Fostering Persistence

Striding across a stage to the strains of a triumphant march, diploma in hand — a moment every undergraduate imagines.

Valparaiso University wants to ensure that all of its students reach that goal. Its Persistence and Success Program, funded by the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, draws on Valpo’s longstanding tradition of faculty mentoring, but it is a model for support that goes beyond traditional academic advising. The PSP strives to help incoming students adjust to life on campus and stay on the path to graduation.

Open to Indiana residents who receive Frank O’Bannon Grants and 21st Century Scholarships from the ICHE, the program focuses on the transition to college, academic and social support, career preparation, and financial literacy. As of 2015, the program is underway with about 51 faculty and staff mentors and 65 first-year students participating.

Because the freshman year is such a critical period of transition, much of the effort is concentrated on first-year students. Participants who complete the program during the 2015-16 academic year will receive a $500 scholarship for their sophomore year at Valpo.

“A number of factors can be stumbling blocks for students,” says Assistant Dean Nancy Scannell of the College of Arts and Sciences, who serves as the principal investigator for the grant-funded project. “This program brings together resources that can help students overcome these obstacles.”

The PSP offers the following support systems:

  • Monthly meetings with faculty or staff mentors who have undergone special training in persistence coaching

  • Enrollment in the academic-skills course, Strategies for Academic Success

  • Participation in SMART Connections, a peer-mentoring program offered by Valpo’s Office of Multicultural Programs

  • Meetings with a financial-aid counselor during the fall and spring semesters

  • Identification of special talents with the Career Center’s “Strength Quest” assessment

  • Participation in Career Center activities with persistence mentors

Associate Professor of Social Work Matthew Ringenberg serves as a persistence mentor and notes that while persistence mentoring overlaps with traditional academic advising, its scope is much broader.

Persistence mentors aim to create a dialogue with students, to support and encourage them, and to help them troubleshoot problems — to address social, financial, and emotional issues as well as academic ones. They can help the student understand unfamiliar aspects of academic life, deciphering jargon and illuminating conventions that are opaque to the uninitiated.

“Feeling isolated or unconnected is one of the biggest factors in a student’s decision to drop out,” Professor Ringenberg explains. “Part of our job is simply to be a friendly presence on campus, to establish a sense of connection.”

Professor Ringenberg has a further interest in the program. It dovetails nicely with a research project — a longitudinal study of students’ adaptation to life at the University that he has undertaken with Associate Professor of Sociology Lissa Yogan. Participation in the Persistence and Success Program may be added as a variable to this year’s data.

Dean Scannell has high hopes for the program and would love to expand it. “Our goal is to do this for all our students.”