[This article first appeared in the Orange County Register on November 3, 2015.]
Like any geographical journey to destinations near and far, the intellectual and creative journey of higher education can be filled with as many obstacles as opportunities. Sometimes all it takes is a single hurdle at a difficult moment to lead a promising student astray.
But then, sometimes all it takes is a single touch of guidance at exactly the right moment to steer her back on track with confidence, momentum and a clear sense of direction.
Cal State Fullerton has long recognized the profound impact that mentors and advisers can have on our students’ journeys, and this recognition was codified in the first goal of our Strategic Plan, which includes among its objectives the aim to “ensure that at least 75 percent of CSUF students participate in an advising system that integrates academic, career and personal development components.”
Fueled by this reassertion of our commitment to strengthening both the curricular and co-curricular aspects of students’ education, in the past three years we have greatly expanded and enriched our approach to proactive student advising to better serve our approximately 39,000 students, more than half of whom are first-generation college students.
These efforts include expanding the number of professional advisers, establishing several college-based student success centers, instituting mandatory academic advising, strengthening degree audits and developing assessment procedures for advising efforts.
We might have stopped there; these activities already go above and beyond traditional advising systems and services. But instead, we stepped back and asked ourselves: How can we make our advising more strategic? More adaptable? More responsive? More focused on the unique needs of students in different colleges, in different disciplines, on different career paths?
Enter the Student Success Team (SST), an intimate collaboration between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. Nimble and flexible, proactive and technologically savvy, Cal State Fullerton’s 10 SSTs – one in each college, one at the CSUF Irvine Campus and one dedicated to special populations – collectively present a vision for thoughtful, data-driven student advising that fuses the deep institutional knowledge of university faculty and staff with robust technologies that can help us identify and reach out to the students most in need of support.
Each SST is chaired by the college’s associate dean and includes the assistant dean and a career specialist from Student Affairs, retention specialists and graduation specialists from the Academic Advisement Center, faculty advisers and college staff.
The SSTs leverage the concentrated wisdom of the best, most-experienced advising minds from across the university.
The SST Steering Committee, which includes all SST chairs as well as myself, my co-chair Berenecea Johnson Eanes, Peter Nwosu and Vijay Pendakur, offers a cohesive universitywide structure for guiding an intentional conversation around student success, and also gives SSTs the chance to collaborate and learn from each other’s best practices. The SSTs are, therefore, poised to work as independent, experimental “advising laboratories,” operating within the distinct strategic context of their respective units, while still working in concert with each other and the overall student success efforts of the university.
This fall, for example, saw the launch of the Criminal Justice Success Academy, a brainchild of the SST for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, chaired by Lynn Sargeant. The Success Academy – consisting of a series of four workshops featuring prominent speakers from the local criminal justice community – offers students the chance to explore career options, engage in networking opportunities and consult with members of the college’s SST, including retention, graduation and career specialists.
In the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the SST – chaired by Susamma Barua – has organized expanded free tutoring services for all students, with particular outreach to sophomores at that critical juncture in their academic career.
Cal State Fullerton’s student success efforts stem from a simple recognition: If we as higher educational institutions are to fulfill the moral imperative of strengthening educational opportunities for the increasing numbers of traditionally underserved students in all of our communities, our country needs clear images of how, even in tough economic times, state universities can expand access and equity while improving completion rates and reducing time to graduation.
Our innovative SSTs present a powerful image of how change begins with an institution’s greatest resource: its people. And when those people are Titans, there’s no limit on how high they’ll reach.