NSSE recognizes first-year experience

TEMP ORARY December 9, 2011 0

The results are in, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s good news: Elizabethtown is ahead of the game.

The College’s first-year program was recently evaluated and is considered very strong, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).
NSSE, affectionately pronounced “Nessie,” is in the business of evaluating colleges and helping them to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Developed in 1998 at the insistence of The Pew Charitable Trusts, NSSE calculates and measures the high-impact practices of students at various universities, compares and contrasts between universities and publishes the results for the benefit of institutions of higher education. In this way, administrators are able to see what’s working on their campuses, and what’s not.

High impact practices pertain to “deeper, more meaningful learning,” Dean of Students Marianne Calenda explained. These practices include collaborative learning, the first-year experience and seminar, internships, studies abroad, undergraduate research, and writing-intensive classes. “The survey says to what extent students are engaging,” Calenda said.

The survey is conducted every four years in the spring, with seniors and first-years acting as subjects in the cross-sectional study. The complete results of this year’s survey have not yet been published, but Calenda shared a sneak peak, believing that now is a wonderful time for students to become aware of the areas in which their College excels, and where all members of the College community should focus their energy to promote improvement.

“We are exceeding other colleges’ performance in the area of first-year advising,” Calenda said. This means that one of the College’s greatest strengths is its first-year program overall – and this year’s new students are happy to agree.

First-year Erica Ferro spoke about the peer mentor program. Specifically, the fact that, as a result of the peer group arrangement, first-years are given an immediate circle of contacts. “You have your own group who you’re at first forced to hang out with, but it’s a good bonding experience. You’re not completely surrounded by strangers,” Ferro said. “You don’t have to go up to a stranger and say, ‘Will you eat lunch with me?’ because you have your peer group, until you leave your comfort zone.”

The College’s first-year program immediately connects new students with older, more experienced students. “The peer mentors are swell,” first-year Melissa Cramm said. “They have experience to share with their mentees, and they’re always there if you need them.”

The First Year Seminar (FYS) is a very important aspect of the first-year program. Students take their seminar with their peer group, and for the duration of the first semester, FYS instructors act as advisers to all the students in their seminar. “My instructor takes an active interest in our learning,” Cramm noted.

First-year Laura Tomasetti went further in speaking of her FYS instructor, Dr. April Kelly-Woessner, an associate professor of political science: “She was very nice, and when I needed help, she did her best. I felt like she was my advocate.”

Based on the rave reviews from the College’s current first-year students, the NSSE seems to have judged Etown in a manner consistent with other classes’ experiences.

According to the survey, the senior experience is also above and beyond that of other colleges in the area. Seniors are reporting capstone experiences at higher levels than at other colleges, which means “a higher rate of participation in things like practicum, fieldwork, internships, community service and volunteer work,” Calenda said. Participation in these experiences often leads to better job options outside of college.

There is room for improvement, however, as Calenda purposefully noted. She and Dr. Fletcher McClellan, the dean of faculty, have been coordinating the learning group subsection of the College’s Strategic Planning Committee in investigating the NSSE results. The learning group intends to use their findings to inform recommendations for the College.

So far, it appears that the greatest challenge that the College faces is improving its diversity programs. The NSSE revealed that Etown students are reporting less engagement with diversity than other institutions. Statements on the survey such as, “I’ve had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than me,” did not receive the number of affirmative responses the College would like to see.

“We’re developing new strategies for students to look outside themselves, see and appreciate diversity,” Calenda said. “We want them to understand the complexity of the world.”

The Strategic Planning Committee’s learning group is wasting no time in analyzing potential responses to these challenges. The Committee is considering how to take what’s working in the highly successful first-year program and apply it to the College’s diversity programs. The list of potential solutions includes: broadening Etown’s Living and Learning Communities, inviting speakers to the campus who come from unique walks of life and who will challenge students’ assumptions, hiring faculty and staff who are more diverse, and increasing the push for students to travel abroad.

“We’re trying to get first-years to study abroad,” Dean Calenda revealed. The sooner the younger students begin the process of “understanding the complexity of the world,” the better.

The NSSE has offered interesting insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the College’s programs. The dedication of the administration is apparent in their efforts to make the College an even more impressive place to learn than it already is. Perhaps four years from now, when Etown again participates in the survey, the Blue Jays will soar high above other area colleges in all categories.

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