Five years ago, I interviewed for the inaugural CEHD Director of Student Success position. As part of my interview process, I was asked to prepare a job talk on current trends in student affairs and a sample welcome message that I would deliver at a new, undergraduate transfer student orientation. I knew that preparing the job talk would take some time since I needed to research current trends and think about a succinct way to deliver the presentation; but, on the other hand, I knew that crafting the welcome message was going to be a cakewalk!
Two years prior, I was fresh out of doctoral studies at Illinois and had relocated to Ohio to assume a full-time student success position working with exploratory/undeclared students, new transfer students, and students who were not in good academic standing. Retention and graduation rates were pretty abysmal to be frank, and I was given the tall order to develop approaches and initiatives to improve those rates. Rather than assume that the students were not academically prepared for college or were unmotivated to earn a degree, as too often folks do in their instant analysis, I sought to understand their lived experiences and how they connected (or didn’t connect) to the university, including its structures, policies, resources, services, personnel, and academic programs. I quickly learned that students were not in sync with the university and vice versa.
I was lucky to have had my undergraduate experience at a nurturing Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Louisiana. Though we had limited resources, we had highly supportive and engaged faculty, staff, upperclassmen, and alumni who showed us the way; they synced us to the university. I’ll never forget running into my mathematics department chair, Dr. Meyinsse, on “the strip” in between classes after returning from summer break following completion of my freshman year. He asked, “Berry, what did you do this summer?” I replied with glee, “I went home and got plenty of rest, hung out with my friends, and caught up on my favorite tv shows!” “And what else?” he asked. “That was it! It was great!” I responded. He leaned in towards me with direct eye contact, like only a parent could, and said, “make that your last summer at home just resting and hanging out. Berry, you need to be in a summer program and involved in activities preparing for life after undergrad.” Admittedly, I was a bit confused because as a first-generation college student, I thought taking the right classes was all that I needed to focus on to earn my degree and obtain a job offer or a graduate admissions letter.
He gathered my whole life in an instance! He was the lifeline that I didn’t know I needed. I spent a lot of time with Dr. Meyinsse, and others at the university, who instilled in me the expectation to “stay in the know” and encouraged me to become a Ronald E. McNair Scholar; attend and present at research conferences; go to sporting and social events at the school; serve in leadership roles in various clubs and organizations; get involved in student government; join the honors program; and form study and peer support groups. I even became a student ambassador and led campus tours for prospective students and their families and spoke at admissions events. I probably over did it, but I was fully plugged in to the university, highly engaged, and simply having the time of my life. Oh, and I got admitted to and enrolled in the doctoral program at Illinois immediately following completion of undergraduate studies!
Unfortunately, I wasn’t witnessing this motivation, engagement, or sentiment in my students in Ohio. However, I quickly realized that what they needed was a Dr. Meyinsse, so I became him for them.
I knew that if I could encourage them to plug in to the university by staying abreast of policies and deadlines; checking and responding to their emails in a timely fashion; and reviewing their degree audits and course syllabi regularly that they would be in a better position for success. So many of them were missing assignments, advising appointments, and opportunities to appeal decisions because they were disconnected. They had no clue what was going on at the university!
I knew that if I could get them to see beyond the degree audit and realize what it would take to be a competitive applicant with a diversified portfolio of experiences to land a job in their field or admission to an advanced degree program that they would then see the value in being engaged inside and outside of the classroom.
I knew that if I could get them to think about their areas of academic, professional, and personal strength and challenge and identify associated resources to aid in their development then they would want to explore all that the university has to offer to support their matriculation and wellbeing.
So, whenever my students would ask, “Dr. B., what I need to do to successfully make it through?” I always channeled my inner Dr. Meyinsse, “Be informed; Be engaged; and Be present—both inside and outside of the classroom; that’s the formula for optimal student success.” Dr. Meyinsse didn’t use those exact words, but it captures the spirit of his words and what I took away from our conversations and ultimately simplified to make shareable and actionable.
Fortunately, I didn’t just leave that message with my students in Ohio. I brought it with me in my new transfer student orientation welcome message for my interview at Mason and have shared it countless times with students, faculty, and staff ever since.
You’ve seen the student success formula on our swag. You’ve heard it in our presentations. We’ve even plastered it on the main wall in the CEHD Student Success Center. We’ve fully embraced it, and I urge you to do the same…because Dr. Meyinsse said so.
Dr. Ivory Berry, also known as “Dr. Get-Your-Life-Together,” is the Assistant Dean for Student Success for the College of Education and Human Development. He shares his no-nonsense wisdom every day in the Office of Student and Academic Affairs, and occasionally, here on the Student Success Blog.