John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Checking In With Students

John N. Gardner

It’s important to check in with students on a regular basis. Given the pace of their change, we can get out of touch very fast. I have reflected on the fact that some of the higher education leaders that have the greatest impact on students through their policy making authority and other forms of influence may rarely actually talk to students.

Decades ago, I taught Sociology 101. And one of the core introductory topics was that of social stratification. I remember having my students read a case study on “student nurses.” One of the points of this reading was that many college students chose a major because of preconceptions about a professional occupation, in this case, nursing, thinking that it was going to be all about “helping people.” But they quickly have to learn that in college it’s all about the sciences. If you can’t hack it in the sciences, you aren’t going to get your degree. And then if they do earn a degree they have to learn that the paths to professional advancement take them further and further away from the people they initially wanted to help in the practice of nursing. That is to say they end up supervising others who are less well educated and may actually have little or no direct patient contact. The same parallels can be drawn with many other professions, including my own: higher education administration, change, and continuous improvement.

So, in my current role in higher education where I do strategic planning with colleges and universities to help them improve their performance with new and transfer students, I am no longer part of a single institution and thus do not have access to my own students. For me, that has been a very difficult adjustment, a form of withdrawal. Being the student-focused junkie that I am then, I have had to develop some counterbalancing strategies. One of them is asking my hosts for any campus I visit, often one a week, to arrange for me at least one session with students. This isn’t ideal but it is much better than no student contact at all.

A few weeks ago I was on the campus of York College of City University of New York. York is a four-year, regional university, non-residential and very diverse. Very inspiring.  I met with four students who were all members of a co-curricular student organization, the National Society of Leadership and Success, about which I had known nothing before this visit.

But in talking to these students, it quickly became apparent to me that it was the most meaningful thing they had done in college. These students were at different levels, first-year, sophomore, junior, and senior.  One had transferred in from a SUNY community college. They were pursuing different majors. Two were male, two female. None of them were WASP’s like me. But it struck me that all of them were having experiences in this group that were common, including:

  • Very positive interaction with the faculty advisor, whom they mentioned frequently by name and with respect and affection. This professor has responsibility for the campus radio station.
  • The aspiration, no matter what their ultimate occupation, to “give back” to their communities.
  • A keener understanding of what exactly their “community” is, its needs and importance.
  • A strong inclination to perform some form(s) of public service.
  • The importance of developing “character”, and staying true to that character.
  • A variety of success oriented activities that led them to practice reflection about the course of their lives.
  • A set of experiences that had led them to take greater control of their lives.
  • A commitment to sustain the group and provide support for their fellow students to persist in college.
  • An achieved comfort level in interacting with higher education faculty and staff.
  • The development of interpersonal communication and assertiveness skills that further facilitated the self esteem and comfort level necessary to interact with University officials; things like a good handshake and eye contact.
  •  The realization that becoming successful as a college student means striving for more than being “popular”.

As I interacted with these students I remembered that during the quarter century that I directed the University 101 first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina, many of the instructors, including me, would have as a course requirement, that the students were to join something—any group as long as it was sanctioned by the University and was engaging in legal behavior. We were aware of the research correlating group affiliation and college persistence and we wanted to intentionally bring about these outcomes. My visit to York was a much more recent example of the power of group affiliation and the importance of encouraging/facilitating students joining such groups. Several of the students made reference to a Student Affairs officer who had told them about or literally had led them to join the group. What a hugely influential role that is.  Most of us could be doing exactly this for our students.

And this reminded me once again: during the college years, the greatest influence on students is the influence of other students. That is far too important for us to leave that to chance.

Thank you, York College, for the reminder and illustration.

Texting as Surrogate Touch

I am usually on at least one different campus a week and no matter where I may find myself, I always note the same: students walking around texting and/or talking on their hand held electronic devices.

I understand this. The allure of somebody reaching out to me to communicate something is indeed powerful. Somebody needs me. Somebody wants me. Somebody is giving me attention. I am noticed. I am affirmed. These are universal human needs and we have never before possessed such addictive ways of getting them met.

But I have to wonder if we could find other ways to meet student needs, to give them attention, reach out to them, affirm them, that might offset some of this constant need for electronic attention. I guess my even wondering about this reveals my nostalgia for days gone by when people on campus resorted to other means of communication. OK, let’s say I accept this new age with no resistance. As I move on I still want to ask: aren’t there other ways, more ways, that we could be paying attention to our students, letting them know they are noticed and important?

-John Gardner