among those with bachelor’s degrees.
Overcoming economic disadvantages is by far a motivating force, but also a powerful stride to take for many minorities of low socioeconomic statuses. Leaving my neighborhood of Harlem, New York, was not easy. I knew that the journey that lay ahead of me would be one of growth, and situational betterment, but it was also one that would difficult to take. Leaving your family, friends, customs, and values at home and coming into a new environment can be difficult. To this day I can attribute all of my personal success throughout my college career to the preparation, support, strength and love that was provided by my EOP family, and for that I will always be thankful.
Over the course of the last academic year, I worked closely alongside Provost Stellar and Vice President for Student Affairs Christakis, as a scribe for the two types of student focus group programs mentioned at the top. These small sessions, set to be very casual, were arranged as an opportunity for students including myself to voice our opinions, and provide updates on what arrangements could be done to improve our University and increase retention rates.
One particular student mentioned a concern in reference to Orientation, which shortly after I knew was a major contribution to what could open up the discussion to forming a more effective Orientation. As an Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) student and as an Orientation leader the previous summer, I could relate to what my summer orientation provided that traditional orientation could not. First off time being the main factor of what differentiates EOP, coming in to a program that was 5 weeks long provided each of us the best opportunities to bond, network and grow as individuals and a family. As Stellar and Christakis simply put it “EOP is experience education because it touches the heart.”
Many of my students over traditional Orientation would share with me how they truly enjoyed the aspect of sleeping over in the dorms, allowing them to bond with the other students in their group but wished that they had much more time to develop a deeper connection.
Another student, in the Learning Living Community, related how she held this deeper sense of community and belonging by being placed in a living area and classes with others in her same group.
From Pizza with the Provost and from Coffee and Cupcakes with Christakis, we were able to discover that EOP and other groups that provide group dynamics and a sense of belongingness are major contributors to why students choose to stay and call our University home.
The three of us are also in a small group of students and staff who study some of the programmatic, psychological, and even background neural factors that govern how students learn from experience (e.g. internships) to complement the academic curriculum and improve student retention and career growth as undergraduates to help them succeed after graduation. What follows is something we wrote together that comes from those discussions.
There is considerable evidence from neuroscience and even from the emerging field of neuroeconomics that many decisions we make are unconscious, implicit, out of our awareness, and come to us through emotional or gut feelings about something, e.g. whether this is a good university at which I should stay or whether this is a good major for me as a student to study.
We think that the lessons illustrated in the above experiences show a very positive effect from being in a group and especially one in which the student can share the their experiences, get and give reactions (often non-verbal as much as verbal), and strengthen their identify with that group. Many books make this point, including a recent one, The Village Effect, by Susan Pinker, which points out the psychological and even physical health effect of societal communication and belonging.
So many of our programs at a university are not only directed to helping students learn academic facts and theories and find their way through to potential career opportunities, but to do so in the presence of caring peers, staff, and faculty. We do not have to make the programs easier to get this group effect. Sometimes making them more challenging actually makes the work output better, transmits an implicit sense of respect to the student, and deepens the bonding within the program that leads to student success. We really are better together.