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Modern Learner’s Expectations and How Co-curricular Activities Shape the Engagement Strategy

To have a strong engagement strategy, you need to meet students where they are. By working with Student Affairs, institutions can closely align their strategy to meet student expectations. 

The times we live in are indeed fulfilling and complicated.  Isn’t that the understatement of the past year or two, maybe even longer?  The environment for immediate convenience is a common standard, communication has become increasingly simple, but still rife with breakdowns. Achievements in science and exploration continue to advance toward what once only seemed possible in a movie.  Freedom of expression is an even stronger comfort for many and an environment of rapid change is more common than ever before. Higher education is certainly no different. I remember when registering for a new semester of classes at Texas Tech involved going to a large ballroom in the Student Union with a signed course registration card from my advisor and I stood in line, mostly unphased at having to wait.  I hoped I might make a new friend in line or see someone I knew. I was more concerned with getting through quickly so I could get to the themed lunch event in the dining hall.  

Today’s students are just as interested in connecting with new friends and registering for classes, but many connect with friends through Snapchat or Instagram and register online from home. Today’s colleges and universities have adapted in many ways to the changing environment to help meet student needs and shape their success. Facilities are more environmentally friendly, programs and activities are planned with changing student needs in mind; policies and governance involves SGA, task forces, commissions, and/or student regents; and technology is consistently being enhanced to facilitate student engagement, course delivery, and communication. The class of 2025 that filled our campuses this past August arrived with expectations of a more diverse student body as well as gaps in socialization due to COVID-19.  

There’s no question that COVID-19 created a worldwide absence in routine socialization out of a need to combat an unknown virus and contain its spread. State governance orders, institutional policies and local/municipality regulations created major adjustments in how we socialize with one another. While I understood and respected the guidance and directives, as someone who prefers an inside/in-person dining experience for quick or full-service restaurants, it was absolute torture. I was recently in a NASPA-sponsored conversation series for vice presidents and associate vice presidents to discuss the varied ways COVID-19 was affecting campus operations this Fall.  In some cases, campuses are open with relaxed regulations. In others, operational changes have been made to adjust to growing COVID19 positive cases.  For some institutions, the cautious campus operations happening now are as they were the last academic year. Some have adjusted operations due to increases in positive or close contact COVID cases.  

A commonality amongst all institutions was the importance and support of vaccination as a means to control the virus spread and ensure student safety. In conversations with colleagues at universities across the country, students came back to campus with the expectation that learning and overall wellness is enhanced and strengthened with in-person classes. Some students have come back with the expectation of continuing the more cautious approaches of masking and distancing. Education is at the heart of what we all do, in and outside of the classroom. Adhering to institutional or system directives is critical, as is being sensitive to the varied needs of students.  

Students in our classrooms and residence halls are bringing a wonderful diversity of learning styles, abilities, experiences and cultures. Services and programming are increasingly customized to serve those needs and shape student success. Access is growing as well to ensure students across a spectrum of demographics have the opportunity to achieve a degree. A focus on creating a welcoming space for students with special programs, mentoring, and celebrations for various affinity groups is promoted in new student orientation and throughout the academic year. Students expect these support structures at some level at most institutions. The learning and connection growing from this institutional commitment can be significant for retention. 

In a recent survey (n=796) of incoming students (n=8,298) at Georgia Southern University about The Eagle Experience beginning in fall 2021 as a student success transition initiative, 84% of students reported feeling a sense of belonging because of the environment it created. 91% indicated they are aware that Georgia Southern is connecting classroom learning and experiences outside the classroom to aid in their overall success.  91% felt they know how to access resources for a successful start. These are strong indicators that students feel equipped for success and welcomed in the campus community, which sets an expectation for all within the campus community to ensure students continue feeling optimistic about their success.  

According to the 2020 Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement of first-year students (n=45,268), strong indicators show that students expect to have interactions with faculty, spend a good amount of time engaging in some type of student activity, and find it important that the institution offers support for their academic needs and provide opportunities to interact socially with others from a different background. The engagement strategy for colleges and universities can vary widely based on the unique needs of its student population. The commonality and ideal destination for all institutions is to simply meet the needs of their student population. Staffing, budget, and local community resources play a large role in institutions successfully meeting this goal. 

Understanding who your students are, what they need, what forms of support work best—because you know a one-size-fits-all” approach won’t work—goes a long way in graduating students.  The co-curricular environment is critical to this.  Students want to feel at home and a sense of belonging. What works for the 28-year-old military-affiliated student who has traveled the world may not fit the 18-year-old first-generation college student from an in-state rural community. Targeted programming designed by multiple voices is a great start and continued best practice to holistically understand the students we serve. Including students at the table is even better. Imagine that. Students gravitate to wellness programs, recreation centers, social groups and organizations, career fairs, step shows and talent competitions, athletic events, cultural celebrations, adventure trips, and gaming nights just to name a few.  

Understanding what students want and need is critical to formulating an engagement approach that involves the student body and helps create that sense of belonging students crave. In 2020, we reimagined an element of our engagement approach at Georgia Southern University by changing our online student engagement platform to Presence. We continue to build out a platform that is engaging students in more opportunities than ever have before, involving academic and non-academic campus departments, and have greater access to student attendee data. This approach is helping shape more intentional decision making. I often think about this quote from American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: ”People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  All of us help students feel a connection to their college experience by being thoughtful about how we meet their expectations and engage their unique and diverse story.  To me, that is the best predictive analytics model any of us need to guide and celebrate their success.

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