Second in a series of reflections on student life at West Texas A&M University.
For students to engage in a rewarding and complete campus experience, little is more important than the foundation laid in the first year. Many universities have first-year experience programs. Powerful first-year experiences welcome students to create connections and opportunities. Some consider Elon University to have the best first-year orientation and welcoming experience, beginning the summer before school starts. They aim to help students feel “confident and prepared” as they begin their studies. Leadership is the nucleus of Elon’s first-year summer experience.
Princeton University, also recognized for providing a powerful and successful first-year experience, creates opportunities that instill a sense of “class pride” to provide relationships that lead to friendship and a sense of belonging at the University. Princeton’s programs provide a wide range of seminars where students meet others with similar mindsets.
At Williams College, also considered one of the best first-year experience institutions, students and their families are welcomed to the campus. Williams’ first-year experience engages parents as well as students. However, it would be wrong to assume that only elite private colleges can offer effective first-year experiences and new student orientations. Interestingly, while there are costs associated with such programs, the foundational requirement to engage students is to have engaged faculty and staff who commit to working with students and families as part of the engagement and welcoming experience. We have such faculty, staff and programs at West Texas A&M University. At WT, our new student orientations have parallel programs for family members while students register for classes and engage with the campus community. When students return to campus for Buff Branding, we celebrate the passing of our history and tradition on to new students by symbolically “branding” them as Buffaloes.
It is important for students to be engaged both in and outside of the classroom. In academics, general education and introductory courses taught by seasoned faculty in the first year offer compelling opportunities for students to engage in ideas and concepts related to their aspirations. Such options create a perspective on how student interests can be embodied in their professional and personal lives, leading to engaged citizenship following graduation.
Community engagement activities beyond the academic experience create leadership skills for students and serve to weave their purpose into the fabric of university life. Student government, intercollegiate athletics, Greek life, student clubs, organizations and on-campus employment provide a framework to engage the larger community through individual students’ special interests and aspirations. They also expose students to novel experiences, some of which they can further develop and others which will serve to inform their growing perspectives on citizenship, which is broader than themselves.
To give substance to such experiences, caring advisors must be available to students. There is value in advisors who take the time to engage students and find their interests, beyond just course selection. WT’s size allows for a full menu of engagement options. Some very large institutions, Texas A&M, the University of Texas and Arizona State University, are all examples where large institutions have found ways to create engagement opportunities that allow students to be part of something larger than themselves. WT provides such experiences, with a personal touch at the same time.
Personal relationships among peers, faculty and staff members are foundational to creating a network of support, encouragement and belonging. While this happens naturally in the classroom setting, outside of the classroom and on the social side of the campus, the same ingredients create a successful mix of engagements for college students. One such important and often overlooked experience is the opportunity that campus ministries provide students to build a faith life in support of their intellectual life. As just one example, at WT, there are at least 11 widely recognized, deeply appreciated opportunities for students to encounter a positive marriage between their faith and intellectual development. This web of relationships creates connections that build an important and lifelong means of bonding.
The importance of providing a positive engagement experience is unquestionable. Students engaged in campus life are more likely to graduate than isolated students. Students of color are more likely to complete college when they are engaged in developing life skills. The data is so clear on this point that universities use data analytics to identify early warning signs for students who may be experiencing a lack of engagement. Colleges that do this best respond to that data early, to provide assistance to student before they lose their way.
And lastly, students who do well academically and are engaged in campus citizenship lead to the “happiest, most successful alumni,” according to Forbes. Dartmouth College leads that list, but a wide range of public and private universities produce alumni who engage and support the University throughout their professional lives.
Career counseling, peer mentoring, veteran’s services and a host of other engagement opportunities outside the formal classroom create an opportunity for learning that leads to productive student life. At WT, our commitment is to help develop engaged citizens to help sustain a republican form of government and a free society. Lofty goals, to be sure, but foundational to the work of all higher education for each and every student.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.
Mike Knox is the Vice President for Student Enrollment Engagement and Success at West Texas A&M University.