Student Success Initiatives Provide Foundation for Liberal Arts

Originally published September 19, 2014

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Struggle, failure, confusion and dropping out are possibilities that no one in college, whether educator or student, wants to face. The College of Liberal Arts (CLART) is working to tackle these issues head on by focusing on what UTEP students need most to prevent difficulties or early departure among its enrollees.

CLART’s Student Success Initiative takes a multifaceted approach – from employing new personnel to empowering self-sufficiency – to promote student persistence and graduation.

College of Liberal Arts Career Adviser Daniel Cereceres meets with a student inside CLASS, the college’s Student Success Center which is part of a broad Student Success Initiative. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News Service
College of Liberal Arts Career Adviser Daniel Cereceres meets with a student inside CLASS, the college’s Student Success Center, which is part of a broad Student Success Initiative. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News Service

The system is set up to deliver early alerts about students who are in academic danger of dropping out and offers interventions involving faculty, professional staff and academic tools, all designed to help students feel as comfortable and confident as possible.

“The goal is to have a whole student success campaign, essentially,” said Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Patricia Witherspoon, Ph.D. She noted that CLART is working in concert with the College of Science on a pilot peer-tutoring program encompassing eight key courses in which students often have difficulties. Other partnerships could evolve as the need arises.

Witherspoon also emails all new students, encouraging them to reach out to her office should they need any advising or assistance. The office regularly sees a number of students on a daily basis dropping in to discuss everything from credit transfers to graduation requirements as well as more personal issues.

With the appointment in June of Yvonne Lopez as the college’s first-ever Director of Student Success, CLART’s initiative is putting people behind its efforts.

“She reaches out to entering students in a much more personalized way in order to provide these students with the support and resources they need to succeed,” said Maryse Jayasuriya, Ph.D., CLART’s associate dean for student affairs.

Jayasuriya listed ways the college has been proactive in piloting supplemental instruction, including working with the Provost’s Office to ensure that faculty and peer tutors collaborate to help students understand material taught in specific classes, complete assignments to the best of their ability, and acquire study skills that will contribute to their success throughout their academic careers.

Pillars of the Student Success Initiative include retention, assessed with the help of surveys collecting reasons why students drop out; student engagement, measured via partnerships with on-campus activities; and counseling toward strengthening one’s educational prowess and continuing it beyond a bachelor’s degree.

CLART’s initiative dovetails with an overall university goal to help all students enroll and complete their degrees, with each college and intercollegiate department approaching that goal in unique ways determined by the students with whom they work.

Another first for CLART will take place at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 20, when the dean and administrative staff will host a first-ever welcome reception for parents and new students in the El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center.

“We are very interested in communicating with the parents, in answering questions, in providing information, and in just letting parents know that we’re here for them doing everything they can to make their students successful,” Witherspoon said.

Primarily, there will be a discussion of the differences between high school and college, with a focus on the adjustments that freshman face along with their parents, neither of whom may know what to expect from this big step toward independence.

One change they may not expect comes as a result of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prevents University advisers, instructors, Residence Life staff members or student services providers from discussing a student’s academic record with parents unless the student has expressly allowed them to do so. Hence, these new students will be encouraged by the College of Liberal Arts to keep their families informed of their progress or any issues that arise.

The main presentation will be followed by a Q-and-A session and informal mingling, providing families the opportunity to talk one-on-one with faculty and staff. A table of informational brochures will offer take-home information for students and parents.

While this welcome event heralds a new step for the college, its Student Success Initiative has been underway since November 2013 when the College of Liberal Arts Student Success Center (CLASS) held its grand opening. The center brings academic and career advising specifically for liberal arts students together in one location within the college’s main building. Amenities include computers available for student use and a comfortable sitting area.

Since opening, CLASS has seen more than 4,100 students walk through its doors.

“On any given day, students come in to kick back with friends, study or look for job opportunities,” said Laura Bolaños, an academic adviser who helps staff the center.

Other efforts under CLART’s Student Success Initiative include the Liberal Arts Honors Program and collaborations with UTEP’s Study Abroad Office, the University Career Center and the Early College High School program, which helps to prepare students for a smooth collegiate path long before they set foot on campus.

A slate of workshops also are offered to incoming freshmen to help them with the nuts and bolts of time management, taking lecture notes and preparing for exams.

All of these tools not only help the students, they increase fulfillment for educators, too.

“As faculty members, we’re always looking for ways to help our students flourish, and having structures like this in place helps them do just that by supplementing the work we’re doing every day with our students in the classroom,” Jayasuriya said.

For the largest college at UTEP, student success requires a broad and dedicated approach. For the new Student Success Initiative director, this approach works best when paired with going back to basics.

“There are foundations that need to be in place for students to succeed in college as well as in the wider world, including family support, peer engagement, mentoring and accountability,” Lopez said.

She also wants students to know that ultimately, they can use the Student Success Initiative to learn how to put a plan together to meet any objective, whether it is within their collegiate experience or far off in life, and whether it is immediate or appears to be far out of reach.

“Many challenges are encountered during one’s life, and learning to deal with situations and putting a plan in place will help the student achieve success when he or she leaves UTEP,” Lopez said.