KALAMAZOO, Mich.—This fall’s 4,700 incoming freshman and transfer students have unprecedented opportunities to succeed in college at WMU.
The reason—Success at Western Michigan University, a sweeping new peer mentoring program that immediately connects those students to campus and orients them to college life and the University. Launched at the start of the 2018-19 academic year, it is one of two new programs largely being paid for by awards from the Presidential Transformational Initiative Fund that WMU President Edward Montgomery inaugurated in 2017.
Montgomery challenged faculty and staff to come up with ideas for building a stronger sense of belonging and community among all students. More than 60 proposals were submitted, with Success at WMU and Esports at WMU selected as the first initiatives to be funded.
“Student Success is President Montgomery’s top priority, and by supporting students in their transition to Western, we’ll make WMU a campus of choice,” says Monica Liggins-Abrams, director of Success at WMU.
“He also wants us to show a significant gain in the retention of new first-year and transfer students. I believe Success at WMU is an initiative that will allow us to do those things phenomenally well.”
Creating a campus of choice
The initiative is a large-scale commitment that takes advantage of WMU’s past success with student support programs for targeted populations of students and learning communities.
By building on many of those communities and creating new linkages and services, it has dramatically extended overall peer mentoring—from about 1,650 incoming first-year freshman and transfer students last year to all 4,700 students in this category who started at the University this fall.
The program assigned those undergraduates to communities of up to 25 people that are led by a peer mentor. These cohorts meet regularly as a group to discuss a series of preselected topics. Members also participate in such group activities as attending Bronco Bash or gathering for a study night, and they can meet with their peer mentor one-on-one.
“Peer mentors help our new students practice good study habits, explore internship and job opportunities, and engage on a social level so they have an easier time adjusting to college and feel like they belong here,” Liggins-Abrams says.
“As a result, we expect new students will have fewer adjustment problems, feel comfortable seeking help when they need it and be motivated to stay in school. Ultimately, we should see a significant improvement in the number of students who are satisfied with their educational experience at WMU, helping us to make this their campus of choice.”
Building on past successes
More than 100 student employees are serving as peer mentors this year after receiving special training. They, in turn, are being mentored by some 60 faculty and staff who have volunteered to be their champions.
Liggins-Abrams says individual cohorts will remain in place for the 2018-19 academic year, although students are not required to participate. She notes that communities look and behave differently, in part because some cohorts comprised of transfer, regional location or other sets of students may only need to communicate intermittently or through emails and video conferences.
Differences also crop up because of the way students are assigned to communities, Liggins-Abrams adds. Placements are first made into existing programs that have shown to be successful, then to course-related cohorts followed by some established residence hall living-learning communities. The remaining students are assigned based on criteria related to their academic colleges, with international, transfer and other categories of students clustered together when possible.
"We didn’t want to disrupt existing programs. We wanted to leverage the existing peer mentoring expertise on campus, so we relied heavily on the work people all over campus have been doing for years," Liggins-Abrams explains.
"What makes Success at WMU unique is its scale. We’re being very intentional. Going forward, we want to touch every new student."
Program, office details
Success at WMU is being administered by the Division of Academic Affairs, which also is providing space in Room 1068 of Waldo Library for the peer mentors and on the University Computing Center’s second floor for the program’s main office.
In addition to an $818,500 award from the Presidential Transformational Initiative Fund, it is being paid for by a matching award from the Division of Academic Affairs and support from the Division of Student Affairs as well as the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Dr. Keith M. Hearit, a veteran WMU administrator and professor of communication, serves as executive director of the program. Along with Liggins-Abrams, an administrative assistant, graduate assistant and interns round out the staff. A search will be underway soon for an assistant director, whose primary role will be to work with the peer mentors.
"A huge component of Success at WMU’s first two years will be evaluation and research. We want to make sure the program is working well, and we’re documenting the impact we’re having on students, peer mentors and champions," Liggins-Abrams says.
"We’re partnering with Ciji Heiser, director of assessment and effectiveness in WMU’s student affairs division, and external evaluators to build a comprehensive evaluation plan that will be administered to provide ongoing program improvement and determine whether the program has been effective enough to continue. In addition, the University’s Center for Research on Instructional Change in Postsecondary Education has signed on to do research on the effectiveness of peer and faculty and staff mentors and the impact of mentor initiatives on student learning."
Although still in its infancy, Success at WMU already is making a beneficial impact. It is helping to fund:
- An expansion of the College of Arts and Sciences’s existing Gateways to Completion program, which focuses on improving student outcomes in high-risk courses.
- WMU’s efforts as a JED Campus, which are increasing the University’s ability to improve the emotional and mental health of its students.
- A Faculty and Staff Signature program, which will increase employee engagement in WMU initiatives, plus recognize those who amp up their engagement.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.
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