Meeting Students Where They Are

Armed with both data and empathy, the team in Sewanee’s new Center for Student Success and Flourishing is working to ensure that every Sewanee student has the tools they need to succeed in college.

This month’s celebration of Klarke Stricklen, C’22, Sewanee’s 27th Rhodes Scholar, put a star on Sewanee’s lapel. Stricklen is an extraordinary human being, and among Sewanee students, she is not alone in that regard. Across campus, students and faculty work together to achieve remarkable results in areas including collaborative research, data analysis for the public good, superb signature projects, and civic engagement. 

And while their accomplishments are touchstones of pride for all who love Sewanee, measuring student success more broadly is a bit more complicated. Nationally, at liberal arts colleges, just a little more than half of students, 53%, graduate in four years. Sewanee beats that record handily, but the fact remains that one out of every four students who enrolls at Sewanee does not graduate from Sewanee.  

That statistic is one of the motivating factors behind a new Sewanee initiative that has been several years in the making—the Center for Student Success and Flourishing, soon to find a home in a renovated Carnegie Hall. The center is a reframing and strategic coordination of academic advising, career readiness, and student support services to ensure that every student reaches their potential. The idea first gained traction with a strategic plan for the Sewanee Career Center several years ago. As an ambitious renovation of Carnegie Hall became reality, and a new vice provost for student success, Lisa Stephenson, was named in 2021, the dream gained the institutional chops to become reality.

“We want to make sure that students are empowered to navigate the collegiate experience to prepare them for the next 40 to 50 years,” says Kim Heitzenrater, C’89. Heitzenrater, who has long been director of the Career Center, has a new role as associate dean for integrated advising and career readiness, reporting to Stephenson. Other key personnel are Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier, C’04, associate dean for flourishing and wellness; Cassie Meyer, assistant dean of student equity and career readiness; and Kate Reed, C’08, director of data and operations.

A New Home for Success

As this growing team takes shape and moves into the physical center in 2022, they are already expanding how Sewanee attends to the success of every student, not just the superstars but also the people who might struggle during college. This work is not only important for each student; it is also existentially important for Sewanee, as the graduation rate is a key metric of institutional success. Making strides in student success will also make Sewanee more attractive to potential students.

“We know that because of population dynamics, we will have to get more diverse to survive,” says Stephenson. “This is not just true for Sewanee but throughout higher education. Institutions also have an obligation to educate students who have not always had access to higher education, such as first-generation students, and students from less affluent backgrounds.”

Stephenson is a proponent of some key adjustments in institutional culture that she hopes everyone on campus can adopt. “We need to learn better how to meet people where they are,” she says. “We need to elevate kindness and ensure that all students have equal access to the resources they need to succeed.”

The student success team has been busily identifying barriers and devising approaches for meeting people where they are. “Socioeconomic background can have a big effect,” says Heitzenrater.  “Some students come from neighborhoods where they live around the corner from the dean of a law school and next door to a CEO, while others don’t know anyone who has influence. One of our main objectives is helping students understand that there are numerous people who are ready to help. Many students come here not understanding all of the resources and opportunities that are available, and they don’t know how to begin. We want to make sure these students know they matter through coaching, mentoring, and career readiness orientation.”

Cassie Meyer, assistant dean of student equity and career readiness, is particularly attuned to this problem. “Every student is important to us, but especially those we are struggling to retain,” she says. “Those students need to have the tools and the teams to support them, and I am interested in the question of what is hindering them from building community and finding meaning at Sewanee.”

Interestingly, the socioeconomic barrier is an issue no matter which side of the divide a student is on. While students from less privileged backgrounds may not understand how to manage the system, often it is the most privileged—and the men—who struggle. Across the nation, there is a 10% gap between men and women in graduation rate. At Sewanee, the gap is 20%. “A big question we are struggling with is how to get our young men to understand that it is OK to seek help,” says Stephenson. “If they don’t know how to study, we can’t just expect that they will ask for help. We have to go to them. This is especially acute for people from privileged backgrounds. How do we help students who may feel like they should know how to navigate college know that they too need help?”

To answer that question, a key part of the strategy for the center is its proactive nature. Across higher education, advising can often be reactive, but a growing number of institutions are starting to be more directly engaged in the lives of their students, using data analysis to identify choke points in college careers—like a poor grade in a particular course or failure to complete an important application.  “We have looked carefully at the data back to 2013, and we know where the pitfalls are and how to help,” says Heitzenrater.

To put this more active approach into practice, the student success team has built a new kind of student-facing employee: the success coach. Coaches will work alongside the faculty who do most of the academic advising—particularly for the first two critical years of a student’s college career—and step in during times when faculty cannot, armed with both data and kindness. “Every student will have a team for support,” says Meyer. “We are going to be using technology, including texting. We will normalize asking for help. We will take students through the process of becoming successful.” Kate Reed, as director data and operations, will keep building out the digital backbone of this human-powered system.

The team hopes to make the center into a one-stop shop, integrating academic advising and career readiness. “People are more and more cost-conscious,” says Stephenson. “So, as we are becoming more diverse, we need to think more about career readiness in terms of skills like leadership, teamwork, and navigating social structures, and we need to help students translate their education into post-graduate success. Not every student needs to become a doctor or lawyer or professor, or businessperson to succeed. We need to advocate for the liberal arts and help our students learn how to advocate for the value of their own education with their parents and potential employers.”

Back to Fitwell

A key partner in the Center for Student Success and Flourishing is Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier, associate dean for flourishing and wellness. Noffsinger-Frazier will continue to oversee the Wellness Commons (read more about that here) but she too will be located in the Center for Student Success and Flourishing, because flourishing is, as the name of the center suggests, a key ingredient in student success. “Flourishing is not some hokey-pokey term,” says Stephenson. “There are important concepts and science behind it, and Nicole is very good at helping students and helping us think through how students, and all of us, can achieve flourishing.”

Stephenson points out that it should be unsurprising to anyone that students would come to Sewanee with extraordinary amounts of stress built into their lives. With a fractious national political life, frequent mass shootings, a pandemic, and news of all of it immediately available on devices in our pockets, there is no question that students are stressed, even if they never consider the high cost of their education. “There has been a massive demand for counseling and psychological services over the past several years, and this is not just a phenomenon at Sewanee,” says Stephenson. “What we have learned here—but really across the country—is that you can’t staff your way out of the demand for mental health services. So, we have to develop proactive strategies. We have to give students a real understanding of what it means to be healthy and give them the ability to navigate a really difficult time in their lives.”

To do that, Noffsinger-Frazier and others have been quietly building a body of educational materials—including courses and learning modules—on flourishing. “Student flourishing is foundational to student success,” she says. “You can’t process information if you have the stress and anxiety that we are all living through with the pandemic. We are hoping to take the next step with flourishing training, and it’s not just something they do on the spin bikes.”  This fall, Noffsinger-Frazier, Dean of Students Erica Howard, Associate Dean of the College Betsy Sandlin, and others piloted an introductory course called “Verge,” which they hoped could be a model for onboarding students in a way that gives them a boost toward success. The Verge course includes hands-on instruction in success tactics, flourishing, and team building.

“The Verge course was very good,” says Stephenson. “It was not required, and we did not give grades, but the students who stayed with the course, with few exceptions, reported that it was very meaningful for them.”

Whose Center?

Higher education as a culture is remarkably robust, but even so it is not monolithic and unchanging. Over the years, different stakeholders claim privilege, and an important perennial question is whose experience is at the center of the institution? The faculty, the transmitters of knowledge?  The alumni, the guardians of tradition? Administrators, charged with survival of the institutional DNA? Or students, the immediate beneficiaries of all this work?  In this part of the 21st century, many educational philosophers are calling for higher education to embrace a student-centered approach. Cathy Davidson, a professor at City College of New York and a leading proponent of the student-centered college, believes it is the only way higher education can prepare students for a world in flux. Sewanee’s Center for Student Success and Flourishing, with a home on the Quad, sandwiched between All Saints’ Chapel and Walsh-Ellett Hall, is a sign that Sewanee is taking a significant step in that direction.

Sewanee has always been a place where extraordinary students could receive a superb education, and it has always been a place where students could discover just how extraordinary they are. The goal of the Center for Student Success is to build on that success, to ensure that every Sewanee student can live their best Sewanee life.

Will that work? Lisa Stephenson thinks so. “We are a small enough place that everyone wants our students to succeed,” she says. “We just need to figure out what our priorities are and come together around them.”