The Office of Retention has set an expanded goal to reach out to the entire freshman class.
Bart Herridge, dean of student services and retention, works each year to increase the amount of students who return to the university by plugging them into a program on campus.
“We’ve got several programs that are designed to help in the retention process,” he said. “Retention means the data and the statistics, and that’s not how we’re approaching it. We’re approaching from the student, ‘What can we do to be successful?’ kind of way.”
Over the years, Herridge and his staff have implemented ideas and programs to target students, particularly freshmen. Now, they are tackling an even bigger goal.
“Ultimately, we would love to have every single freshman assigned to a faculty member or an upperclassman student on our campus to provide them someone they can turn to and ask questions,” Herridge said. “If we really were truthful about it, it’s not just freshmen. We want to try to do that with as many people as you could, at least freshmen and sophomores.”
And it all hinges on one fact.
“The one thing we know from 40 years of research is that students are more successful in an environment where they are connected to a faculty or staff member at that institution,” Herridge said.
The retention office, though its own entity, depends on other university programs to help students’ transitions into college a little easier and make ACU feel like home, he said.
Programs such as those offered through the Center for Christian Leadership and Services and the Office of Residential Life Education and Housing have aided in creating community on campus.
“They’ve had programs over there historically that do some of the same things,” Herridge said. “We do have a lot of programs right now, but not all of them are retention programs. They’re trying to help build community among students.”
One successful program, Lynay, was created by Dr. Gary McCaleb, vice president of the university. McCaleb created the program within the Center for Building Community, which is housed in the Hunter Welcome Center.
“We are building bridges with people, not walls,” McCaleb said. “Students come in as complete strangers and leave with 100 friends.”
McCaleb also created Pulse, a community-building mentor program that is now in the Office of Student Life.
“We started the program in order to give students the opportunity to build community out of diversity,” he said. “We wanted students to be able to participate in a personal human experience.”
With the help of these programs, retention rates have steadily increased.
“If you look at it in an oversimplified way, that’s what student activities are for,” Herridge said. “When you get into student organizations here, it’s an organization that you feel strongly about or feel passionate about, whether it’s a social club or intramurals or a service organization or something like that, it’s something you’re passionate about and, you’re putting yourself in with more people who also share those things in common. That’s really the goal for all of these things.”
But that’s only where his job begins.
“Part of my job is trying to use the programs I have to try and fill in the gaps,” Herridge said. “The reality about retention on a college campus is everybody has a hand in it. Everybody.”
Achieving his goal of pairing up students with faculty, staff and upperclassmen is merely an idea for now, as there are not enough mentors to go around. But for now, his focus is on getting students the help they need with programs already in place.
“We have a lot of resources on campus that students don’t know about,” Herridge said. “We try to plug the student into the resources that they need. We can’t always help, but where we can, we’re at least trying to get them connected to something where they can take the first step and be successful. And that’s not just freshmen, that’s everybody. Undergraduates, grads, everybody on campus.”
In the meantime, Herridge communicates with neighboring universities to get ideas of what steps to take to apply programs that fit the culture of ACU.
“We’ve done a really good job of benchmarking against other institutions to see what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to go and find something that somebody else has already done successfully and figure out how to do that here.”
The goal of providing freshmen with a mentor is still in its early stage, but Herridge said he thinks it’s something that will make everyone more successful.
“People just do better when they’re in relationship with other people,” he said. “That’s an important aspect of what we’re trying to do. Not just in classrooms – that’s a big deal, obviously – but it’s a lot bigger than that in terms of our goals for trying to create well-rounded people.”