Recognizing the need to better serve the transitional needs of incoming new students, Radford University created the Office of New Student Programs in the Fall of 1993. At a time in the university’s history where the retention of new students – those new freshmen who return for their second year — hovered around 66%, the charge for this new office was to create an intentional, comprehensive web of support to help new students find success, both in and out of the classroom. During the first year of operation, the director of the office examined campus climate, identified strengths (Quest orientation program), and participated in national meetings to study the growing movement on college campuses to identify the “Freshman Year Experience.”
Beginning in the Fall of 1995, New Student Programs (NSP) launched two major initiatives. Using an instrument called the College Student Inventory (CSI), each new freshman was matched with a faculty/staff mentor who interpreted their CSI score and talked with them about their entry experience. It included referrals to university resources, but primarily served as a vehicle for new students to “connect” to university personnel.
The second initiative was the delivery of a one-credit, pass-fail course entitled “UNIV100: Introduction to Higher Education.” This course, taught in residence hall classrooms, was a team effort; With a faculty/staff member and peer instructor sharing the classroom. New students were introduced to the goals of higher education, worked on developing academic skills, became aware of campus resources, and were encouraged through a variety of activities to become involved in campus life. From its modest start of 28 sections and approximately 500 students, this effort has grown to include 85% of each incoming new freshmen class (about 70 sections) and has grown in its complexity to include a speaker series entitled Success Starts Here, a custom designed RU specific textbook, community service component, and myriad partnerships with offices like Substance Abuse and Violence Education Support Services, Campus Police, Student Activities, Residential Life, Athletics, and the campus Library. This class which became a graded (A-F) class beginning in the fall of 1996 has become part of the fabric of RU. Since the initiation of UNIV100, the new student retention rate has averaged 76%. With the adoption of a card access system in the residence halls in the fall of 2008, the delivery of UNIV100 moved to campus classrooms.
Also in 1995, RU changed its academic probation/suspension standards. In an attempt to “raise the bar” for academic performance for new students, a “New Student Suspension” policy requiring students to have a minimum achievement of a 1.25 GPA or higher during their first semester was instituted. This standard, which still exists, as the only one of its kind in the Virginia four-year college system, was an attempt to try to engage students from day one about the importance of making academic progress. Recognizing that the transition to college is difficult, an academic recovery program entitled SORTS (Students on the Road to Success) was put in place to allow students a contracted second opportunity – an “exception to suspension.” Coupled with programs such as UNIV100, it fit well into RU’s mission of “challenging but supporting” its new freshmen. Beginning with the spring 2012 semester, SORTS is moving to a new home in the Office of Student Success.
Quest, Radford’s summer orientation program for new freshmen, originated in 1979. It continues to serve the university well in providing students and their families with a better understanding of the university, allowed students to register for classes, and supported the business affairs side of the university as well. Over the years, orientation programs for transfer students and fall/spring admits have been refined and developed to support the transitional needs of all students.
Through constant assessment and evaluations, NSP has continued to develop and implement new initiatives. We have conducted entry academic interventions in a contracted program (FIRST), engaged in community programming with Residential Life, collaborated on a pre-school wilderness experience (Higher Ground), developed integrated living-learning communities (RU Connections), started gathering new freshmen on the opening welcome for an inspirational “New Student Welcome”, and have participated in numerous campus committees to collaborate on improving the campus environment.
One of the strengths of our efforts and a life-line to our success is the selection and development of student leaders. Every program we oversee involves paid student leadership positions. These students, representing the very best that Radford has to offer, teach in the classroom, counsel students with academic difficulties, reassure and orient new students to the opportunities and expectations of RU, and serve as “role models” for the type of citizens and students RU produces.
Ultimately, everything that New Student Programs engages in is designed to help student find success. Helping with transition, helping students who have stumbled academically, encouraging and developing emerging leaders, are all objectives of NSP which are in full support of the university “7-17” strategic plan. Forging a Bold Future is built on the strength of existing initiatives and none is more important than helping students in transition, developing student leaders, and providing a campus foundation which leads students to graduation and future success.