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current situation, Tinto said, is that colleges depend too much
on adjunct faculty and graduate students to teach first-year
courses, when it should be assigning its most experienced
professors to those classes.
“Simply put,” Tinto said, “involvement matters, and at no
point does it matter more than the first year, when student
attachments are so tenuous and the pull of the institution so
weak.”
Here at East Carolina University, the focus on freshmen is
unrelenting, beginning with summer orientation and a “Weeks
of Welcome” program aimed at the first weeks on campus.
Said Joyner: “We have to create—in order to retain
students—a sense of belonging, a sense of competence and
a sense of progression. You’ve also got to have good quality
advisers, and you’ve got to have a clear career direction. Those
are the indices.”
“The first six weeks are critical,” said Kris Smith, director of
institutional research and testing. “The students come in and
they are so worried about fitting in…about the social aspect.
And then about four weeks into the semester we start giving
tests, and they are, like, ‘Oh, my god,’ because they have no clue
what it means to take a test at this level, and have to cover so
muchmaterial.”
“We know you need to tie them into the university in
those first six to eight weeks,” said Joyner. “So we have all
kinds of academic activities, out-of-class learning experience,
engagement with faculty—all that outside the classroom
during those weeks. And we know that someone in Student
Life is coordinating that for a sense of belonging.”
Valeria Moore, a freshman track and field athlete from
Newark, Delaware, had that experience in her first week this
year.
“Whenmom and dad left I was happy,” she said. “And then
a couple days later it hit me. I woke up in the morning and I
was sad. I was, like, ‘I’mnot inmy bed.’ I’m used to going to
my mom in the morning and
harassing her. I felt it in the
morning when I woke up, and
I felt it at night when I went
to bed.”
But within two weeks,
she said, she found plenty of
things to keep her occupied.
“You just have to be willing
to go out and get involved in
it,” she said. “It’s there, but you
have to go and get involved.”
The university has set up
a collaborative of professional
advisers to help students
with their career direction.
And it created the Academic
Enrichment Center for
students who find themselves
in academic difficulty,
offering workshops that train
them on basic study skills,
explain academic rules and
regulations, and identify other
resources on campus that will
be helpful. About 500 students
attend these workshops in the
fall, and as many as three times
that number attend in the spring. It also provides tutoring
for students falling behind in the “D and F” courses like
chemistry, math, physics and biology.
The center, whose motto is “Let your efforts rise above
your excuses,” also offers an array of brochures, with titles
like “Test Anxiety—Tips for Success,” “Making the Grade as a
FreshmanWho Lives Off-Campus,” and “Learn about Getting
Organized.”
The centerpiece of the East Carolina retention
effort, however, is the freshman seminar, a one-
hour-credit course offered in the fall and spring that
typically draws more than a third of ECU’s 3,600
freshmen. Admission is by self-selection, and the
course is taught by instructors who apply for the
job. Most sections of the course are offered to all
freshmen, but one is designed for first-generation
students, and some are reserved for freshmen who
live off-campus nearby or who commute from
home.
ECU, which has a waiting list of students who
want to move on campus, long ago concluded that
living off-campus was another possible impediment
to retention. “Students who live off-campus are
the first to say, ‘We aren’t plugged in like the kids
on campus,’” said Kris Smith. “There’s a whole
socialization that happens in residence halls that
doesn’t happen off campus.”
Topics in the freshman seminar include
understanding the transition fromhigh school to
college, motivation, goal-setting, learning styles,
memory development, listening and note-taking,
Many entering freshmen are not prepared for
rigorous college work, says Jayne Geissler, director
of East Carolina’s Academic Advising and Support
Center, which tries to help students survive the
difficult first weeks.
Faculty and staff advisors, as well as student friends, helped East Carolina
sophomore Lauren Moscar deal with the breakup of a long relationship with
her boyfriend in Stem, North Carolina, her home town.