Iowa State expands specialized support system to doctoral students, sophomores, veterans

Carlea Schuler

When a student first comes to Iowa State as a freshman, the university tries to give him or her a solid support system in order to retain as many first-year students as possible.

Today, new efforts are being made to retain as many doctoral students, sophomores and veterans by giving them an individual support system, too.

“Similar to how we have assisted first-year and undergraduate students in providing them support to help them increase retention and graduation, we need to do the same for doctoral students,” said Ann Gansemer-Topf, assistant professor of higher education in Iowa State’s School of Education. 

Anyone who works directly with students was invited to the 2014 Student Success Summit, which took place at the beginning of April. The goal of the summit was to allow faculty, staff and graduate students to build an understanding of retention and instructional learning outcomes as well as to encourage academic success.

Gansemer-Topf gave a keynote presentation at the summit. The main point of her presentation was that student success looks different across different populations. A person can look at an overall school retention rate, but if that person digs deeper, he or she will see that there are groups of students who may not be succeeding at the same rate.

Certain things might happen to students during their sophomore or junior year, and those students can receive support for those issues. The summit encouraged all who attended to expand support to the students through a variety of different ways.

“Support means academic support, extracurricular support, financial support and mental health, emotional support,” Gansemer-Topf said.

“We know learning communities work for undergraduate students,” Gansemer-Topf said. “It works because it puts students with similar interests in a community where they can talk about their experiences and help support each other.”

Learning communities are a way for students to make educational connections with other students, but they are usually directed toward first-year students. This year, the School of Education has created a learning community for doctoral students.

Just like in freshman orientation classes, support is given to doctoral students by helping them understand their expectations.

Gansemer-Topf said that in the learning community, a first-year doctoral student can connect with a third-year doctoral student and figure out what to expect in the years to come.

Anne Foegen is the advisor for the School of Education’s doctoral learning community. She worked with two doctoral students last summer to create a proposal for competitive awards through the graduate school to support new graduate learning communities.

The learning community has administered surveys to assess the needs of the doctoral students, invited guest speakers to meet with the learning community, hosted peer-mentoring sessions and hosted social events such as picnics and bowling.

“We try to foster a sense of community among the doctorate students,” Foegen said.

The College of Engineering has a new learning community as well, called the sophomore success learning community. The group meets twice a week, and is focused around a one-credit course, University Studies 201. Students are encouraged to be in the course while in the learning community, but it is not required.

The students in the learning community can choose to attend tutoring sessions, job shadowing programs, networking events with professionals and meetings with peer mentors.

The College of Engineering will be starting an industrial mentoring program in fall 2014 to connect alumni with the learning community.

The College of Human Sciences has a program called the CHS Multicultural Mentors, which is a select group of students who are mentors to a freshman group called Connect Four. The students in the multicultural mentors group provide academic support to the freshmen as well as engage in leadership development.

The group was created by Denise Williams, doctoral student in the School of Education, a few years ago.

The group attends monthly leadership development sessions, meets regularly with its Connect Four members one-on-one and attends the annual Mentor Leadership Retreat. The students in the multicultural program also do community service and have social events.

“We want to support our students, promote leadership development and help our students build community across the college,” Williams said.

The Veterans Center’s goal is to strengthen the lives of veterans, military personnel and their families in the community. It has been open for two years and is a place for veterans to connect with one another. It has Thursday dinners at the center and is hoping to coordinate a learning community for fall 2014.

Angie Mallory, graduate student in English, is the coordinator for the new veterans’ learning community. Mallory’s own experiences as a veteran and her interest in communication inspired her to coordinate an English class for the veterans’ learning community.

Over this summer, Mallory will be designing an English 250 course that will be linked with the veterans’ learning community. Anyone who associates with the veterans can join the English course and the learning community.

“We are also trying to get faculty and anyone who supports veterans involved to come and interact with the students,” Mallory said.

Mallory is coordinating with Jathan Chicoine, the first veteran service coordinator. Their plan is to use the English course as a way to bring veterans together who would not normally be together.

“They will find within that course that they do have things in common,” Mallory said.

Gansemer-Topf said that student involvement enhances their academic study. Most students come to a college for the educational aspect, but being involved in extracurricular groups adds that much more to a student’s overall experience.

Gansemer-Topf said the skills student gain from extracurricular activities will help them with their careers in the long run.

“Student success begins when they set foot on campus but needs to continue until they graduate,” Gansemer-Topf said.