Reorganized center focuses efforts on preparing students for life
By Maura King Scully
“Higher education can no longer simply stay the course,” says Angel B. Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success. “With changing demographics, technologies, and industries and shifts in how college students engage their institutions and communities, we have a responsibility for connecting what our students did before college, setting them up for success here, and strategizing for success at Trinity and beyond.”
To that end, Trinity launched an all-new student success ecosystem in October 2017 to support, cultivate, and retain Trinity students with the goal of preparing them for life after graduation. The new Center for Student Success and Career Development comprises the Office of Student Success and the Career Development Center, two offices that previously operated separately.
In this story, Part 1 of 2 on the new center, we focus on success during college. In a future issue, we will cover success after college.
“From the moment students raise their hands in the admissions process and say, ‘I want to be at Trinity,’ we’re reaching out,” says Jennifer Baszile, dean of student success and career development. “Once they are accepted, we want to get to know the students by asking, ‘Who are you? What’s important to you?’ ”
Baszile and her team are working hard to help all incoming students navigate the transition to college. “We’re normalizing the ups and downs of the transition. We’re giving students a vocabulary to talk about their challenges so they can say to themselves, ‘I know I’m not the only one having a hard time. I know I can find my way with help and support into the next part of my transition.’ ”
An increase in retention is evidence that Trinity is moving in the right direction. This year, the retention rate for first-years rose to 91 percent—up from 88.5 percent last year. This is the highest retention rate at the college since 2012. It’s also important to note, Pérez says, that “Trinity is in a privileged position. The national retention average is around 50 percent. Here’s the challenge at Trinity: we compare ourselves with some of the best colleges in the U.S., especially those in the NESCAC [New England Small College Athletic Conference]. Those schools have averages in the low-to-mid-90s. It’s all about who you compare with. However, this isn’t just about the numbers. This is about continuing to develop the retention ecosystem on campus to ensure that all Trinity students feel engaged, supported, and successful.”
Baszile points to Trinity’s size as a strength. “This is an institution where students have great access to faculty in small settings. It’s critical that students make a connection with what they’re interested in and the faculty members,” she says. “Students are looking for more opportunities to engage with faculty outside of the classroom, so we’ve started new programs.” For example, Charles A. Dana Research Professor of Biology Kent Dunlap has hosted dinners at his house for several faculty members and first-generation college students. “It seems like something small, but it is a profound experience for students. Conversations unfold differently,” explains Baszile. “The students have a different kind of rapport with Kent and his colleagues now. That’s the kind of opportunity we want all students to have.”
The new center also is a physical step forward. It is located in the lower level of the admissions building, along with the Center for Academic Advising. In addition to the existing first-year seminar advisers and major advisers, the Center for Academic Advising offers drop-in hours staffed by five faculty fellows. “We discovered that students were generally happy with academic advising once they selected a major but not so happy before they decided,” says Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tim Cresswell. “Our faculty fellows are providing overall advising for first- and second-year students to ensure they stay on track with their academic requirements. By sharing space with the Center for Student Success and Career Development, we can jointly think about all of the things that lead to student success holistically, rather than in bits with different parts of campus and offices. We expect the connections between academic affairs and student success are going to get tighter and tighter as we go along.”
The college provides constructive opportunities for students to think about finding a purpose in life that is true to their values and passions by more deeply personalizing the advising process and by grounding students in a more evolved approach to thinking about their aspirations. “We teach them to look at life in the shape of a ‘W,’ with highs and lows,” explains Pérez. “What is amazing is that students are now comfortable coming to my office and putting their hand in the ‘W’ and pointing at the low. I say, ‘Come in; let’s have a conversation.’ Students aren’t hiding from us when they feel isolated or are not doing well in their classes,” says Pérez. “It’s not that the college experience is easy or that they won’t struggle or won’t be challenged, but when challenges do arise, we are making sure they have the tools to manage them.”
The Trinity team now relies heavily on design thinking—a learning tool developed at Stanford University—in framing the student experience. In summer 2017, Trinity was one of only 12 colleges in the nation chosen to adopt and teach Stanford’s design thinking curriculum. Members of Trinity’s team traveled to Palo Alto, California, to learn about “Designing Your Life,” one of the university’s most popular courses. In a nutshell, design thinking encourages a different approach to problem solving: Instead of the mindset of “I have to solve this,” it asks, “What question can you ask that might move you forward or help you understand the situation better?”
For example, students are understandably focused on—and often worried about—jobs after graduation. But, as Pérez points out, today’s students may have between 10 and 14 jobs by the time they are 38 years old, a statistic noted in the book Designing Your Life by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. “This generation of college graduates will embark on careers that have yet to be imagined, let alone created. Higher education must teach students how to make thoughtful decisions about the trajectory of their lives and empower them with the resources to do just that.”
Baszile adds, “What we try to do is work from the student’s interests and strengths outward. The biggest change we have made is that our work is no longer problem centered. We are as interested in students who are thriving and could be open for an opportunity to engage more deeply as we are in those who are struggling. Design thinking is a great way to engage students in creative problem solving and to find the meaning and purpose at the heart of the liberal arts education.”
Student Kabelo Motsoeneng ’20 has embraced this new approach. As a Student Success Fellow in the Center for Student Success and Career Development, he is helping develop programs that will benefit students in the future. “Instead of thinking about not getting a good grade, we ask students to think about a solution to progress and to better understand the position they’re in,” he explains. “It’s about asking yourself ‘why’ questions: ‘Why is this happening?’ It’s about not beating yourself down. It’s about, ‘how best do I understand my current situation and come up with a solution?’ ”
The new Center for Academic Advising, in collaboration with the Center for Student Success and Career Development, boasts five faculty fellows who are available to provide drop-in academic advice to students who have general questions about courses and requirements. Each faculty fellow, who will serve a two-year term, staffs the office one day a week, offering counsel to students who have yet to designate their majors.
INAUGURAL ADVISING FELLOWS
Lisa-Anne Foster, director, associate professor of biology
David Branning, associate professor of physics
Shane Ewegen, associate professor of philosophy
Irene Papoulis, principal lecturer in the Allan K. Smith Center for Writing and Rhetoric
Paula Russo, associate professor of mathematics