Through a round of interviews with nearly 300 student affairs and services staff from 9 universities and 5 colleges across Ontario, the Supporting Student Success research study explored how staff members have made sense of the formal and informal organizational structures in their work and how they perceived these structure influenced their ability to best support student success. In November 2011, HEQCO published the findings from the first phase of the study, “Supporting Student Success: The Role of Student Services within Ontario’s Postsecondary Institutions.” Despite the rich data that we collected from Phase 1, we knew there was a bigger story: one that included the perspectives of students, faculty, and senior administrative leaders. How did these groups see their institution in terms of supporting student success? In short, we needed to go back to each of the institutions to fill out this emerging narrative. Since the publication of the HEQCO report, the Supporting Student Success research team has embarked on Phase 2 of the study. We are going back to the 14 institutions to talk to students, senior administrative leaders, faculty, and student affairs and services staff. Near the end of last year, our research team headed to the University of Toronto Mississauga, Ryerson University, and York University. Here is a snapshot of some of our observations…
Site Visit #1: University of Toronto Mississauga
Our day at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus was characterized by the warm, passionate and energetic staff, faculty and students. We had the opportunity to interview students in focus groups, interview individual faculty, and meet with student affairs staff and administrators. From our conversations with each group, we learned about some of the exciting programs supporting student success at the U of T Mississauga campus.
Three programs that were highlighted by students, staff, and faculty were rezONE, utmONE and genONE – programs that are designed to assist students during the transition into their first year of university at UTM. These programs support out-of-classroom interactions with faculty and offer leadership opportunities for upper year students to act as peer mentors. One of the highlighted benefits of these programs is the informal engagement with faculty. In an effort to bridge the gap between students and faculty, this program encourages students to engage in thoughtful and meaningful learning opportunities. This was emphasized by the discussion of the Capstone projects, where students in the “ONE” groups are given the opportunity to create their own educational adventure—this could be anything from a forensic murder mystery night to an informal night of bowling and dinner with a professor. Students who participate in these programs are also exposed to campus resources and programs that provide academic and personal support to help students make the most of their experience at UTM.
Another major theme that came out of our discussions with the students, staff and faculty at UTM was the importance of the informal networks that were created by interacting with different people across departments. These informal networks were noted to be a place of support when trying to start a new initiative, and a way to connect students to various resources on campus when they are in need. The close campus atmosphere really emphasized this key theme, and made our visit to UTM a very positive one!
Site Visit #2: Ryerson University
Our second visit was to Ryerson—the urban university in the heart of downtown Toronto. When you step into Ryerson you know you are in a very unique and special place – one where university buildings are next door to community businesses, where students have the opportunity to attend classes in the local AMC theatre, and most importantly where the campus community strives to help students succeed, both academically and personally. The research team’s visit to Ryerson University was very rewarding and we gained rich information about the dynamics between students and faculty, collaborations amongst departments, and the role student affairs staff play in the lives of students.
One observation that really came through in our visit and through the conversations with students, faculty, and staff was the current support network for students at Ryerson. Each group talked about different opportunities available to students that supported student success. Students candidly spoke about the influence faculty play in their academic and often personal lives. Having the opportunity to interact and collaborate with faculty outside of the classroom was particularly valuable to students. Students also shared the importance of having peers to rely on for academic and personal support and that these interactions were essential for succeeding at Ryerson.
More formal programs that support student success at Ryerson include the involvement of Academic Links (ALs), who are students that live in residence and provide academic support to students in campus housing. ALs serve as a link between residence and the various faculties at Ryerson—in addition to providing academic support, ALs are involved in the planning of events that engage students to the broader campus community. Lastly, staff and faculty talked about the importance of collaborating and engaging various divisions and departments to support student success. Collaborating across departments, including faculty and students in the decision making process was seen as keen in creating a net to help students achieve their academic and personal goals. Our visit to Ryerson was memorable and we hope to return in the future to have the opportunity to meet more students, faculty, and staff.
Site Visit #3: York University
Our third visit, York University highlighted some of the similar themes that we saw at UTM and Ryerson. Informal links and partnerships across the different departments of the university allowed for opportunities to be created for students. There are champions in departments that have led to numerous collaborative efforts, allowing this large institution to come together and support student success in meaningful ways. While we heard from faculty, staff, and students about some of the challenges in communicating at such a large institution, there are clear efforts to define the roles and responsibilities of individuals and departments as part of the PRASE process (Process Re-engineering and Service Enhancement).
The size of York University creates a plethora of diverse opportunities for meaningful student engagement. The students we spoke to talked about how York is a large and diverse institution and made up of many communities that everyone can find their niche. Those students who have connected with some of these opportunities talked about how supported they felt from both faculty and student affairs staff. We heard about the Student Community & Leadership Development Office, and the numerous opportunities they create for student involvement. The students we talked to were optimistic about their York experience, feeling that their voice had been heard on university boards and committees, and that they were partners in the creation of the York experience.
First off, thank you to UTM, Ryerson, and York for being so welcoming and accommodating during our site visits, and a special thank you to all those who participated in our focus groups and interviews. Your stories and perspectives highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities that institutions have when supporting student success, and your insights have provided such rich data that we are excited to analyze and share with others. The success of this project rests on the support and engagement of those who have participated, thank you.
After three exciting and dynamic site visits, our research team noted some of the challenges of communicating across different departments in postsecondary institutions. However, we also saw how individual collaborations and informal networks can provide students with extraordinarily positive experiences and well-grounded support. Postsecondary institutions are dynamic, and a continued effort collaborate around student success is needed to support students – both academically and personally.
We have a busy semester planned where we will be hearing from students, faculty, senior administrative leaders and student affairs and services staff at the eleven other institutions in our study. We are excited for our fourth site visit tomorrow at Brock University! We will keep you posted throughout, so make sure to check back.