This past Friday, April 8, I attended a UW system-wide conference about supporting the academic success of “at-risk” students — most commonly, students who are the first in their families to attend college; students returning to college at a “non-traditional” age; students from low-income backgrounds; and students from groups historically underrepresented in higher education. As I listened to the sessions, many of which were packed with quantitative and qualitative data about what places a student “at risk,” I heard a stunning refrain. The single most powerful predictor of whether a student will succeed or slip through the cracks comes down to one word: connection. You can teach the best curriculum, adhere to the most sophisticated educational models, give students access to the fanciest computer labs, etc., etc., but at the end of the day what matters is that students know that someone cares about them. “I felt invisible,” “My professors didn’t have time for me,” “Everyone was too busy”: These are the words of students who, after lingering on academic probation, decided college wasn’t for them. The difference between success and failure in one student’s case? She found an advisor willing to give her twenty minutes of undivided attention twice a semester. That’s forty minutes total of the advisor’s time. Amazing.
No one suggests that reaching out is the only piece of the academic success puzzle. But everything I heard on Friday tells me that without it, little else matters. So I’m reminded that as busy as I may get heading into the end-of-semester (a time of overwhelm for many students), I need to keep reaching out. Even the small gestures matter: making eye contact and smiling warmly to the students who pass in the hall, offering a simple “You ok?” to a student who seems upset. Such gestures say, I see you. I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to stay.
PS: If you don’t believe me, take a listen to Gary Sandefur, Dean of L & S. http://www.chickasaw.tv/#/people/VideoModule/1475
(Coincidentally, this video podcast appeared in my Facebook newsfeed as I was finishing this blog entry. Guess we’re all on the same page right about now.)