Sometimes in life, you don’t know what you don’t know. Such is the case for first-year college students. Just ask Yilani Adams ’25.
He moved 500 miles away from his hometown of Providence, RI, to attend Canisius. Certainly, Adams anticipated having to adapt to a new school, in a new city and become familiar with new places and faces in unfamiliar living and learning environments. But left to navigate for himself, Adams acknowledges he likely wouldn’t have fared as well as he has.
“My transition from high school to college has definitely been smoother than I thought it would be,” Adams says. “From day one, I felt like Canisius was here for me and that it had all kinds of people and resources in place to make sure I succeed.”
Adams attributes his ease into college to Canisius’ First Year Experience (FYE).
The semester-long, one credit course takes a holistic approach at acclimating first-year students to the college environment. It’s an onboarding, of sorts, that promotes academic success, builds a sense of belonging and fosters student health and wellness. And though FYE is optional for incoming students, it has a near 100 percent opt-in rate.
“FYE is a very intentional effort to make sure that every student starts their academic careers at Canisius on equal footing and aware of the academic expectations at the college level – no matter where they’re from or what kind of high school education they received,” explains Jennifer A. Desiderio, PhD, associate professor of English and FYE co-director. “What they learn in this course lays the foundation for their entire undergraduate experience.”
Classes meet for 50 minutes each week and group students according to major. A cross-section of faculty and administrators lead the primary learning objectives, first acquainting students with the tenets of a Canisius education: intellectual inquiry, Ignatian spirituality and a commitment to justice. Facilitators then introduce students to the assorted support services – academic and otherwise – available to undergraduates (page XX). These services are more than a perk for students, stresses Tracy L. Callaghan ’93. The associate director of academic achievement and FYE co-director underscores, “They can literally mean the difference between earning a degree and dropping out.”
Biology major Yusuf Hashmi ’25 was reassured to learn a tutoring center, writing center and academic workshops were among the support services available to him outside of class. He was similarly relieved to find out that, as a first-year student, he has a designated peer mentor.
“Peer mentors are upperclassmen who give advice and guidance but from the perspective of an experienced Canisius student,” Hashmi says. “They’re usually the first person who first-year students contact when they have questions and that’s nice to have.”
With assistance from his peer mentor, Hashmi is learning how to read a syllabus, register for spring classes and conduct a degree audit, which helps determine what classes to take and when those classes are available. Beyond the nuts-and-bolts, peer mentors work alongside course facilitators to teach students essential time management tactics, note taking techniques and test taking strategies.
“These are the academic survival skills that every Canisius student needs to succeed,” Callaghan says. “So we tell first-year students to think of the FYE as their life jacket. We’re not going to let you sink.”
Indeed, there is a weight of evidence to suggest that when colleges and universities invest in first-year programs, the returns are high.
“Students earn higher grades, have higher year-to-year persistence rates and are increasingly likely to be retained through graduation,” notes Mark R. Harrington, EdD, MS ’10, assistant vice president for student development and academic success. “They’re also likely to develop more significant connections with their professors and peers and therefore, more likely to become involved in the life of the campus.”
As robust as the First Year Experience is, it is just the first layer of a new, wrap-around student support system, which Harrington employed upon his 2018 arrival at Canisius.
Following an audit of the college’s long-standing student success operations, Harrington implemented a proactive advising model in the Griff Center for Student Success. This model takes a preemptive approach by anticipating and eliminating roadblocks and barriers to student achievement. Essential to this new approach are Student Success Teams, which Harrington says, “serve in the spirit of cura personalis by providing consistent and intentional engagement with students based upon where they are in their college careers.”
Every undergraduate student is paired with a four-person student success team. Each team consists of an academic advisor, a financial aid advisor, a success coach and a career coach.
Faculty members serve as academic advisors, and guide students on major requirements and course registration to ensure they remain on the right educational path. Financial aid advisors avail themselves to questions related to federal, state and Canisius scholarships, grants and loans.
Should students exhibit academic or behavioral concerns, an ‘early alert system’ notifies success coaches so they can intercede with care management, practically in real-time.
“If a student’s grades start to slip or a student is increasingly absent from class, professors and administrators can document the concern in a centralized database (iAdvise),” explains Jennifer J. Herrmann MS ’07, associate dean of student success. The same is true, she continues, if a student appears to be experiencing personal difficulties such as issues related to mental health, identity or food insecurity. “Once the concerns are documented in iAdvise, an automatic notification is sent to the success coach who then reaches out to the student directly to discuss what’s going on and offer options for support services, either on campus or off.”
Matthew O’Hara ’22 didn’t realize it then but the outreach he received from his success coach in fall 2020 helped turn his college career around.
The philosophy major was struggling with anxiety issues, which the onset of Covid exacerbated. He started to skip classes and his grades slumped. O’Hara’s success coach intervened and he received professional help off-campus. During his semester away, the coach stayed in touch with O’Hara and when he returned to Canisius in spring 2021, she was there to support him in his academic recovery.
“We met on a weekly basis to discuss my assignments, any upcoming tests or projects and anything else I wanted,” O’Hara recalls. “She kept me accountable and I really needed that.”
O’Hara currently works as a research assistant in the Philosophy Department. He earned a spot on the Dean’s List last spring and is on track to graduate in February 2022. O’Hara is now contemplating graduate school - with the assistance of his career coach, the fourth member of the student success team.
Much like the title implies, career coaches assist students in their job or graduate school exploration, resume building, interviewing, and internship and job searches. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, career coaches at Canisius meet students at the onset of their college careers, rather than at the end.
Deu A. Awuok ’21 began meeting regularly with his career coach the summer after his freshman year. The economics and finance major wanted to gain professional experience in the competitive field of investment banking but first, he had to hone a few skills.
Awuok’s career coach worked with him to draft a resume and cover letter. She mentored him on interview strategies and ways to leave a lasting impression on potential employers.
“I always felt awkward telling my story and speaking about my strengths but my coach worked with me on how to properly introduce myself. She helped me develop a strong ‘elevator pitch’ and gave me a framework for how to answer questions confidently and concisely,” Awuok says. “Then we just practiced, practiced, practiced.”
All that practice paid off.
Awuok had his pick of internship opportunities by the following summer. And continued to each summer thereafter. Those opportunities led him to UBS in New York City, where Awuok works as an investment banking analyst for the Swiss-owned firm.
“As a young college student, it’s tough to get professional experience in your field when you have no experience to begin with. It’s even more difficult if you don’t know how to write a proper resume or cover letter, how to interview or how to network,” says Awuok. “So many students don’t know what they don’t know but if they’re open to letting the professionals at Canisius help them, they’ll go far.”
In fact, it is the academic and student affairs professionals, whose combined and complementary efforts to modernize the student experience, are changing outcomes in significant ways and getting students across the finish line at Canisius.
“Students realize that Canisius is a personal place, and our faculty and staff care about students inside and outside of the classroom,” concludes Mark Harrington. “People know who they are. Students know they’re not a number. They’re people with passions and we’re going to help them ignite those passions so they’re successful as they go forth to pursue their profound purpose.”