Published on 2018/11/27

How to Engage Adults In The Institutional Mission While Designing Programming To Fit Their Needs

The EvoLLLution | How to Engage Adults In The Institutional Mission While Designing Programming To Fit Their Needs
While formation and values-based education tend to be overlooked when designing programming for adults, their effective inclusion—designed consciously to fit their needs—can have a significant impact on persistence, engagement and outcomes.

It is tempting in today’s world of non-traditional higher education, with its alluring statistics on the growing population of adult learners, to strategize only on how to offer a quick, convenient academic program that will increase numbers. Those sole characteristics, however, may limit a student’s involvement in the lifeblood of an institution. As providers of continuing education, we still have an obligation to students to ensure they graduate with not just skills and a degree, but also with an understanding of their institution’s mission and a sense of connection to their fellow classmates, faculty and alumni.

Of course, this can be challenging: How do we expose our students to the school’s mission while also adapting engagement or retention programs to fit their needs?

Answering this question must be a priority for non-traditional units. Furthermore, there are definite means by which non-traditional divisions can work to create a strong sense of community among their adult learners. Doing so can only serve to impact, and ideally improve, retention and future enrollments.

One of eight schools at Boston College, the Woods College of Advancing Studies (WCAS) serves non-traditional and professional students at the undergraduate and graduate level. WCAS offers a flexible, affordable and rigorous BA degree. Students at the Woods College have the opportunity to participate in the many social, spiritual, service and formation programs provided at BC; however, the Woods College recognized that there was not one specific student formation program designed for its own undergraduate students that took the many commitments and distinct characteristics of today’s non-traditional student into consideration.

The Manresa Experience: How WCAS Exposed Adult Students to the BC Mission While Staying True to Their Needs

Motivated by the above question and a commitment to ensuring the Boston College mission* was clear to our students, we launched the Woods College Manresa** Experience in the fall of 2017. Goals of the program included building community, increasing retention, supporting student formation and fostering an understanding of Jesuit values. Research from Tinto (1975), Kuh (2003) and Kasworm (2003) was used to support the need for a retention and engagement program for non-traditional students.

As non-traditional undergraduate students at the Woods College are most likely to be engaged on campus through classes, the program centered around an academic component. For the 2017-2018 year, seven WCAS courses integrated into their classes the content and message of the nonfiction book, The Red Bandanna: A Life, a Choice, a Legacy. The Red Bandanna details the life and death of Welles Crowther, a ‘99 BC graduate and varsity lacrosse player. On September 11, 2001, Welles died a hero, saving the lives of others and becoming known as “the Man in the Red Bandanna.” The book’s content was integrated into classes throughout the semester. Colleagues in the School of Theology & Ministry created a common reading guide with discussion questions and provided it to WCAS faculty. Two students from each class were designated as WCAS Manresa Experience Scholars and were asked to lead a class discussion and meet out of class with their faculty mentor to discuss the book.

All students engaged in the Manresa Experience were invited to participate in campus-wide events that brought together the BC and WCAS communities, including a lecture by The Red Bandanna author Tom Rinaldi, a weekend retreat, and dinner and book discussion with the Woods College dean.

Common themes and questions explored throughout the Experience include:

  • What is my vocation, calling and purpose?
  • What does it mean to be a Boston College student? What does it mean to graduate from Boston College?
  • How do we incorporate faith and faith formation in our decisions?

By all post-program evaluation measures and feedback, the Manresa Experience was a successful engagement and retention practice at the Woods College, impacting close to 100 students enrolled in the seven courses—almost a quarter of the undergraduate population. Students reported feeling a higher level of connection to the Woods College and Boston College communities,  as well as a better understanding of how to discern their own vocation, connect their personal beliefs to the pursuit of vocation, and set short- and long-term goals.

Furthermore, student feedback illustrated a deeper understanding of the values and tenets of the Jesuit tradition, particularly in terms of its presence at Boston College:

“I knew about the Jesuit experience but this really made it real for me.”

“It has provoked reflection on all facets of my life.”

“It has just really solidified that at Boston College we are for others.”

For the 2018-2019 year, activities are revolving around a new chosen text, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Fr. Greg Boyle. Along with select Woods College faculty and staff, Manresa Experience Scholars attended a two-night retreat that served as a time for reflection, community building and discernment, centered around readings and themes in Tattoos on the Heart. The year-long program will also include a fall Manresa Experience lecture by Fr. Jack Butler, S.J., Vice President for University Mission and Ministry, on Finding Beauty in the Messiness of Life: Exploring How Setbacks, Marginalization, and Obstacles Can Help Us Grow, as well as dinner and conversation with former volunteers at Homeboy Industries, one of the settings of Tattoos on the Heart. Finally, the book’s author, Fr. Boyle, will be speaking on campus in April.

Student formation and retention programs have a vital place in non-traditional divisions. In a world where there is increasingly more emphasis placed on values-based education and graduating ethical and well-rounded leaders, student formation programs are crucial. It is up to us to provide our students with these invaluable and formative experiences, and to adapt those experiences to best fit students’ distinct needs and characteristics.

“The Manresa Experience allows me to give some of myself back to my school and my peers,” said one of this year’s Manresa Experience scholars. “As a working parent, it can be hard to set aside time for club activities or social engagement on campus. The Manresa Experience makes it so, and allows the scholars to dive deep into learning and self discovery. I’m grateful for the opportunity to build connections with my peers and set aside time to partake in the experiences I have longed to have.”

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* Boston College builds upon its traditions. It seeks to be the national leader in the liberal arts; to fulfill its Jesuit, Catholic mission of faith and service; to continue to develop model programs to support students in their formation; and to seek solutions—as researchers, educators, leaders, and caregivers—that directly address the world’s most urgent problems.

– Boston College Mission & History, 2018

** Manresa is a small town in Spain where St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, spent ten months working at a hospice, and spending much of his life in solitary prayer. While in Manresa, St. Ignatius began to discern which thoughts and desires were leading him towards greater love of God and service to others, and which were distractions to his spiritual growth. The Manresa Experience was designed to encourage students to engage in and foster their professional, personal and spiritual discernment.

“While he was sitting there the eyes of his mind started to open. Not that he saw a vision, but he understood and came to know many things with such a great enlightenment that everything was new to him.”

 – Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, on Manresa

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