Early in his tenure as the founding director of Wake Forest University’s Magnolia Scholars program, Nate French had a realization. The students that he was working with, many of whom were first-generation college students, seemed eager to study abroad but few did. Administrators assumed that they were worried about financial barriers or financial aid. But it turned out many faced a more basic obstacle: They didn’t have passports.
The solution was simple. Dr. French provided the fee, and then he or a member of his team drove the students to get their passports. During the trip, he said, the student and staff member could discuss the student’s hopes and ambitions for studying abroad. “How much is [the cost of a passport fee] to Wake Forest, or to GW, for a student to have a life-changing experience?” he said.
Hundreds of staff and faculty at the George Washington University joined the soon-to-be-created Enrollment and the Student Experience (ESE) organization May 8 to hear about trends and experiences in enrollment, retention and student life, and to develop ideas and values for the new organization.
The forum, titled “Navigating the University: Improving the Student Experience,” provided an initial opportunity for members of the GW community to brainstorm ways in which the ESE could implement a student-first mentality into its systems and processes.
For many attending, it was the first time they had an opportunity to meet someone face-to-face with whom they had exchanged phone calls or emails. As participants found their assigned tables, the room was abuzz with introductions, greetings and excitement about hearing how other universities are enhancing the student experience.
About three-quarters of those in attendance were from the current Divisions of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management and Retention, which will be incorporated into the ESE entity. The rest were from other offices across the university, including finance, operations, libraries and academic innovation, and information technology, as well as academic departments.
“I think that sends a clear message about how our broader campus community understands our collective ownership of and responsibility for enhancing the student experience,” said Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Retention Laurie Koehler, who is leading the development of ESE. “This is a university effort, not just an effort of one new team.”
The forum featured a panel of experts with experience in various areas of higher education and student life: MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for enrollment management at New York University; Christine McGuire, vice president and associate provost for enrollment and student administration at Boston University; David Strauss, principal of Art & Science Group; Lori White, vice chancellor for student affairs at Washington University in St. Louis; as well as Dr. French, director of the Magnolia Scholars first-generation program at Wake Forest University.
Throughout the morning session, panelists shared their own experiences—both the successes and the missteps. It was encouraging for participants to hear that other schools had similar challenges, didn’t always find the right approach immediately and were still working to improve their services regardless of how much progress they had made.
“I appreciated the opportunity to hear the perspectives and experiences of other higher education leaders at the Innovations Forum,” said Dan Wright, who works at the Mount Vernon Campus as a part of the Center for Student Engagement team. “It was rewarding to meet many of my future Enrollment and the Student Experience teammates and generate ideas about how each of us can play a part in enhancing the student experience."
During lunch and in the afternoon, the panelists took questions from and talked informally with attendees.
“It was great to hear 'have fun with it.' Ultimately, this transition is a huge opportunity to shift the culture at GW, and I look forward to it,” said Amanda Rey, an industry career coach in the Center for Career Services.
Ms. McGuire of Boston University, for instance, reviewed her university’s efforts to retool its consumer-facing student experience units. After circulating a student survey to measure what students already knew about the resources available to them and what challenges they faced in trying to access those resources, Ms. McGuire and managers across BU used the results to create a new, streamlined framework focusing on “the outcome for the student.”
Anytime students have an interaction with a university employee, Ms. McGuire said, that employee becomes part of the student’s educational experience. In higher education, she said, “we’re bringing folks in and changing lives, and we’re doing that one person at a time, one conversation at a time. We’re used to thinking about that in the classroom [context], and we need to think about it on the administrative side. We’re educators as administrators, too.”
While the first phase of the creation of the new ESE team is planned to roll out in July, Ms. Koehler anticipates that the ongoing collaborative process to build the new organizational mission, vision, structure and approach, will take up to an additional 12-18 months. The Innovations Forum model may be used in the future to further foster collaboration, set goals and spark creative problem-solving, she added.
Provost Forrest Maltzman closed the conference with a call to action, both for the ESE team and the rest of the university. He highlighted six key values that members of the campus community should maintain:
- Understanding the importance of data and assessment
- Identifying time to conceptualize ideas, plans and strategies
- Overcoming obstacles through prioritization, breaking down administrative silos and encouraging collaboration
- Thinking creatively about how staff and faculty serve students
- Continuing to improve service to students and the university
- Having fun in daily work
“I want all of you to think of yourselves as change agents, and to think of yourselves as part of the same mission,” Dr. Maltzman said. “Education is a great equalizer.”