Innovators in Online Learning: Student First-Year Experience Program

 

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Lorrie BuddLorrie Budd, Ed.D, received a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Science in human services from Stevenson University. She graduated with her Master of Science in counseling with a concentration in college student personnel services from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Lorrie has worked in higher education for 13 years, serving in residence life for six of those years. She has spent the remainder of her time in higher education as the Assistant Director of Student Life for First-Year Experience at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). During her time at CCBC, Lorrie also earned her Doctor of Education in Community College Leadership from Morgan State University.

Transitioning to higher education from high school can be overwhelming for students. It’s the first time they may really be on their own and fully responsible for their education. Add in the online aspect of it and students may not know where to begin. This is why many institutions have developed programs aptly named “First Year Experience (FYE)”. Generally, this includes an orientation of some kind as well as additional courses to help these first-year students succeed throughout their college journey.

In this interview, we’ll hear from Lorrie Budd, Assistant Director of Student Life for First-Year Experience at the Community College of Baltimore County. She will share the origin of their FYE, her personal involvement in the program and its impact on students.

SoftChalk: How did the need for a FYE program come to be at CCBC?

Lorrie: In 2010, my supervisor, Dell Hagan Rhodes (Director of Student Life at CCBC), advocated for a position at the college that connected with first-year students on a co-curricular level. One of the main purposes of the position was to oversee New Student Orientation (NSO). In the past, the responsibility of NSO had bounced around from department to department. Dell saw the need and the relevance for NSO to be sponsored by Student Life, so she worked with our Dean of College Life to ensure the First-Year Experience (FYE) Program became a part of Student Life. Of course, staff support was needed, so a position was created to support the program, and I came to CCBC as the Assistant Director of Student Life for FYE.

SoftChalk: How is your FYE structured and why was it structured this way?

Lorrie: Many institutions have some form of First-Year Experience (FYE). Of course, there is even a National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition that supports educational professionals who aim to enhance student transitions into and through institutions of higher education.

CCBC’s FYE Program is structured in two parts. We have curricular and co-curricular components. In our Instruction division, we have Academic Development 101, which is our mandatory first-year experience seminar. We have an ACDV 101 department chair who oversees this area. Over 100 sections are usually offered each fall. We offer about half that amount in the spring semester. ACDV 101 is a one-credit course that is mandatory for graduation unless students are granted waivers because they are dual enrollment students (high school students taking college coursework) or CCBC students with prior college experience. The ACDV 101 course is the only required component of our first-year experience for students.

In our Enrollment and Student Services division, I oversee the co-curricular side of the first-year experience at CCBC. This includes New Student Orientation (NSO) prior to classes starting, our online NSO (in SoftChalk!), a First-Year Experience Mentor Program (peer leaders helping new students throughout the year), and a Summer Bridge Program (getting high school students connected to CCBC right after graduation by taking ACDV 101 and participating in activities over the summer).

As far as the structure, the college believes that first-year student transitions are crucial to whether students stay enrolled and re-enroll in subsequent semesters. Therefore, a thorough orientation is necessary. As a result, the ACDV 101 course was developed to ensure students were provided the right tools for a successful start. The voluntary co-curricular component complements the ACDV 101 course by offering initiatives before ACDV 101, throughout ACDV 101, and throughout the remainder of the first academic year for students.

SoftChalk: How is your FYE program different from other institutions? What are its strengths?

Lorrie: Truly, it is difficult to say how we differ from other institutions because there are so many amazing FYE initiatives out there! A major strength of our FYE Program is our student leadership. We have an awesome group of FYE Mentors, who are returning student leaders. They assist our incoming students at New Student Orientation (NSO) by facilitating the interactive workshops throughout the sessions. They also share their CCBC experiences with their peers and describe their challenges and accomplishments in a realistic way that helps our incoming students feel supported and motivated.

SoftChalk: How could it be improved?

Lorrie: Although we know what kind of undertaking it would be with financial and human resources, we would love to see part of the co-curricular FYE be mandatory for students. We do not want to provide obstacles to student enrollment, so we do not require students to participate in New Student Orientation (NSO). However, we know students benefit from knowing certain information before they start classes. Knowing that we have these conflicting forces, it is difficult to make the decision to make co-curricular NSO mandatory.

SoftChalk: Approximately how many students have completed the FYE program since inception?

Lorrie: The FYE Program at CCBC is not a “check list” of items to complete or a certificate process, so we do not have cohorts of students completing the program. Rather, we serve all first-year students depending on their various needs. In any given academic year, we have thousands of new students at the college. Some are recent high school graduates, some are transfer students from four-year institutions, some are four-year students taking one or two courses to transfer back to their four-year institutions, and some are returning adult students coming to us after never attending college or taking many years off from pursuing their education. Of course, this list is not exhaustive.

With such a diverse population, we really have to meet the needs of our students by working with them on an individual basis the best way we can, which is why we do individual outreach. Not all of our students accept our extended helping hands, but we allow them to decide what kind of support and how much support they would like from participating in our program. To provide a number though, we have seen over 5,000 students participate in our NSO initiatives (both in-person and online).

SoftChalk: Do you have any feedback from students or statistics to share on how they’ve benefited from completing both the curricular and co-curricular components?

Lorrie: Our recent retention data reports have indicated that 78% of students who attended the in-person New Student Orientation (NSO) were retained from one semester to the next. This is compared to a 63% retention rate for students who did not attend the in-person NSO. We also have some quantitative data reports that show that students who attend NSO are more likely to receive one letter grade higher in their coursework than students who did not attend NSO. We do realize that these outcomes are not necessarily cause and effect, as students who attend NSO may have other factors in their lives that attribute to higher success rates (like re-enrollment and GPA), but it is still good data to note.

At this point, our online NSO is still fairly new, so we do not have much quantitative data on it yet. We launched the online NSO about two years ago, so we should be able to have some quantitative data on it soon. Meanwhile, our qualitative data reports show that students find the online NSO beneficial for various reasons:

  • The advice on college culture and expectations

  • The details provided about many of our campus resources

  • The motivating stories of our FYE Mentors

  • The ability to revisit the site as questions may come up throughout the semester

  • The interactive opportunities

SoftChalk enabled us to create an online orientation that is essentially one space for students to visit for information relevant to their first-year experience. SoftChalk’s capabilities allowed us to develop engaging content by loading existing CCBC videos, hyperlinking CCBC webpages, and using SoftChalk features to develop hands-on experiences (like crosswords and puzzles) to break up some of the heavy text.

SoftChalk: The New Student Orientation that is a part of the co-curricular component encourages new students to get involved with the campus and the community. Why do you feel this involvement is important for students?

Lorrie: Co-curricular involvement allows students to develop holistically. We want students to leave our colleges ready to be civil and productive members of society. Their co-curricular involvement can broaden their horizons through exposure to different experiences and perspectives. A 2015 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that employers doubt the skill preparedness of college graduates. For example, employers are concerned about skills in areas like teamwork, communication, awareness of global developments, and an understanding of and appreciation for diverse cultures and perspectives. By joining clubs and organizations, leadership development programs, and civic engagement opportunities sponsored by student affairs teams, students can hone these types of skills.

Getting involved in college is also a great way to meet new people, establish stronger connections with faculty and staff members, and network. These networks can provide personal support systems that many students may not have and can lead to professional benefits such as letters of recommendation, internships, and jobs. Of course, students who get involved in college are also more likely to receive scholarships, which can lighten the financial burden that many students experience in college.

SoftChalk: You also mentioned that part of the FYE is a mentor program where peer leaders work with new students throughout the year. How was this program developed and how do you motivate students to become mentors?

Lorrie: I initiated the FYE Mentor Program soon after I came to CCBC as the Assistant Director of Student Life for FYE. Our existing student leadership development programs included our Student Government Association and our Student Life Ambassador Program. Knowing that New Student Orientation (NSO) was a huge undertaking at a college with three primary campuses, having a team of student leaders to assist seemed logical. With prior experience working with student leaders, I developed a position description and implemented the same selection process that the other CCBC student leadership programs used. We started with seven college-wide FYE Mentors in the Spring 2012 semester and have grown to a team of 20-25 FYE Mentors.

Students who apply for the FYE Mentor Program are motivated by numerous factors including flexible work hours, convenient work locations on their campuses, valuable work and life skills, and last but certainly not least, tuition assistance. Students who complete the program each semester can earn between $500 and $1,500 in scholarship money that can be awarded to their next semester’s tuition payments or as tuition reimbursement for the semester during which they served. Our selection process is a competitive one, and students must submit an application, resume, and reference forms. From there, they are invited to participate in a group selection process and must meet certain student criteria, such as an earned credit minimum, a grade point average requirement, and a student conduct check.

SoftChalk: What are the most successful tools the FYE has provided students that have contributed to their success in the first year and beyond?

Lorrie: The most successful tools that our FYE Program offers are ones that I have already mentioned. The Online New Student Orientation is an online resource that pulls an array of CCBC knowledge into one central location for students. Having this resource at their fingertips organizes the material in a more methodical format so that they do not have to search the website using terms they may not know. Our FYE Mentor Program is another tool that contributes to student success. Our FYE Mentors play a vital role in helping new students learn about our campus and community. They are peer resources for students for information about academic life, social organizations, and curricular and co-curricular learning. They meet with students one-on-one and invite groups of students to campus events that they are attending. The FYE Mentors facilitate a welcoming environment so that students feel encouraged to get involved in and connected to the college.

SoftChalk: For other institutions looking to develop and implement a First-Year Experience of their own, what are your suggestions for where to start?

Lorrie:

  1. Research what other institutions are doing to sustain and improve their FYE Programs. Again, the National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition is a recognized leader for FYE and has great information on best practices. Their Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience provides a forum for professionals to share research and experiences as well as accomplishments and challenges. The NRC also has a first-year email listserv to connect with colleagues throughout the year.

  2. Determine how the institution would like to structure the program. Will there be curricular and co-curricular components? Will the program be housed under one area and will that area be responsible for all of the program components? Or will there be shared responsibilities among offices, departments, or divisions?

  3. Develop a communication plan. One of our biggest challenges is getting information to our students. Whether you use email, text messaging, social media, or other forms of communication, you may still face difficulties actually reaching your students, especially incoming students. Once students are enrolled and on campus, you can benefit from word of mouth through faculty, staff, and students as well as course management systems. The trick is finding a way to reach the newly enrolled students who have not started classes or have started classes but are still learning the college environment and expectations.

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