Aerial photo of Concordia University Irvine campus with institution logo

With just under 2,000 undergraduate students, Concordia University Irvine shares tips on how it builds intimate relationships between students and staff.

From Pathify Magazine

It’s easy to look at today’s higher education technology challenges and adopt a position of complacency. They are many. They are hard. And they require resources. However, for Jessica James, Assistant Director of Orientation and Student Activities at Concordia University Irvine, the new landscape is an opportunity for her institution to double-down on what it does best: building relationships with students.

As an institution just shy of 2,000 undergraduate students, creating personalized experiences for students is a top priority. That includes having good communication between students and staff.

“When our students are coming to college, they are leaving their biggest support system,” James said. “So the people that have been with them, whether that’s a parent, great grandparent or just their family and friends, they are leaving everything that is familiar to them.”

For many students, making the jump from high school to college can feel daunting—both academically and socially. Therefore, providing opportunities for students and staff to relate on a personal level helps break down barriers and creates closeness that helps Concordia differentiate itself from other institutions.

“Concordia is inherently a relational school,” James said. “Ninety-five percent of the time I ask students why they came to Concordia and they say it’s because of the community and connectedness.” 

Concordia is the type of institution that promotes camaraderie and friendly competition through a series of events and school spirit initiatives, such as Prey Day. In addition, because it prides itself on its connection to the Lutheran church, having students and staff that share the same faith creates a natural connection. 

There are two key locations for students and staff to connect—the cafeteria and coffee shop both centrally located on campus. Both are common watering holes for students and staff to connect in a more casual setting outside the classroom and interact beyond the traditional professor-student relationship.

“Those moments create humanity and that specialness that we feel here at Concordia because we are a small institution so the more that you can relate to people on a not purely academic level, the smoother the transition becomes for a lot of students,” James said.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Like many other institutions, Concordia is welcoming an increasing number of Gen Z students. Unlike the previous generation, Gen Z grew up entirely on social media and is accustomed to interacting with peers primarily through various digital touchpoints. 

In fact, a recent Pew Research Center study states 46% of teenagers say they constantly use the internet, and college students are no exception. But as any administrator will notice, more time online creates increased anxiousness when it comes to in-person interactions. James said this often manifests itself when it comes time to have difficult conversations. 

She notes that today’s students don’t respond well to pointed criticism and often avoid in-person meetings. Concordia trains its staff on giving more constructive feedback to help students feel more comfortable opening up. 

“It’s not just like ‘okay you messed up you’re in trouble,’ it’s ‘okay you messed up, how can we be better next time?’ Using those opportunities that could be punishment as a way to talk them through it,” James said. “You have to have hard conversations, but in the process, we’re also explaining the process and rules we have, why we have these guidelines and talking through some of those lapses in judgment.” 

Concordia prides itself in working hand-in-hand with students in helping them gain valuable life skills from a professional and social standpoint to prepare them for post-graduation. When it comes to tough conversations, it’s less about what the student did and more about how to apply what they learned from that conversation moving forward.

James notes those moments as some of her highlights working for Concordia. 

“My favorite conversations that I get to have are when you give them that space to prove that they are better than this one instance,” James said. “I’ve had a couple instances where we didn’t get off on the right foot and had some awkward interactions, but I’m going to believe the best in them and I believe they’re going to beat that expectation. When they do, that’s really cool.

Embracing the Individuality of Social Natives

Although Concordia likes to emphasize the importance of in-person interactions with its students, its staff also know this generation wants to be true to who they are. For students, that undoubtedly means expressing themselves and communicating over social media.

By and large, Gen Z strongly prefers messaging over social apps like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram over traditional text messaging and email. Concordia aims to provide a similar platform while also keeping appropriate boundaries between students and staff. 

To reach this objective, Concordia enlisted Pathify’s help to build a student portal that creates a personalized, social experience with all relevant information in one place.

“We have really excellent leadership where our Dean of Students is constantly asking the question of what is best for the students,” James said. “It’s at the forefront of our mind and that question gives us permission to make changes.”

Concordia was drawn to Pathify because it spans both academics and students’ social lives. Their new MyCUI app became a digital representation of their entire institutional experience—and a popular way to stay engaged.

Instead of just moving existing features to Pathify, Concordia focused on innovative use cases students find particularly useful. The institution also took extra steps to include important information students need. Now, instead of hopping between systems and websites, users execute a simple search within the Pathify Engagement Hub that returns results customized to their personal user persona.

One example includes creating suggested groups for students to join based on their interests. Rather than waiting for students to communicate what they needed, the suggested groups feature allowed Concordia to take a more proactive approach in helping students join communities that are meaningful to them.

“Our Dean had this idea that instead of waiting for the students to come to us, we should figure out what they are involved in and let’s go to where they are,” James explained. “We list a bunch of student interests like anything from hiking, baking, Disney, you name it, and allow them to pick and choose to say ‘here’s who I am as a person.’”

Events are another area where Concordia allows its brand to shine through. Faculty and staff look at the various events on campus and attend ones their students organize to show support and build community.

“It really does lead to good connections that can happen outside of the classroom,” James said.

“Like Bumpers in a Bowling Lane”

Concordia’s approach to student affairs is simple. Give students the freedom to push themselves while fostering a supportive environment to keep them from falling down. 

James recalled a recent example of how Concordia strikes this balance in a way that only an institution of its size can offer.

“I think of one student, in particular, that wanted to double major and be involved really heavily in student leadership,” James said. “Along the way people say ‘that’s going to be really hard. I don’t know if you can do that’ and she said, ‘watch me’ and figured it out while we supported her along the way.” 

James said it’s stories like these that make her proud to work at Concordia. It allows her to support students in pursuing their academic goals with all the right resources to keep them on track.

“I think of myself like the bumpers on the bowling lane where they are the ones pushing the bowling ball to the finish line, but I’m just there to be sure that they don’t rip off the track,” James said. “That should be our job as student affairs professionals.”

What Institutions Can Learn from Concordia

At many institutions, upgrading technology to meet student needs is challenging. The mantra that “we’ve always done things that way,” is the standard response even when bold and innovative leaders recognize a need for thinking differently.

James identifies with the struggles other institutions face, but encourages those trying to bring a better sense of community to not give up and recognize that change doesn’t happen overnight.

“You have to be patient,” James said. “You need to be constantly asking and questioning if everything you’re doing is leading the school towards more connections.”

The first step to driving change is understanding the type of student coming to campus. It’s easy to forget that while faculty and staff get older every year, students stay the same age. That means interests and needs change frequently as the technology students get their hands on gets smarter.

What worked five years ago won’t work today. According to James, administrators need to be aware of what’s trending for prospective students when making any type of decision.

But driving change is only half the battle. Even when an institution’s leadership agrees it’s time to improve technology, it typically results in a disjointed effort where some champion the change while others stick to the old state of affairs. 

The key to making technology adoption work across campus, according to James, is to find internal champions who will drive a shift in culture among faculty and staff. Once there’s widespread buy-in, students will eventually adopt the technology as well.

“Your culture is going to drive the behavior of your institution,” James said. “If your culture buys into that connection, that is going to drive behavior to lead towards that goal of total adoption.”

Part of driving adoption involves having persistence throughout the process. However, what’s equally important to James is that if new technology isn’t working, institutions should pivot to another course of action.

However, what they shouldn’t do is be stubborn and keep trying to make something that doesn’t work stick just because an institution invested in that technology.

“Our Dean likes to give things three tries before making a decision,” James said. “One time you’re going to try it. The second time you’re going to refine it and then if it still doesn’t work, now we try something new, but you have to take action.”

Regardless of the outcome, having a bias towards experimentation and a willingness to create community is what’s going to help institutions stand out from the competition. James recognizes Concordia will never offer what big state schools have to offer, and that’s okay. 

Like many Gen Z students, as long as Concordia stays true to its identity, the right students will always find a home on campus.

Subscribe to Pathify Magazine