To Include is To Excel: SOAR Workshops
In the first two years of the To Include is To Excel initiative, St. Olaf College faculty and staff members have developed nearly 50 grant-funded projects to support inclusive teaching and learning. We’re highlighting these projects in a new series — and we hope that hearing about this work in the words of fellow faculty and staff members will inspire you to think about how you can be part of creating a more inclusive and equitable campus community.
To ensure that all students have the knowledge to participate fully in the St. Olaf College experience, Director of Advising and Academic Support Kathy Glampe ’92 and Piper Center for Vocation and Career Director Leslie Moore ’77 developed and piloted an extended orientation workshop for first-year students.
The goal of the St. Olaf Orientation to Academics and Resources (SOAR) workshop is to increase retention rates, knowledge of college resources and expectations, and understanding of the importance of engagement in high-impact practices.
Glampe and Moore share what they learned in developing this To Include is To Excel project and what they hope the community takes away from it:
What led you to develop this project?
Both the Piper Center for Vocation and Career and the Center for Advising and Academic Support (CAAS) are student-facing. We see students every day and learn about their experiences at college — both what is going well and where students are struggling. Through these interactions, we know that the transition from high school to college tends to be difficult for all students, typically for different reasons. And tough initial transitions can affect students’ progress during their entire time at college. A stumble with students’ GPA in the first year may affect opportunities for internships, jobs, and other opportunities later on. Not finding one’s niche or not feeling as if one belongs can lead to a student transferring or withdrawing from college. Thus, we wanted to provide an extended orientation to first-year students to help them transition more smoothly to St. Olaf and to learn about the fantastic resources available to help them thrive during their time here.
“Because students in transition have different challenges, an orientation like SOAR will need to cover many different topics — study strategies, time management, belonging, loneliness, privilege, financial literacy, availability of resources, vocational exploration, and ‘nuts and bolts,’ such as how to prepare for registration.”
What did you learn — about yourselves, your students, your colleagues, the St. Olaf community — as you began working on this project?
Although we know we work with amazing, committed colleagues, we were delighted by how ready our colleagues were to lead a SOAR group — in the evenings! Professionals from so many areas stepped in to lead a group: Carly Eichhorst (Financial Aid), Tim Schroer (Dean of Students Office), Jon Mergens (Taylor Center), Antonia Grant (International and Off-Campus Studies), Joe Young (CAAS), Stacey Longwich (Alumni and Parent Relations), and this year, Maria Pabon (Taylor Center), Emily Foster (Athletics), Steve Lindley (Financial Aid), and Tara Hupton (CAAS).
Other key takeaways:
- SOAR is a powerful recruiting tool for coaches; parents are excited about the support for their students.
- We learned to identify new signs that students are struggling (e.g., drop off in attendance or erratic attendance at SOAR).
- Students are hungry to develop relationships with each other. The social aspect of SOAR was more important than we initially realized or planned for.
- We employed sophomore students as Peer Leaders in SOAR. Their having a meaningful leadership role with regular (weekly) guidance is another huge benefit of SOAR.
What do you hope students and other members of the St. Olaf community take away from this work?
- Piloting SOAR confirmed our understanding that the transition from high school to college is difficult.
- We can’t assume that our students will learn about college culture and the “hidden curriculum,” as well as all of St. Olaf’s policies, procedures, and ways of doing things, without a structured orientation to the culture of a liberal arts college.
- There is a lot to learn, and given the increased importance of co-curricular experiential learning (internships, research, practica, and so forth), students need to acclimate themselves to college very quickly and understand the study skills and resources that will enable them to flourish in college.
- Because students in transition have different challenges, an orientation like SOAR will need to cover many different topics — study strategies, time management, belonging, loneliness, privilege, financial literacy, availability of resources, vocational exploration, and “nuts and bolts,” such as how to prepare for registration.
- SOAR delivered results:
- Students who attended SOAR had a higher average first-year GPA than those in the control group who didn’t attend SOAR.
- Students who attended SOAR had a significantly higher rate of retention from first year to sophomore year than those in the control group who didn’t attend SOAR.
- Providing opportunities for students to connect with each other and a sophomore Peer Leader is a critical part of adjusting to life in college.
How can the St. Olaf community support your project?
- Develop an awareness of the kinds of challenges that first-year students experience when transitioning to college and look for signs of students who are struggling.
- Support first-year students by getting to know them and asking them how things are going.
- Remind students of the many resources available to them and encourage them to use those resources.
Where does your work go from here?
Based on what we learned, we are already piloting SOAR for a second year, and we are experimenting with a different structure. This year, we expanded our partnership to include María Pabón and the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion. Although Athletics was involved in our initial pilot, this year Emily Foster — the Volleyball Coach and Athletics’ Senior Women’s Administrator — has been an integral part of the SOAR planning team. Visiting Assistant Professor of Romance Languages Carla Manzoni also joined the team this year to provide additional faculty input.
The second phase of the pilot increased the number of students whom we invited to attend: in addition to all first-year athletes, we invited first-generation students and domestic students of color. Each of the seven SOAR topics is now introduced by an expert in the content of that session, with the second half of each session led by a sophomore Peer Leader working with a small cohort of first-year students during Community Time.
We are considering proposing a third-year pilot of SOAR to continue to refine the model.
Our ultimate goal? We hope the faculty will approve SOAR as a required component of the General Education First Year Experience courses — the First Year Seminar and the Writing and Rhetoric courses.