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October 9, 2014

Student retention requires more than academic support, administrator says

Retaining studentsWhen it comes to African-American student retention, the question is always the same, said the keynote speaker at Pitt’s annual African-American student retention symposium, displaying a picture of four beaming African-American students wearing mortarboards and graduation gowns. “How do you do that? How do you do it well? How do you do it again and again and again?

“How do you take a kid that statistically has less of a chance than almost any other population in the country … how do you take that and turn it into this?” said Amy Freeman, assistant dean of engineering diversity in Penn State’s College of Engineering in her Sept. 26 talk, “You are the Difference: The Critical Role Everyone Plays in Student Success.”

The answer is likewise perennial, she told an audience of more than 200 people at the University Club.

“What they’re really looking for is a warm space to feel loved and cared for and welcomed. That’s the answer. They need guidance and direction in their life. And I think it’s true across the board,” she said.

“We provide warmth and caring and guidance and direction to people who are at the front end of their lives trying to figure out where to go and what to do.”

Said Freeman: “I believe when the whole country gets better and everybody gets better — everybody gets better. … When you do it for those kids, all of us get better.”

Best practices

Amy Freeman, assistant dean of engineering diversity in Penn State’s College of Engineering

Amy Freeman, assistant dean of engineering diversity in Penn State’s College of Engineering

In engineering, “when they value something, they buy it,” said Freeman, who has a master’s degree in architectural engineering and a PhD in workforce education from Penn State. In contrast, “When education values something, we talk a lot about it. We write papers, we pontificate…. ‘It’s not about money, it’s about the love,’” she said.

“The answer, I think, is the merging of the two. Being in both camps, both can learn from the other: It’s difficult to do without the money and resources and it’s difficult to do without the love and the caring,” Freeman said.

At the top of the list of best practices for recruiting and retaining underrepresented students are cohort- and community-building, providing funding through scholarships and programming and providing academic support, she said.

“My point is, the cohort- and community-building is just as important as academic support. If you get a student who’s brilliant and bright but doesn’t fit, has no friends, can’t afford to be there anyway, they will go to another institution or go home and take their 3.5 with them.”

Freeman also touts the value of providing students with an opportunity to see the world in order to help them view themselves as a world citizen.

Of her own life-changing experience in Germany during college, “It was the first time I could see myself as American, not black,” she said. “I understand the difference in nationality versus race, because I was in it, and I got it,” she said. “When I returned I was a different person than the one who left. I would go as far to say that all the programs working with me didn’t have to work as hard (after that) because I got it.”

If students aren’t afforded the opportunity to see the world outside of where they are, they stay the same, she said. Students who come from impoverished communities can return to those communities after having this experience “and change everything around them in a way that you and I cannot,” she said.

“That’s what universities do…. It should be one of the things that we do best for anyone who enters our doors.”

Students also need role modeling, which she defines as the opportunity to see one’s self in power. “It’s not just a black thing, it’s anybody,” she said.  Still, it’s important for students to be aware of an institution’s important black alumni and to see black faculty and executives. “It reminds us,” she said. “It makes us see the power in ourselves.”

Freeman said, “Sometimes you change this by just being in the room. The fact that you’re present is that someone can imagine you being in power:  as a doctor, as a writer, as an artist, as an engineer. And I think that’s true for all of us here. Sometimes your voice in the room makes a difference…. It sends a signal to others who may not have a voice or may not be able to speak, but they see themselves in power when they see you speak.”

Community-building, funding, support, international opportunity and role modeling are equally important in recruiting, retaining and graduating students, Freeman said. “You need them all to make it happen.”

Beyond retention

A sense of belonging — or lack of it — can have long-term effects.

Freeman recounted her experience at Lock Haven University with an African-American student from New York who came to her office to tell her, “When I leave here, I’m never coming back.”

“It wasn’t academics. It wasn’t money,” she said. It was: “‘I don’t feel a part of this community. I don’t feel I belong.’”

The student, who majored in international studies and languages, had arranged several back-to-back international experiences so he could finish his credits without having to return to campus. “It was ingenious of him to work it out,” she said. “But I thought it was extremely sad for the institution. What a fabulous alum he would have made. What fabulous contributions back to the university, what a fabulous advertisement it would have been, if he could have left loving the institution.”

A donation solicitation she received from her own alma mater stirred up memories of her negative experience as a student with the person seeking the donation. “Why would I give?” she said.

“When you give, you give to stuff you like and stuff you have good memories of,” Freeman said.

How does that happen? “You create it. You create it now, you create it here,” she told the audience.

“Look at the kids: These are the next people who will support what you do in the future if you treat them right.”

What to do

• Believe people.

“Believe people when they tell you who helped them to succeed, what made them feel unwanted, why certain systems work,” she said. “If that’s what they say it takes them to succeed, make sure those things stay in place. Believe people when they tell you,” Freeman said.

• Everything counts.

It could be as simple as a kind word when a student is having a bad day, but the action is making a difference, even if the person offering it doesn’t know it.

“It’s the difference. And it matters. And everyone has to buy into that philosophy for it to work.

“It has to be when the student comes in, ‘I know wherever I go, even if I’m having difficulty, Pitt is a good place to be. When I talk to people they are all warm and I feel like it’s where I belong and I feel I can work through whatever it is,’” she said.

“Students attach to people. They don’t attach to institutions,” Freeman said.

“The people aren’t always who you think they are,” she added: It could be the person at the library who bakes cookies for the student she knows comes in every week. To that student, it could be “‘I was going to leave, but I came because I knew she would look for me. And she told me she wanted me to graduate and it made a difference,’” Freeman said.

• Be present.

“Listen. Focus. Pay attention,” she said. “It matters.”

• Know what resources are available.

“It makes a difference if you know what the resources are, even if it’s not in your purview or under your job description. It matters and it helps.”

And, she said, “Learn what’s new.” Having taken the campus tour 15 years ago doesn’t count. Things change.

“Make it a point to be a source of information. If people know that you know, they will refer other people,” Freeman said.

• Offer help with managing the process.

Make the phone call or send the email on the student’s behalf right there in front of them.

“Do it for them to try to help,” she said. It could make the difference between a student staying or going.

“It’s not the email. It’s making someone feel heard,” she said. “If you can’t do it, find someone who can: ‘I really don’t know but give me five minutes and I will find somebody….’”

• Offer a second chance.

“Second chances have a lot of meaning,” Freeman said, adding that students often don’t expect to get second chances.

• Lose the fear.

“When people are different from yourself, there’s the fear factor,” she said.  “You fear most what you don’t know,” she said. “You need to meet some real people.”

• Cross culture lines.

Freeman said she developed a new understanding after being invited to a Chinese lunar new year celebration — an occasion similar in magnitude to Christmas. “It made me view students from that population differently when they said, ‘It’s the new year and I’ve got to go home.’ I totally get that now,” whereas previously she hadn’t understood the holiday’s importance.

“Go to an African-American church Juneteenth celebration, or any kind of fashion show,” she said. “You see people on their home turf and you understand better who they are.”

She added: “Try to understand beyond what you see. Don’t assume everything is what it appears to be on the surface.”

• Apply resources unique to your position to further the cause of retention.

• Ensure that opportunities include diverse participants.

• In grant applications, write in funding that targets inclusion.

Rather than seeking a last-minute nod to diversity as part of a grant application, include it at the start. “And write in money,” she said. “If it matters to you, make it look like it…. When you put your money where your mouth is, it means you’re serious.”

• When building relationships, all answers are not academic.

A math teacher who students perceived as mean decided to share his love of the outdoors by taking his students hiking.

“It changed how they saw him,” she said. “It wasn’t academic. They all went out for a day and climbed Mount Nittany. They came back and said, ‘He’s still kind of mean, but I get him now.’ It made a difference in the relationship.”

• Benchmark and emulate successful models.

Try them, she said. “Very often the answer’s not clear until you’ve done it yourself.”


Why is diversity important?

Everyone is enriched through interactions with others in the world, Freeman said.

“Diversity brings multiple solutions and new perspectives that can’t evolve from a culture of sameness.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 4