First cohort finding success, belonging in new Bronco Connect Living Learning Community

Contact: Erin Flynn
Students sit in chairs.

Bronco Connect Scholars have opportunities to meet weekly and engage in programming designed to keep them involved on campus and build a foundation for lasting success.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Behind the scenes in Western’s Esports Arena, operating lights and running the video game stream, Juliana Smith is in the zone.

“I always wanted to be involved in an esports club, but it wasn’t offered at my high school,” says the first-year computer science student from Battle Creek, Michigan. “Volunteering (on the WMU Esports production team) was everything I dreamed of.”

Getting engaged with the campus community is something Smith worried about before coming to Western; their biggest fear was not finding friends or a place to fit in. However, Smith did find a community and more in the Bronco Connect Living Learning Community (LLC). Supported by the historic Empowering Futures Gift, it is a residence hall community focused on encouraging exploration and finding belonging as students transition to college life.

“The Bronco Connect LLC has helped me build meaningful relationships with those around me. Building these relationships improved my social and emotional health, allowing me to thrive here at Western,” says Smith. “My favorite part … is that I know pretty much everyone in my hall. It really feels like a home rather than a place where I live for a semester.”

Smith is among the first 44 recipients of the Empowering Futures Housing Scholarship, which provides up to $6,000 in housing and dining funds for qualified first-year students who live in Michigan. Recipients live in the Bronco Connect LLC their first year with an option to continue on their second year. The hope is to add about 60 more incoming students in fall 2023 to bring the cohort beyond 100.

“The scholarship allowed for me to have a true full ride and go to college and pursue my dreams, and I am forever grateful,” says Elizabeth Kozen, a biomedical sciences student from Utica, Michigan, who plans to be an emergency response doctor or trauma surgeon. She received full scholarships from four universities, but the added support network she found in the Bronco Connect LLC made Western rise to the top.

A NETWORK FOR SUCCESS

In addition to financial aid, all scholarship recipients start their academic journey with the built-in support of a residential learning community. That support is focused on diversity, equity and inclusion as well as holistic programming designed to engage them in campus life and build career, academic and well-being skills that will
carry them through college and into their professional lives.

“Studies have shown that a sense of belonging is a huge reason why students persist in college, and we want to increase retention,” says Tyler Maruschak, hall director. “So we’re figuring out, how can we do that? A lot of it is additional support.”

Bronco Connect Scholars like Eian Veal participated in The Advance, getting early access to campus ahead of Fall Welcome.

“We know that students who live on campus, especially in a living learning community, tend to perform better academically and have higher rates of retention than their peers who live off campus,” adds Laura Darrah, assistant director of Housing and Residence Life and leader of the Bronco Connect Work Group, which has worked to design the program from the ground up.

The experience begins with The Advance, an orientation that gets them early access to campus ahead of Fall Welcome, allowing students to connect with their cohort and begin identifying and engaging with campus resources.

“It was so great being able to connect with them at The Advance, because it really was an almost instantaneous family,” says Melissa Holman, a member of the Empowering Futures Steering Committee and Bronco Connect Work Group.

Each student also sets up a success plan, which will be revisited throughout their first year with work-group leadership.

“The intent of doing goal planning with them is so they are moving with intention through their time here,” Holman says. “College is not just going to classes; it’s also everything else you’re doing to support yourself outside of class, what kind of connections you are making overall.”

BUILDING LASTING CONNECTIONS

Holman and other work group leaders say they’ve watched students in the cohort blossom throughout their first semester at Western—whether overcoming academic challenges or fostering close-knit relationships with their Bronco Connect peers.

“I think the thing they’ve gotten most out of the community is the sense of belonging and identity as being part of the Bronco family but also having some camaraderie with individuals who they can ‘do life’ with while they’re trying to adjust to college,” Holman says.

That camaraderie has been bolstered by weekly programming designed to keep the cohort engaged and build a foundation for lasting success—at the University and beyond. Students commit to attending at least seven events each semester, though most attended many more during the fall.

Students sit together at a table.

Juliana Smith, center, sits with members of the Bronco Connect LLC during The Advance orientation.

“A lot of (the events) are based around school and how to handle such a big transition along with a big emphasis on self-care and mental well-being,” says Hugo Sanchez, a Bronco Connect scholar from Lincoln Park, Michigan.

Students meet regularly with work group leaders to discuss both challenges they’ve met and successes they’ve had throughout the year. They are also connected early on with Career and Student Employment Services, receiving coaching on everything from resume-building to navigating career fairs.

“We want to help them get that sense of belonging secured right away and then build on that as well as maintaining our commitment to always have a multicultural lens on all of our program delivery,” Darrah says.

Many students in the cohort have already committed to returning to the Bronco Connect LLC for their second year, which leaders say is a testament to its success.

“Being in the LLC, I have met some amazing people who have supported and encouraged me in ways that have let me thrive,” Kozen says.

“Bronco Connect is truly a wonderful experience, and I hope to see the community grow and prosper in the future,” adds Smith. ■

A group photo of students flashing the "W" symbol with their hands.

The inaugural cohort of Bronco Connect Scholars arrives on campus.