Within the academy, I suspect there is another problem: there is often too narrow a view as to what constitutes optimal engagement. Many colleges (and I would guess many parents of first generation students) think that early student engagement must be with professors and must occur in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, when this works, it is amazing. Students who initially find their way by connecting with professors are fortunate, and their college retention is optimized. Indeed, we offer a first year course (titled Quest for Success) specifically designed to facilitate this happening. And, as odd as this will sound coming from a college president with years as a tenured law professor, I suspect that optimal connections for many vulnerable students will most effectively occur initially outside the classroom, and we need to recognize, respect and adapt to this reality. Think about how on many campuses, students really do not get quality non-academic engagement until their junior and senior years. In fact, I think that nationally, we overtly discourage early student participation outside the classroom by suggesting that students need to settle into their academic life as a first step.
Based on this description alone, one might think the volleyball games would be non-competitive and the student-athletes discouraged. Nothing could be further from the truth. These players are having fun; they are cheering each other at every turn. They are providing encouragement when they make a good play, and they are lifting each other up when there is a misstep. They’re energized, and they play as a team. In short, the SVC men’s volleyball team is doing themselves and SVC proud each and every game.
It is time to rethink that paradigm. For many students, engagement starts with participation in a drama production, a poetry reading, playing in a band, game-management within the athletic department. These all create a structure where a student can “find a home.” Athletics is one very good example of engagement, and some early data regarding student success at Southern Vermont College show that while first generation students are the most vulnerable students in terms of withdrawal and dismissal rates, first generation students who are involved in athletics outperform their first gen peers who are not involved in athletics. Let’s use Southern Vermont College’s men’s volleyball team as an example of the value of student engagement. The team has many young players, some of whom are playing this sport for the first time. With a small bench, the SVC players get almost no rest. The team’s schedule is tough, featuring not only our conference teams but MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), ranked 13th in the nation.
Which is why engagement of any sort helps. It enables students to find a landing place – a place where friends with similar interests may be located. It provides an adult mentor (a coach, a conductor, a director) who is overseeing the activity and can ground the student both for the activity itself and within the larger community. Also, many of these engagement opportunities build camaraderie and school spirit. In short, all engagement opportunities create something like a mini-family and that familylike structure benefits all students, particularly those who are vulnerable. For Hispanic students, where notions of family are often deeply embedded, entry into collegiate activities, like athletics, can help with retention and curb withdrawal from school. Short versus long-term It’s obvious that we need to search for long-term strategies to promote Hispanic student success in higher education – ones that can become embedded in K -16 education. If we don’t, we will fail to achieve President Obama’s quest for more college graduates by 2020. But, we also need some shorter-term tactics that can help vulnerable students today. If we don’t, we’ll have a generation of individuals who can’t find quality jobs in today’s workplace. To adapt an old adage, we need both to win the battle and win the war. Neither alone will suffice.
Southern Vermont College’s new men’s volleyball coach, Carmine Garofalo, who has brought 20 years of experience and numerous tournament championships including a spot in the Final Four Southern Region while coaching at Florida International University, meets with his team during practice
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