By Libby Campbell, senior reporter
Two of the four finalists for the position of vice provost respectively spoke at open forums last week to inform the Eastern community about their previous experiences with student retention, an area that is overseen by the vice provost position.
Dr. Michelle Kempke Eppler, current dean of continued and professional education at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb., is one of the four final candidates for the position.
“I look at student success and student experience as being from cradle to grave,” Kempke Eppler said. She said it starts the moment a student first steps foot on campus, so she has helped work to restructure her current institution’s orientation program.
When Kempke Eppler inherited the new student orientation at Bellevue University, turnout was low from both student and faculty members.
“We had maybe 20 to 30 new students and maybe three to four faculty members who attended. And maybe the students met one other student,” she said. “I was less than excited about the new student orientation I inherited. The first thing I did was reach out to students.”
Kempke Eppler said that through activities like tours, scavenger hunts and game shows, they created a more memorable and helpful experience.
“The one thing I didn’t want our new student orientation to be, nor did our students, was where they sat … listening to a figurehead talk to them,” she said. “We did everything we could within our budget and our own personal donations to make this experience the best introduction to what the Bellevue experience could be.”
Kempke Eppler has undertaken several projects while at Bellevue, including redesigning the student handbook, which increased circulation from 1,000 to 6,200 copies as of 2009. She helped launch the Virtual Center of Student Engagement to reach online students and those who were not physically on campus often.
Most of these initiatives were part of a three-year retention plan she put together after looking at the university’s strategic plan.
Under this plan, dropouts from traditional cohort programs decreased 20 percent in 2008, and there was a 6.9 percent conferral increase for seniors in 2010.
“We had a first year problem, and we had a senior problem. We had students with 127 credits who weren’t conferred,” she said.
A conferral is the awarding of a degree.
“That’s a large number of conferrals in there that we were able to push through. Not changing any of the quality or any of the standards, just looking at our systems and going, ‘What happened?’ Everybody was really happy when we uncovered that and were able to really make a difference.”
Kempke Eppler called this job opening, “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“When I first saw this position being posted, I thought it was written for me, I was so excited about it.” she said. “From all the assessments I’ve been given, I do seem to come up as a transformational leader, and I know that one of the things that Eastern does is transform its students into becoming great citizens for the state of Washington, and I’d like to participate.”
Dr. Charles Lopez, assistant dean of student affairs for support services at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, is another candidate for the vice provost position who spoke at an open forum last week.
“Just like cards, letters and parcels, our students are packaged differently. They come in different shapes, sizes, colors, different skills and abilities,” Lopez said. “However, it’s the postage that gets the cards, letters and parcels to their final destination. For our students, it’s the educational and support services that assist our students in getting to their final academic or personal destinations.”
Lopez has a wide variety of experience working on college campuses. He has worked in disability student services, new student orientation, student employment, academic advising, veteran student services, career counseling and leadership development, just to name a few.
“I’ve engaged in retention efforts both on the academic affairs and the student affairs sides of the house. Many of my roles on campus have actually been bridging the gap between academic affairs and student affairs,” he said.
Lopez talked about how universities and students can often gauge success differently.
“The university’s definition of success includes: What’s our retention rate? What’s our graduation rate? What’s the students’ GPA? How many students do we admit to graduate school? All very quantitative. We need to know the students’ perspective on success.”
He said students often see success as accomplishing personal goals, gaining a degree, finding independence, making friends, developing a career and finally getting a job.
“The students’ definitions and our definition may not always be aligned. We’re not going to be able to move away from our legislator’s definition of student success, but we also need to take into consideration the students’ definition. If we’re going to be proactive in addressing this retention, what we’re going to have to do is really understand why the students leave, why they stay and how we can improve that relationship.”
Lopez said he is pleased with what he has learned about Eastern so far.
“As I’ve looked at Eastern’s website, as I’ve talked to people today, what I’ve seen is Eastern definitely has very strong first class academic programs and services,” Lopez said. “You’re on the right track, and I definitely want to be a part of that team.”