Initiatives Aimed at First-Year Students — and Beyond

Julie Nash, the new vice provost for student success, aims to increase retention and provide high-impact learning experiences for all students. Image by Adrien Bisson
Julie Nash, the university's first vice provost for student success, wants to increase retention and develop richer learning experiences for all students.

By Katharine Webster

Julie Nash has a single goal: elevating the university’s culture of student success and making it everyone’s responsibility.

Nash has plenty of ideas about how to improve student retention and graduation rates, as well as provide a richer learning experience for all students, including more study abroad opportunities and experiential learning.

The former associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Nash is the university’s first vice provost for student success. She was chosen for the post by new Provost Michael Vayda, who has made student success a top priority.

Nash’s focus will be on involving every college and administrative unit, sparking new initiatives and encouraging greater collaboration across departments. There’s already a foundation of highly successful programs throughout the university, and she wants to use them as models for further improvements.

“During my first year, I want to take stock of all these things and figure out where we can scale up or adapt these models,” she says.

Support for student success goes all the way to the top. Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and Vayda put out a call for volunteers to serve on a retention commission this fall — and more than 150 people responded. Some will serve on the commission, which will be led by Nash, Dean of Student Services Kerry Donohoe and Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Larry Siegel. Others have been invited to serve on the 2020 strategic planning committee on transformational education.

Combined, they will work to create a more coherent vision of student success, from better safety nets for students at academic or financial risk to changes in the curriculum and new co-curricular activities, she says.

New Provost Michael Vayda has made student success a top priority. Image by Tory Germann
New Provost Michael Vayda has made student success a top priority.

Better Safety Nets

A big part of Nash’s mission is increased outreach to students who are struggling academically or financially, especially first-year students. Donohoe is leading a team of faculty and staff that is contacting freshmen who haven’t yet registered for spring semester classes to find out why: a financial hold, academic problems, advising issues or personal challenges. The Financial Aid office is working to lift holds quickly, so students can register for classes as soon as possible.

“We’re really working proactively to solve these problems now, rather than wait until we’re putting out fires,” Nash says.

Meanwhile, first-year students on academic warning will be required to participate in a new “Strategies for Student Success” workshop during winter break to get them back on track. The workshop, a collaboration between the colleges and the Centers for Learning and Academic Support Services, will include not only study skills and time management, but also career testing and advising.

“The first semester of college can be challenging, and we want struggling students to know that we are invested in their success,” she says.

Nash is also working with the university libraries and a committee of faculty and students to assemble high-quality, open-source materials that can take the place of textbooks in some classes.

With U.S. college students spending up to $300 for a single textbook and as much as $1,250 for a year’s worth, it’s not surprising that two-thirds of students in a national survey said they did not buy at least one textbook due to cost, despite worries about how that would affect their grades. Nearly half of the students surveyed by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group also said they looked at textbook costs when choosing classes.

“The high cost of textbooks is a student success issue,” Nash says. “Students are begging us for a break.”

To support the effort, the university will offer workshops for faculty in the spring on finding and integrating excellent open-source materials into their classes.

Transformational Learning

Keeping students in school is just the beginning, though. Working with the Transformational Education Committee, Nash and Vayda want to help the colleges figure out how to incorporate more active learning into the curriculum, starting freshman year.

“We’re already doing a good job of giving our students a great education,” Nash says. “But we want to be able to say, ‘We have a special experience for our students. You’re going to hit the ground running, doing that critical thinking and engaged work from the time you get to this campus, no matter what your major is.’”

That means taking advantage of small undergraduate classes — more than half have fewer than 20 students — to incorporate more community experiences and service learning, projects and interdisciplinary collaboration that better prepare students for the modern workplace.

One great example is the DifferenceMaker program, in which students work in teams to develop solutions to real-world problems. Faculty are increasingly incorporating DifferenceMaker projects into their courses, and the Manning School of Business offers a DifferenceMaker course for first-year students. Another example is the first-year seminar for all Honors College students, “Text in the City,” in which freshman visit multiple sites in Lowell to learn about the city’s unique history and culture.

Co-ops and internships are a vital component of real-world learning, too. The Career & Co-op Center already offers classes to prepare science, engineering and business majors for full-time professional co-ops. Starting this spring, it will offer a similar class to prepare students in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences for professional and community co-ops and internships.

Nash also wants to ramp up the university’s study abroad programs and make sure students and their parents are aware of them freshman year so they can start planning and saving for them. She also hopes to increase financial aid for study abroad.

“Study abroad has got to become something that students see as part of their path toward graduation, and we need to prioritize global awareness for our students,” she says.

River Hawk Experience Distinction

Nash is proposing another unique program: a “River Hawk Experience Distinction” that students can earn in one or two of four areas — leadership, entrepreneurship, global engagement or service.

To earn the distinction, students would have to complete both coursework and experiences outside the classroom over their four years. For example, the leadership distinction could be earned by taking business classes in leadership and serving as a student leader on campus or in a community organization. Nash hopes to get the program approved in time to start it next fall.

It’s all part of an effort to redefine student success as education of the whole person, she says.

“We want students to be curious, knowledgeable, engaged and empowered, feeling like they’re not somebody who’s affected by the world, but somebody who’s going to go out and affect the world and make changes.”