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Building an Equity-Minded Pathway for Transfer Students
Governors State University (GSU) has served as an academic home to traditionally underserved students since its founding in 1969. Established as an upper-division institution that served only juniors and seniors at the undergraduate level, in 2014 GSU underwent an institutional transformation into a comprehensive residential four-year institution. However, 95 percent of our new students continue to be transfer students who are thirty-one years old on average, are likely to be single heads of households, and are most likely enrolled part-time (taking approximately nine credit hours per semester).
Our current strategic plan reiterates GSU’s commitment to ensuring an accessible and high-quality education to underrepresented and historically underserved students. Our vision statement expresses that GSU will be an intellectually stimulating public square, serve as an economic catalyst for our region that primarily includes Chicago and its south suburbs, and lead as a model of academic excellence, innovation, diversity, and responsible citizenship. These words guide GSU’s efforts and speak to our core values through tumultuous and uncertain times. For instance, in the face of stagnant economic growth and a decline in the middle class in our service region, many other institutions have rolled back programs and services.
However, GSU continues to invest in student success. As an example, GSU has been recognized for its innovative and highly structured cohort-based lower-division program where freshmen are taught by full-time faculty (Flaherty 2016).
Consistent with our commitment to serving the underserved, GSU has worked to provide a growing number of underrepresented first-year, first-time, and first-generation college students with all the benefits of a university education—experiences that students from more privileged backgrounds take for granted.
As part of the reimagining of programs and services for our transfer students and for our rising juniors, GSU recently launched the Center for the Junior Year. The center serves as a vibrant intellectual hub designed to transition students into signature work in their majors. In addition to the center, junior seminars were also established for each academic program to help students interrogate their major, not merely explore it. Junior seminars, envisioned as a cornerstone experience for juniors, are designed to be writing intensive and are offered in the first semester of a transfer student’s enrollment.
Both the junior seminar and the Center for the Junior Year are crucial to realizing our campus goals for our partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in their Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project. GSU’s overall equity project is to ensure that African American students, specifically African American transfer students, are successfully retained and persist on to graduation. By disaggregating our campus data, the campus planning team developed the following action plan goals:
- Implement equity-minded practices with the goal of closing student success gaps of African American transfer students
- Develop and offer quality high-impact practices in the junior year of study
- Create and assess signature assignments that focus on the junior seminar’s social responsibility learning outcome
- Increase internship opportunities and workforce preparation for rising juniors converging from general education coursework, our dual degree program, and transfer students from community colleges
Given our designation as a completion college (Johnson and Bell 2014) and emphasis on social justice, the campus planning team focused our project on the dual emphasis of faculty development for teaching diverse populations and providing academic support to students in their junior year of college.
While peer institutions can adopt the methods we used to scale up our work, the lessons learned by the campus planning team are equally valuable:
- Principles of equity-minded practices challenged traditional notions of “fairness.” Shifting to equitable outcomes caused a great deal of tension that required deeper conversations in the faculty development workshops beyond those that were initially planned. The campus planning team redesigned our Inclusive Excellence workshops and restructured mini-grant funding to integrate equity-minded practices into all our goals.
- Lead change, don’t simply manage change. Advancing innovation on a campus amidst major transformation, and in uncertain financial times, proved to be challenging. In this environment, the planning team has worked to increase faculty buy-in. Nonetheless, the planning team is confident that momentum can be sustained by leveraging partnerships with other groups doing related work throughout campus.
- Department and college leadership is vital. While there was support from the president and provost, the college and departmental leadership was not initially involved in this project. In hindsight, the project would have benefitted from the intentional inclusion of these critical campus leaders earlier in the project. Involvement from these campus leaders would have created more direct access to the faculty who can enact educational change in the junior and senior years of instruction. Accordingly, in our second year, we developed equity score cards for each junior seminar course and presented them to an audience of all college deans and department chairs. This presentation, entitled “Advancing Inclusive Excellence,” was very well received and immediately successful in garnering increased faculty participation. The response also resulted in an invitation from faculty leadership to have the campus planning team replicate this presentation to the faculty senate.
Overall, the campus planning team has worked to incorporate the lessons we learned into our project by (1) refining and refocusing goals for the excellence in equity project, (2) scaling our work beyond the classroom, and (3) integrating the excellence in equity project with other connected initiatives. Since social justice and student success are both key institutional values, the campus planning team is connecting equity efforts more intentionally with our student success initiative (funded by a Title III federal grant) and our Male Success Initiative (funded by the Kresge Foundation). Both initiatives have additional funding beyond 2018, when the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project formally ends.
Flaherty, Colleen. 2016. “For Freshmen, Only Full-Time Faculty.” Inside Higher Ed. March 22. https://www.insidehighered.com.
Johnson, Nate, and Alli Bell. 2014. Scaling Completion College Services as a Model for Increasing Adult Degree Completion. Indianapolis, Indiana: Lumina Foundation.
Aurélio Manuel Valente, Vice President for Student Affairs; Alicia L. Battle, Assistant Professor of Community Health; and Robert E. Clay, Director of Intercultural Student Affairs, all of Governors State University