Leadership & Governance

Building a Network to Help First-Generation Students Succeed

Carl Strikwerda, president, Elizabethtown College (Pa.)

December 01, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

To help low-income and first-generation students succeed, build them a network, says Carl Strikwerda, president of Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania. Students from homes or high schools where few others have gone on to college don’t have peers they can turn to for advice when times get tough.

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Among other interventions, Mr. Strikwerda's liberal-arts college has developed a special orientation for those at-risk students to help give them a network before classes start. “A whole lot of success in college is built on what some people are now calling grit,” he says. “The myth is, of course, that’s just an internal virtue. Grit is something you develop, and you develop in part by having a community that supports you.”


KARIN FISCHER: Hi. I'm Karen Fischer, a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I am happy today to welcome Carl Strikwerda, from Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania. Thanks for joining us.

CARL STRIKWERDA: It's great to be here. Thanks for letting me come.

KARIN FISCHER: I wanted to talk with you a little bit. I think a lot of what we're hearing and what we're seeing in higher education today is a focus — particularly when we talk about low-income and first-generation students — a shifting focus away from just simply talking about getting those students into college, but also making sure that they persist and they succeed.

I know you have a large population that fits in that definition, and I wonder if you could talk about how you help them move through college successfully.

CARL STRIKWERDA: OK. good. We have about 40 percent of our students in our residential liberal-arts program that are first-generation students. And we're almost about one-fourth, between 20 percent and 25 percent, Pell students.

So we really try to focus on them at a whole lot of different steps. So before they even start college, in about June, we have that first -ear entering class pretty much defined. What we do is try to take a look at every variable we can that we know, so far, helps predict whether they'll be able to come back 15 months later as sophomores.

KARIN FISCHER: And what are some of the things that you've found?

CARL STRIKWERDA: A whole lot of things. I mean, some are obvious — level of test scores, their high-school GPA — but other things — Pell, first-generation is very important. One other factor that is very important is did they go to a high school, all things being equal, do they go to a high school where there is a lower percentage of students who go to college?

So everything else being equal, if one high school got 60 percent of the students going on to college, and one's got 16 percent, it's the second group — they can have the same test scores, the same GPA — we just know that that student, if he or she has a setback that first semester, especially, they're less likely to come back as sophomores.

KARIN FISCHER: And why do you think that matters?

CARL STRIKWERDA: They don't have the networks. They don't have the expectations. A whole lot of success in college is built on what some people are now calling grit, and it's resilience. And I think the myth is, of course, that that's just an internal virtual. Grit is actually something you develop, and you develop, in part, by having a community that supports you.

So if you have a family, an extended family, friends from high school for whom that's just a harder thing to encourage, we have to provide that for them in the community. So we do a lot of studies and then try to help those students take the right kind of program and get the right kind of advising, so they get over those hurdles and develop some of that resilience.

We also have a program called Momentum for any student who we think is at risk. It's over 10 percent, almost 15 percent of an entering class does Momentum, right before school starts. And you try to demystify things for them. They know where the library is, they know where IT is, they know when something goes wrong, how to go get counseling. They know.

And the point is to have them in the residence halls that they're going to live in when everybody else is there. We have a group of students who always think they're going to be marginal — everybody else knows what they're doing, and I don't, because my family, my parents didn't go to college.

But if you bring them in early, and they all get to know each other, and they know the campus best, then the other 400 or 500 students come, suddenly these Momentum students, who thought they were on the margins, suddenly they're the people who know people in other residence halls, they know where the library is, they know where the coffee shop is. And they can become the networkers and connectors. And so suddenly they're embedded, and they feel much stronger in that community.

Then there's other things, like academic advising, we just know that if the students have chosen a major that didn't really quite fit them, and they get that first low grade that first semester, that's another touch point where you start to lose them. So we're giving all our students the strength test, which helps them understand —

KARIN FISCHER: That's usually something that happens much later in a college career, right?

CARL STRIKWERDA: Exactly, yeah. I mean, the model is you give those kinds of tests as juniors and seniors to help them find a job. But we think we can give that to them already as first-years, to help them just discover who they are, what their interests are, what their, quote, "strengths" are.

And it's so much easier. If they've chosen a particularly challenging major and then get that D, and you're saying to them, Well, but look at your strengths test, you have all these abilities and these interests, why don't you see if you can pursue those?

Because again, a lot of first-generation students, they don't even know about these other disciplines, and they don't have this idea of options, and you have to build some of those networks that, frankly, people who come from higher-income families, where there's more college graduates, they almost automatically have.

KARIN FISCHER: Why is this early intervention — sometimes before they even come to campus, in those early weeks of orientation, and in that first semester — why is intervening so early important?

CARL STRIKWERDA: Yeah. That's very good. Because, well, first impressions are lasting. And again, it's the expectations that you go into an experience or community with that often shape how you perceive that experience or the community.

So if you walk in assuming that eventually chances are you will graduate, and your parents and your high-school teachers think you will, it's just so much different [than] if you walk in with a little bit of a need to be reassured.

We all have the impostor phenomenon. A lot of these students have it in a much bigger form. … You know, we're ramping them up from high school. And it can be even tougher on a first-generation or Pell student, who really did do well in high school. That's why they're at a place like Elizabethtown.

Then it's almost tougher for them to say, oh, my gosh, you know, I got A minuses and A's, and I did get good test scores, but now this first semester, I'm not doing that well. Even though — and you can tell them all the times you want — almost universally, the lowest GPAs that students get are the first semester of first year. But you need to give them that kind of ability to bounce back.

And that's why I think that early intervention is helpful to begin to shape their expectations of what they can do. And they know that people will come to their support and encourage them to get over those kind of hurdles.

KARIN FISCHER: And how do you — I mean, as we were saying, a lot of what people measure are these inputs. How do you know what's working? How do you keep an eye on —

CARL STRIKWERDA: Yeah, very good question. So our Momentum program keeps getting bigger, and we've had it more years. So if you have a fairly small group in the beginning, of 35 students, just in terms of analysis, you get a lot of small cells, not that many in terms of race, gender, test scores, and so on. The bigger database we're getting now, we're able to identify a little bit more, you know, what worked and what didn't.

Because in some cases, the control group, students with the same characteristic — Pell, or low GPA, or first-generation — who weren't in Momentum actually did almost as well as some of these people here. So we have to find out, OK, now, what went wrong?

You have a group of 10 or 11 students, and their success wasn't a lot, then we can often look to say, well, it was probably this major, whose first-semester class for first-year students is particularly challenging, and we've got to set up a tutorial for them, and so on.

So for example, one thing we did is we scrapped a lot of these courses. They weren't remedial, but they were sort of the slow-ramp kind of courses. We found that, in some ways, they don't help that much, because they've still got to take the tougher courses later. And that worked out better. Go ahead, everybody takes the same class, but for these students, from day one, you're providing them more support. That actually gets them through that hurdle better, or helps them understand, I'm just not cut out for this major.

KARIN FISCHER: So you're trying to figure out a way to support the students without making them feel like they're being singled out?

CARL STRIKWERDA: Exactly. And we do know that some people, as first-year seminar instructors — and in our first-year seminar program, your instructor is your adviser, so that you're seeing your adviser two or three times a week, just in class. But we know that some people really like working with first-generation, high-risk students, and we know somebody, in our 32-variable scale, is much more likely to not come back 15 months later, as sophomores. There are certain people's courses you can get them into, and those people thrive on working with that kind of student.

So we can do a lot more, just to even have them take the right courses, but then also be ready, at the point, like, after the first grading period, or the midterm, and then after that first semester, to intervene if those grades aren't as successful as they'd like.

KARIN FISCHER: I know Elizabethtown has kind of an interesting role on campus, an interesting position: peacemaker in residence.


KARIN FISCHER: And I know you also are teaching a class that involves peace as well. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about those two things.

CARL STRIKWERDA: So Elizabethtown was founded by people from the Church of the Brethren, which was one of the three original peace churches, along with Quakers and Mennonites. And that's why we're in Pennsylvania. It goes back to William Penn, you know.

So we were founded as a college by these people who had a peace commitment. So we've never had military recruitment. We've never had fraternities and sororities. And there's been a long tradition of active peace witness.

And there is a Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking on campus. It sponsors a big lecture every year, where we've brought in Nobel Peace Prize winners, and has someone — Jon Rudy, who's in a position known as peacemaker in residence. And he works for us, teaches courses. He also does things like mediation.

And the rest of his time, he's being supported, often, by groups like the UN or the State Department, on peacemaking. And he goes to places like Mindanao and Somaliland, where most of us would not be very interested in going. But he's doing great work, and that's just a tremendous witness to our students. So there's an alumni peace fellowship that's very active and supports that sort of ongoing commitment.

And we've made peacemaking a connection, really, to global understanding. That's the key. I mean, the reason you need to build peace among individuals, groups, and finally, nations, is because we all want a better world.

KARIN FISCHER: And you, yourself, you're a historian? You're teaching a class? You find the time?

CARL STRIKWERDA: I do. I sort of need it. I mean, work-life balance comes —


CARL STRIKWERDA: Work-life balance comes in a lot of different forms. For me, teaching a class one night a week is really important. So the course is "Peace and War in a Global World." And yes, I have a veteran in that class, and I have people who are absolute pacifists in the class, and libertarians, and people who are very committed to social justice.

And it's a great experience for me to teach them. And I sort of practice peace and reconciliation, right there, where you have different points of view that we exchange civilly, and so on. So for me, that's really an exciting thing about being at a small college. I can teach. I can get to know the students. I see the students in the dining hall, walking across campus.

And I congratulate every student who walks across the stage at graduation. And when I am congratulating my own students, who I've taught — some of whom really struggled in class, and they did much better, and I saw them graduate — there's nothing else like it. That's why you do this job.

KARIN FISCHER: Well, thank you so much for taking the time.

CARL STRIKWERDA: Sure, you're welcome.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.