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Dordt College is working harder than ever to help students succeed

By Sally Jongsma

Dordt has long been known as a place that cares about its students, and people on campus are known for their helpfulness and friendliness. This fall, Dordt's admissions office was contacted by the parents of a student who had enrolled elsewhere, but decided almost immediately after arriving on that campus that it was not the right decision. The parents said they were on the way to Dordt to enroll, if they could. By the time they arrived, later that day, the student was warmly welcomed, handed a schedule, taken to class, and shown to a room.

Director of Resident Life Robert Taylor (back left) meets weekly with Learning Community Assistants (front) Ben Christians and Jacob Kroeze.  Director  of the Academic Skills Center Pam De Jong (back center) also meets regularly with the group.

Director of Resident Life Robert Taylor (back left) meets weekly with Learning Community Assistants (front) Ben Christians and Jacob Kroeze. Director of the Academic Skills Center Pam De Jong (back center) also meets regularly with the group.

Caring for such needs means acting quickly and is relatively straightforward. Other needs take more planning and forethought on the part of professional staff at the college.

“We want to give all students the opportunity to be successful,” says Associate Provost for Co-Curricular Programs Bethany Schuttinga. “We are not hand-holding,” she is quick to point out. The goal is to provide, through student Learning Community Assistants (LCAs), one-on-one contact with all students who might be at risk so they know what types of assistance are available. Students must take responsibility for using the programs and services offered.

The new proactive approach to addressing the wide range of students’ needs grew out of recent administrative restructuring that gives responsibility for these programs to Schuttinga, who formerly held the title of Vice President for Student Services.

“It is usually more than academic ability that puts students at risk,” says Registrar Jim Bos. Students enter college with a variety of challenges that may make it difficult for them to succeed academically. For some, videos, computers, Facebook, or television get in the way. Most of those who face significant challenges also face a combination of factors such as learning disabilities (often undiagnosed), lack of family stability, financial concerns, and distance from home.

For the past several years Dordt has run a program called ASPIRE to give assistance to students who come in with test scores and GPA averages that are considered marginal for admission. Run through the Academic Skills Center and its director, Pam De Jong, ASPIRE tries to give motivated students who don’t meet regular admission standards a chance for a Dordt College education.

With the new emphasis, Schuttinga, Bos, and De Jong also look for such things as discrepancies between a student’s ACT score and GPA, and they note other factors that might put students at risk.

Early on, student LCAs meet one-on-one with students in the ASPIRE program, those on probation, those with known learning disabilities, and others whose academic profile might indicate a need for some assistance. They get to know each student, outline resources, and offer to help them set up a schedule or timeline that might help them get off to a good start.

In Schuttinga’s experience these peer relationships and the accountability that goes along with them are more helpful than having students relate only to professional staff.

“They are more willing to talk with peers about areas in which they are struggling,” she says.

Robert Taylor, the interim director of resident life, sums up the role of the LCAs as advocating for students before they even know they need an advocate.

“We encourage students to be who they are intended to be” which, at this point in their lives, is to be successful students, he says. That encouragement includes not only offering them assistance and pointing to services, but also challenging students and holding them accountable for commitments they’ve made.

Janna Postma meets with residents in East Hall regularly to keep in touch--sometimes to refer them to services, sometimes to offer assistance, sometimes to pray. It helps her stay aware of student needs.

Janna Postma meets with residents in East Hall regularly to keep in touch--sometimes to refer them to services, sometimes to offer assistance, sometimes to pray. It helps her stay aware of student needs.

Choosing the right students for these positions is important, according to Taylor, who describes this year’s assistants as well-spoken and well-respected, good students and good role models who live in the residence halls.

“We’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all model to one that is more individual and based on relationships,” says De Jong. She hopes that such relationships will help them note patterns and identify predictors for success.

Schuttinga adds, “We’re trying to create a good way for them to get information right from the start rather than having them have to look for it after they fail.” She gives an example of a first-year student who came to campus late as a result of an accident that has left him with a short-term disability and in need of extra assistance. His residence hall LCA pushed his wheelchair to get him to his first class and his Core 100 instructor gathered the rest of group to welcome him soon after he arrived.

The staff of the ASK Center and those on the Retention Council have long felt that many of the problems they had to deal with straddled the line between academics and student services. They believe that they can be most successful if they tackle problems on all fronts.

“Co-curricular experiences have a significant effect on academic success,” says Bos. “Every year I see students who have academic problems but whose root problem is more complex. When I attended Dordt, those students were simply dismissed.”

He and others want to provide another option for today’s students.