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University promotes positive first-year experiences

Business professor Mandy Moore returns this semester from a year-long sabbatical with not only a doctoral degree but also a new position as the director of first year experience.

The job description states Moore “will provide leadership and coordination for the development and implementation of programs, curriculum, activities and events that support the holistic development and academic and personal success of our first-year students.”

Moore described the position as a bridge connecting all the University’s current efforts.

“The way I see this position is let’s bring all of us together from ERP all the way until students come back their sophomore
year,” she said. “Let’s bring all the key people to the table and let’s talk about the first year experience and how we can make sure [it is] effective for students.”

One way Moore accomplishes this goal is by coordinating the Gateway program. She will be in charge of selecting and training faculty to teach the courses, evaluating the program’s mission, goals and course design, and providing faculty feedback on student course evaluations.

Moore is already looking for ways to improve the program through an assessment program, smaller classes and changes in student mentoring.

The job also means coordinating first year advising. Moore will determine a mission for university advising as well as what students need from it, specifcally first year students trying to set up schedules and take responsibility for their courses.

However, Moore said this first year of the job will mostly be exploring and learning what first-year students need from the University. Already, Moore has picked up on trends from first generation students, or students whose parents did not graduate from college.

Moore plans on piloting a mentoring program this year that connects incoming first generation students with faculty and staff who were first generation students and completed their degree.

“Based on the information from the counseling center, talking to students who were first-generation, and listening to the students in my Gateway, I saw their family members didn’t really understand the stress of it,” Moore said. “One student told me their parent was encouraging them to take 20 credit hours, and it was because they had never been to college so they didn’t understand that it was incredibly overwhelming.”

Administration created the director of first year experience position as a response to certain goals from the University’s strategic plan.

Ed Ericson, vice president of academic affairs, said one of the major goals was to increase the six-year graduation rate to 70 percent.

“The graduation rate is pretty much baked in after the first year,” he said. “The percentage of the students who drop out is greatest in that first year. Then they tend to stay in higher percentages after that. If you are looking to improve that graduation rate, the key thing to improve is the freshman retention rate.”

As a consequence of that strategic decision, the institution planned to start a more intentional and explicit first year experience project. It also helped that the University already had an employee perfect for the job.

“Dr. Moore is obviously very talented and has a real heart for these sort of things,” Ericson said. “She has been studying these sorts of things as part of her graduate work, and as a consequence she seemed to be just a natural fit to move into that role.”

Both Moore’s personal experience and doctoral research all help make her this “natural fit.”

Moore attended the school her freshman year, but ended up telling her parents she wanted to leave during her spring semester. During that year Moore changed her major five times. She said she struggled finding her place in an academic sense and never formed relationships with professors. After two years at community college, Moore returned to the University as a transfer student.

“So I’ve been a freshman, but I’ve also been a transfer to JBU,” Moore said. “I feel like I know what that’s like.”

On top of her personal experience, almost all of Moore’s doctoral research focused on the first year student.

“Because it is very project-intensive when you are working on your coursework, I often picked things that related to the first year student and their learning, to kind of bridge that gap between high school and college learning,” she said.

For one of her major projects, Moore taught her professors and classmates how to design an effective first-year seminar, much like Gateway. She taught them about student expectations, challenges and processes for selecting and training faculty to teach these courses—which is exactly what her job requires now.

When it came to her dissertation, Moore knew she wanted to focus on the first year student again. She looked for a gap in the research and decided to look at the effects of participating in an honors program in the first year of college.

In April, Moore’s dissertation earned her Outstanding Doctoral Student of the Year for her program.

“All my research and coursework really did focus on first-year students because that is the point at which a successful college career starts,” Moore said. “It’s the foundation, and often if they start out well they will end well. And I want to help students navigate that transition the best I can.”