When Kathleen A. Ross stepped down from her 28-year presidency at Heritage University in 2010, she knew she wanted to focus on improving the graduation rates of first-generation students. Through a series of videos describing classroom strategies, Ms. Ross, 72, is helping professors and administrators develop skills that foster degree completion among such students. This is her story, as told to Mark Keierleber.
I have seen, both at Heritage and at other institutions dealing with a larger population of first-generation students, that more of them did not graduate compared to other students who came from college-going families. We need to figure out a way to get them into the academic culture so they will be able to perform at the level that their intelligence and creativity deserve.
The thing that was missing was a focus on how faculty could adapt what they’re doing to be more effective with these students. Most faculty are from families where someone was college-going, so no wonder they wouldn’t have a sense of what kinds of things they might need to adapt. That’s what turned me on to doing something for and with faculty, and our "Breakthrough Strategies" videos on YouTube came out of that.
I oversee the content and production of these videos in my role as director of the university’s Institute for Student Identity and Success, and we have linked to them from the institute’s webpage.
By interviewing a large number of students, we identified faculty whom the students saw as making a difference for them. Next we went to learn about the strategies from those faculty members, interviewed them, and refined a description of their ideas.
All faculty depend upon research to back up how and what they’re teaching students, so if we’re suggesting a particular strategy to use with first-generation students in the videos, then we want faculty to know we’ve identified some research to back up what we’re suggesting.
One video in our series talks about ways to be effective in giving feedback to students, particularly on a written assignment. Another one is on building confidence. The video advises faculty to share their own experience, or the experience of a family member, of a time when they didn’t have confidence in some setting, and explain what they had to do to be more confident. Another idea is to be available in places like the cafeteria or the student union so students can informally approach the professor in a setting where they would have a little more confidence than during class.
We’ve got eight of these videos available right now, and it would be wonderful to have 30, or 40, or 50 with different ideas, from different kinds of colleges and universities that are all experiencing this larger influx of first-generation students.
We posted the first videos in mid-September and early October. Right now we’re working with Yakima Valley Community College, the closest institution to us, to identify several of the strategies used there that we hope to have in future videos.
And we planned to reach out to other institutions at the Yes We Must conference in Chicago in April to see if they would like to have a couple of their faculty members represented in these videos, too.
There is, in fact, a different culture regarding communication styles, interpersonal expectations, confidence, independence versus interdependence, that kind of thing, between middle-class and working-class people that we don’t often recognize. That is really part of what we’re trying to bridge here.