Utah State believes students must be the main character of their story. Learn how USU’s “Think Care Act” program makes students feel part of a family.
The retention battle continues for nearly every institution across the country. If the last few years are any indication, it will get increasingly difficult to retain students weighing both traditional and non-traditional options for education. And the pool of potential undergraduate students continues to shrink.
Rene Eborn, deputy of digital transformation and associate vice president of strategic initiatives at Utah State University, believes one of the answers to solving retention in higher education involves creating a more inclusive campus. Doing so helps create a greater sense of community and connectedness.
“It’s really important to have inclusive campuses because they promote a strong sense of well-being and help students feel safe,” Eborn said. “Therefore, it helps increase the overall success of students.”
Utah State champions a number of initiatives promoting the care and thoughtfulness it wants students to sense across campus. One of those initiatives called “Aggie Think Care Act,” is meant to elevate the academic experience for all USU students. It’s an initiative that provides support for individuals who are victims of bias, racism, harassment or microaggressions and calls on students to create an environment of acceptance, respect and empowerment.
Aggie Think Care Act provides students with the inclusive, welcoming environment USU wants to promote on campus. It’s an initiative that starts at the top, with all staff members owning inclusivity so every student senses the institution’s core values.
“Aggie Think Care Act is foundational for us because our principles of community focus on diversity, human dignity and social responsibility,” said Mykel Beorchia, Executive Director of University and Exploratory Advising.
Beorchia believes reaching those principles requires a holistic, community approach, with employees providing students the same environment they strive to work in. Of course, before staff can create an inclusive environment for students, it starts with becoming a place where faculty and staff want to come to work.
Earlier this year, the institution hired Jane Irungu as its first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. She’s tasked with creating guiding practices and opportunities to promote “access and cultural proficiency” not only for students, but also faculty and staff.
“You can’t possibly ask students to engage in an inclusive environment if you’re not feeling that it’s inclusive for you,” Beorchia said of USU’s inclusiveness efforts.
Making Students the Main Character
Creating an inclusive student experience requires student services professionals to let students play the main character in advising appointments. Beorchia believes rather than trying to fit the student into a box based on industry best practices, advisors need to be active listeners and focus on what’s best for the student individually.
The more students are at the center of the meeting, the more likely it is they will agree on a plan that best sets the student up for success based on their unique situation. Taking this approach requires being completely open and clear of any preconceived notions.
“It’s really easy for us to put students as a side character because they’re not us,” Beorchia said. “They’re not the main character of our story.”
In practice, this means asking more experienced-based questions rather than skill-based questions, helping students find the right path for their student journey. For example, rather than asking about a student’s strengths and weaknesses, the advisor instead asks about a moment in high school that made them proud.
“Some of our students really haven’t been asked great questions,” Beorchia said. “If I can hear actual stories from students’ lives, that opens up possibilities for me to make really great referrals in the advising experience that are centered on who the student is and what they want to achieve.”
This type of advising helps students get the guidance they need to find success while at Utah State, whether they’re first-generation students, come from a lower income family or have unique accessibility requirements. In addition, USU students have the option to take a two-credit course called “Campus Connections,” which helps freshmen ease into college by finding their purpose at the institution while developing a healthy mindset, and feel a sense of belonging in their early days on campus.
USU’s personalized support system extends to their student portal – known as MyUSU. MyUSU provides all the online tools and resources a student needs and allows them to join affinity groups that match their interests while creating connections with other students.
“Personalization is really important to us because we want them to feel like they’re part of the Aggie family, even when they’re in their room or on their phone,” Eborn said.
How USU Shepherds Aggies Regardless of Background
First-generation students at times have unique challenges, like needing extra help filling out the proper paperwork to get started on campus, and additional guidance to help them through the student lifecycle.
Utah State hits this challenge head-on with its Aggie First Scholars (AFS) program, which gives first-generation students a framework to build the skills and receive resources that help them succeed. First-generation students have the option to take two one-credit classes titled, “Habits of Mind for AFS” and “Applied Leadership and Skills.”
“AFS is designed to provide every first-generation student the opportunity to recognize the power within them to accomplish their goals at USU,” said Heidi Kesler, Director of Student Retention and Completion, Student Support Services. “It also seeks to unpack the hidden curriculum at the core of higher education, thereby giving students access to all that the university offers. Peer and faculty mentors are available for students who choose to maximize their university experience and expand their learning community.”
These courses help first-generation students identify relevant communities while finding their strengths through guided coaching. They also provide structured mentoring plans designed to help them become competitive applicants for student employment—and beyond graduation.
As Eborn explained, the courses and guidance are less about applying a certain framework to students and more about helping students get the personalized support they need. This coaching doesn’t just extend to first generation students, but also includes low income students, adult learners and many other types of non-traditional students.
What’s important isn’t the type of student they are, but instead what they need. It’s about meeting them where they are.
“There are always best practices that provide a lens for dealing with a specific student,” Eborn said. “But then you adapt it so those students truly get a personal response, along with the advice and help they need.”
While success in the classroom is important, USU understands job placement and post-graduate student success matter more today than ever before. Beorchia says Utah State is well-equipped to help Aggies of all backgrounds thrive post graduation.
“We want all of our students to achieve the biggest dream that they can imagine, and even a dream they can’t imagine,” Beorchia said. “In advising, we’re helping students open as many doors as possible, and maybe ones they haven’t seen yet.”
When she has a chance to make an introduction that may help the student land an internship or a job, Beorchia doesn’t just suggest they reach out. Instead, the advisor makes an introduction on the student’s behalf and provides ample detail to the faculty member, setting the relationship up for success.
Other times she’ll connect the student with an alum from their major to network for potential employment opportunities. What ultimately makes effective connections from a career services perspective is a sense of community and care in the Aggie family.
Alums frequently go back to USU to recruit students in their industries as a way to give back. This is especially useful for students who seek jobs outside Utah and want to make connections.
“It all rolls up to being part of the Aggie family, and people take it very seriously,” Eborn said.
Tips for Creating an Inclusive Environment
With so many competing agendas across campus, it’s at times difficult to implement truly inclusive policies that welcome every student on campus. But Eborn believes working cross-functionally across campus is key in making all students feel welcome.
There are five areas where institutions should commit in order to achieve an inclusive environment on campus.
Take a readiness assessment – Before diving into any type of DEI initiative, Eborn believes it’s important to survey the campus to see where the culture currently stands and assess what improvements need to be made.
Have or hire a strong sponsor for DEI – Utah State has long had a desire to improve inclusiveness efforts on campus. But until Irungu’s hire, its staff didn’t have a consistent internal champion to help move the institution forward. Her presence allows her to suggest areas of improvement and help drive change forward.
“We’re reorganizing some staff and resources under her so she has the resources to create a more equitable environment,” Eborn said.
Bring in a variety of stakeholders – Any campus-wide initiative will impact departments differently. If an institution wants to admit students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, that requires financial aid to create packages that entice students to enroll. This is just one example of how a seemingly small tweak in DEI strategy creates a ripple effect across campus.
To help drive change, all departments need to have an idea of where an institution’s priorities are and reach consensus through collaboration.
“You need an inclusive stakeholder planning team that has advocates from each department,” Eborn said. “You can’t make changes without the support and buy-in of all the different groups involved.”
Deploy a team to help roll out initiatives – As important as it is to achieve buy-in, it’s even more important to have a team making the initiatives happen. Driving inclusiveness shouldn’t be siloed to a singular person or team. It needs to be a joint effort with cross-campus collaboration.
The team doesn’t require making all new hires, but instead should be a team of internal champions working together to ensure the institution creates an inclusive environment.
Educate yourself on DEI – Like anything else, before implementing a new policy, Eborn suggests learning about the different aspects of DEI. There are many instances where staff show bias without realizing it. Educating staff on how to identify unconscious biases helps improve their awareness of blind spots as it relates to DEI, while also getting the training needed to be a better advocate.
Providing an inclusive environment should be attainable for any institution. It starts with a desire for community and for all students to have an equitable education. If staff and faculty members work to solve problems on campus together, the institution will likely foster the environment students need to thrive on campus.
“We’re asking our professionals to bring the best of what they have, so that we can solve the problems that we have now, and make the learning environment meet the needs of our students,” Eborn said.