August 23, 2012
MACOMB, IL – With more first-generation college students setting foot on college campuses, universities have realized the crucial need for additional resources and support services for students who are the first in their families to head off to college.
At Western Illinois University, the goal of the new Building Connections program, which launched this fall, is to provide the necessary support for those students, and will have a direct tie-in with freshman-to-sophomore year retention rates, which have been decreasing over the past few years, according to Gary Biller, vice president for student services and coordinator of Building Connections. As part of the program, nearly 220 staff and faculty at Western have volunteered to serve as mentors for incoming freshman students.
"The intent of this program is to establish a connection with students right from the start to let them know someone is here for them and willing to help them succeed," Biller explained. "The mentors aren't academic advisers or counselors, they are simply individuals who check in with the students to ensure they have the resources they need, be it a math tutor, information on a study skills session, or who to contact if they wish to volunteer."
The idea for the Building Connections program stemmed from an in-depth review of freshman-to-sophomore year retention rates, which have fallen behind the national average of 74 percent. Biller noted that for more than a decade, the retention of WIU's first-year students held at 73 to 74 percent. Following the 2011-12 academic year, the retention rate dropped to 66 percent.
"It's problematic, and I know we're better than that. When reviewing those numbers, we realized that more needed to be done to ensure our students succeed and graduate. With the number of first- generation students growing, it's essential we provide opportunities for them to succeed as many don't have that reference of what they must do," he added. "During high school they had to attend class, they had to get a pass to use the restroom, and they had structured schedules and routines. Then they get to college and it's up to them to get up on time, they choose whether or not to attend class, they don't have to ask anyone's permission to do anything and they set their schedules. For some, this can be overwhelming and they can get off track very quickly. We need to step in, before it gets overwhelming."
Under the direction of President Jack Thomas, Biller established a retention team, and that group reviewed other successful programs. Taking pieces from a variety of programs, the team developed Western's Building Connections program. A pilot program was launched during the 2011-12 academic year with a select number of staff. According to Biller, those students who participated returned at a greater rate to Western this fall than those who were not a part of the pilot program.
"We know this program can help based on researching other programs and from the results of our pilot program during the last school year," he noted. "Following the success of the pilot, we deemed it possible to launch a full scale program this fall."
All incoming freshmen, approximately 1,700, were required to take the College Student Inventory (CSI), which measures a variety of factors in four categories: academic motivation, social motivation, general coping skills and receptivity to support services. The results of the inventory are provided to the mentors so they are aware of their assigned students' strengths and areas in which the students may need assistance. Biller, Jessica Butcher, assistant to the VPSS, and Admissions Director Andy Borst presented the Building Connections program to numerous constituency groups across campus, such as the Civil Service Employees Council, Faculty Senate and the Council for Administrative Personnel, and this summer, Biller and Butcher led training sessions for those employees interested in serving as mentors. Of Western's nearly 1,900 employees, more than 200 individuals registered as mentors and have each been assigned eight to 10 students.
"This semester marks the beginning of my 25th year of teaching at the college level, and I am beginning my eighth year at WIU. I have been blessed to work with thousands of students over these years, and even more blessed to watch so many of them become wonderful, contributing members of their communities. This didn't just happen because of the content of the specific courses I taught, or from the books they read, or from taking tests and writing papers. It happened because my students knew I wanted the best for them, and that I wanted them to do their very best," said Robert Hironimus-Wendt, sociology professor and Building Connections mentor. "I want each student I meet to succeed. The most important thing we can do is to teach them how to succeed in this new experience called college. It requires that we build empathetic relations with our students, and that we actively build the sort of social community in which they feel empowered to survive and thrive.
"What I like about Western's Building Connections program is that it is intentional about creating community. It centers on breaking down the formal hierarchical relations between us and our students. It is about building and sustaining empathetic social networks for our first-year students," he added. "These sorts of welcoming, social relationships between our existing campus community and those who are joining us have the real potential to literally make the difference between thriving here, and leaving. "
Biller added that as a result of the program, Western anticipates an increase in retention. He also hopes that mentors will encourage their colleagues to participate in retention-related programs.
"We greatly appreciate those employees who have stepped up to participate in Building Connections. Retention is an issue for everyone on this campus, and our employees should be invested in programs that help our students thrive," Biller said. "We are doing our students a great disservice if we don't provide them with the tools to succeed and accomplish their goals."
For more information on the Building Connections program, email BuildingConnections@wiu.edu or contact Student Development and Orientation at 298-1884.