At South, Student Success is a Team Effort
Posted on October 21, 2020
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States earlier this year, the many offices that support students at South needed to band together to ensure that academics and student support would continue uninterrupted. Fortunately, they already had plenty of experience.
“During this health crisis, we have advised and tutored via Zoom and, depending on the project for a study session, we share documents with the student via email,” said Dr. Nicole Carr, associate vice president for student academic success at USA. “Virtual study sessions have been a huge benefit to students. Students can sign up on specific days of the week, set goals, and our advisors check on their progress. We are here to make sure students don’t fall behind.”
Even before the pandemic, the collaborative efforts under Academic Affairs and Financial Affairs aimed at supporting students in a holistic manner were already in place. In fact, all units within Academic Success work together to strengthen the experience of USA students. The pandemic simply brought this collaboration into focus.
“When I think about the different units that support students, I am struck by how much this has become a campus effort,” Carr said. “When I started in this position 10 years ago, our main goal was helping students improve their performance, and supporting access and success. Now we also focus on attending to our student’s basic needs in addition to making sure they achieve academic success and complete their degrees.”
Those basic needs have included helping students pay a bill, or secure housing and food. Students are supported by a number of offices that combine to eliminate the gaps where a student can lose their way. These include Advising, Housing, and the Center for Academic Excellence, along with a relatively new resource called One-Stop, which fields student questions on any topic and directs them to the right place for solutions. One-Stop also houses the South Cares program, which connects students with financial need to sources of assistance.
“We have a fair number of students who have a gap between expenses and what their financial aid will cover,” said Carr. “Our need-based support contributes to some of that gap, allowing for students to continue studying at South Alabama.”
The ultimate goal of the academic success team is to help students stay in school and finish their degrees. And their efforts are paying off. USA’s fall 2019 freshman cohort recorded South’s second-highest one-year retention rate of 76 percent, meaning that more than three-quarters of freshman students returned for their second year.
“We are here to support and stay engaged with our students,” Carr said. “The Student Success team is working together to transform lives and prepare students for graduation and their future careers.
Meet the Student Success Team
The USA advising team communicates with students throughout the academic year, helping them manage any issues while studying at South. Advising is where students get critical information that will help them decide on a major, and make decisions about their college course work. According to Catherine Preston, director of academic advising and transfer services, she and her team are focusing on early contact and a continued connection with students throughout their college experience.
“As advisors and advocates, we want to ensure students connect to the person/office they need,” she said. “We also want students to learn how to successfully navigate the University. Advisors also refer students to many support services. We want students to know there is a security net in place for them at South.”
Since COVID-19, Preston and her team have supported a higher number of student appointments online. Advisors are willing to meet students when and where they need support and guidance.
Life happens and financial circumstances provide many challenges for students. The added stress can affect the student's overall study and college experience. The One-Stop team led by Dr. Brooke Moore, director of student financial success and support services, and Julie Schwindt, associate vice president, finance and administration, makes things easier by acting as a resource to connect students to assistance on any issue. This office also oversees the South Cares financial assistance program.
“This generation of students is dealing with financial instability on a large scale. They grew up in a recession-era and their financial need is much greater,” said Moore. “When you add a pandemic to that, it increases the problem. One-Stop is an awareness umbrella that connects students to emerging financial resources such as retention grants, emergency loans and gap scholarships.”
Through One-Stop/South Cares, which launched in fall 2019, students can securely submit a form, share what their needs are and receive assistance for basic needs like groceries, rent and travel. This office also distributed student funds received from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
There’s an abundance of benefits to students living in on-campus USA Housing, and studies show that students have better academic success living on campus than those who live off-campus.
“We have created a dynamic campus experience,” said Dr. James Bridgeforth, outgoing director of USA Housing. “Housing has become more than a place to sleep, rest, and study. It’s now a foundation of how students experience college, how they develop who they are becoming, and gain academic success.”
The multifaceted effort for Housing includes collaborative support from a faculty-in-residence, the Student Government Association, USA Student Affairs and the Academic Success team. The student experience in Housing is also helping to retain students.
Center for Academic Excellence
Students are told they can “learn anything” at the USA Center for Academic Excellence, which provides important resources to all students to help them achieve success.
“We have developed several academic services to help students excel at South,” said Dr. Frank Ard, associate director of academic success. “The Center for Academic Excellence offers tutoring for a variety of subjects, including math and the sciences, as well as the USA Writing Center. Peer academic coaching, mentoring and study sessions help students engage better with their course work.”
Ard and his team of coordinators, tutors, and coaches have developed new programs such as Study Smart, which offers weekly guided study sessions that have been popular with students.
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