Michelle Cohenour

Season 3 - Episode 334

August 28, 2020

Michelle Cohenour
Michelle Cohenour

Student Success Initiatives at Baylor University walks alongside students to help them successfully navigate the incumbent challenges of the collegiate journey. In this Baylor Connections, Michelle Cohenour, Student Success Initiatives director, shares how SSI helps students from a variety of backgrounds be their best self, in and out of class, so they can find holistic success and make the most of their time at Baylor.

Transcript

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Derek Smith:

Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Michelle Cohenour of Student Success Initiatives. Michelle serves as Director of Student Success Initiatives, which is within Baylor's Paul L. Foster Success Center. Student Success Initiatives strives to positively impact the success of Baylor students by addressing their social, emotional, vocational, spiritual, and academic needs. Each of the areas within Student Success Initiatives, or in shorthand SSI, is designed to strengthen a student's transition, persistence, and retention, creating a more robust, coordinated care network for undergraduate students. Student success initiatives programs include Baylor Summer, New Student Experience, Transfer Student Success, First in Line, Pre-law, and VETS, Veterans Educational and Transition Services. Michelle Cohenour is Director of all that, and we appreciate in this busy time you coming on and joining us today. Michelle, thanks so much for joining us here on Baylor Connections.

Michelle Cohenour:

Oh, you bet, Derek. Thanks so much for having me today.

Derek Smith:

You guys, I was asking this a little off the air, but how nice is it for you to be able to see students back on campus and feel a little bit of that energy, even in a new normal that I know you and your staff enjoy working so much with students when they're there?

Michelle Cohenour:

Yes, we loved seeing students back on campus this week. It's just a different energy when our students are back. So, it's really made our hearts full this week to see the students and their families back on campus.

Derek Smith:

Well, Michelle, I'll use the shorthand, SSI, when we talk about Student Success Initiatives on occasion here as we visit, but I just shared the Cliffs Notes version of what you do, but could you take us inside the heart of the program a little bit and what living out your mission for students looks like?

Michelle Cohenour:

Absolutely. Our team works closely with all Baylor students through many of our programs. Some are specific to certain populations of students, and others span the whole entire university program. A few of those that span all campus are new student experience classes, Baylor Summer, our strategic initiatives, which are faculty progress reports, and also, our food pantry, that spans all of campus. That SSI really is for every student, both undergrad and graduate students. Our team works really diligently to be innovative with the work that we do. A unique thing about us is that we're set up to pivot quickly. If there's a new lead that arises on campus with our students, we can rally around that and I work to put energy, and time, and effort into developing those new programs. A couple of times a year, just to give an example of this, our team does a pulse check with ourselves. We take some time to step back and look holistically to think, okay, what are our students needing at this time, then how has God uniquely positioned us as a team to be able to meet that need? Recently, when our team did this, the last time we did that kind of brainstorming session and took a pause, something that emerged from that conversation was the word advocate. I think that's something that connects each of our programs that you'll hear about today, is advocacy for students, walking alongside students. But we do that fiercely, which is a word that arose out of that brainstorming session with the team, because we really want to make sure that we're doing that collaboration and communication, but to do that fiercely so that our students know they have, not just one, but many cheerleaders in their corner that are supporting their success at Baylor.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned working collaboratively. I know some of these programs were in different areas on campus over the years, how did all these different areas come together within the Success Center, and in what ways does bringing everyone under that roof really kind of, as you said, more comprehensively serve students?

Michelle Cohenour:

That's a great question. We're a newer office, this March will celebrate four years, our four year anniversary. But prior to that, probably six months before our office formed, there were lots of conversations about these offices of one. So, pre law, our VETS program, transfer were offices of one. These were staff members that were scattered about on campus, but we have a lot of interconnections with our students. So for instance, our vets population, 65% of our veteran population is first gen, almost 100% of our vets population is also transfer, so many interconnected identities. We had a brainstorming session and thought, what would it mean to pull all of these different offices of one together? It has been wonderful to have that energy, to have that collaboration with one another. So really, that's how our office was born, knowing that we had so many interconnections within the work that we did. It's been a great adventure pulling all of those offices of one together in one family.

Derek Smith:

Why don't we run down some of those programs here, just so you can give people, who might not know, a brief overview of them. We can start with Baylor Summer and then go on down through these others.

Michelle Cohenour:

Yeah, absolutely. I'd love to give just a little bit of a highlight because I could talk about many of these programs for a while because they're so rich in what they provide to the Baylor community. Baylor Summer is a great way for new students to jump start their Baylor career. We had a good group of our new students coming in this year, our fall 2020 start students that started with us in summer, and that's wonderful. They got their feet underneath them academically and are ready to start the fall semester. Baylor Summer is also a great opportunity for continuing students. With the discounted tuition prices in the summer, it's a great way for students to keep moving forward on a good pace to earn their degrees in four years or to get different certifications, minor courses out of the way. So it's a wonderful time for them to connect. Our team is very intentional about outreaching to students that may benefit from Baylor Summer. For instance, if a student needed to drop a course during the academic year or if they are not on progress to meet their cohort credit hours, meeting that 30 credit our mark as freshman, or 60 is sophomores. It's a great way for them to really jump back in and get back on track and keep moving forward to graduation. New Student Experience is also something that you mentioned at the top of the show. New Student Experience is a holistic way that we provide for our new students at Baylor and welcome them into the Baylor community. That spans Baylor Line Camp, and orientation, and Welcome Week. The piece that we are so thankful that we get to lead out on, is our new student experience classes. All of our new students that Baylor will take a course with a Baylor faculty member that is deeply committed to their success at Baylor. This year we have 58 courses with 190 sections. So, lots of options for our students to choose from with 120 NSC faculty members that are deeply committed to our new student success and helping our new students find their footing in the academic classroom and helping them to thrive along their Baylor journey, which we're very thankful for. Then Transfer Student Success is another area that our team leads out on providing support for. We have a living learning program that's specific for transfer year students. This is a wonderful community where those students can join together with other students that have started their academic journey at another institution and have transferred into Baylor. Our transfer students provide a rich depth of knowledge and insight about higher ed, but they're new to the Baylor community, so this is a wonderful opportunity for them to come in and have programs and services. They have a mentoring program that we're launching this fall for our new transfer students. They will have another transfer student that has walked this journey just a year or two before them that can be a soft place for them to land and ask questions when those come up. Another program that is also a soft place for students to land is our First in Line program. This is an opportunity for our first generation college students. These are students first in their family to earn a four year degree, to have a place to go, to ask questions, and to also have a place where they can begin to pride in their Baylor journey. We have a First in Line Success Academy, which has a scholarship component connected for students. This is a group of students that already met. They met last week and started to develop their cohort and just started their Baylor journey a little bit early, so that when they start their classes, they feel strong and ready to go, and feel like they have all that they need to be successful. So we're very thankful for the First in Line program. Then we do have a Pre Law program as well. This is a fun fact, we have over a thousand students at Baylor that are hoping to be future lawyers. So we have an attorney on our team, Ben Cooper, that helps students navigate that pathway to law school. We have a variety of options for students, including one-on-one advising and coaching as students are navigating and developing their personal statements to apply for law school. Then we also have a podcast called the Bears, the Bar, and beyond. It's a wonderful opportunity for students to download that podcast and hear from a variety of different law schools and also lawyers that are practicing in a variety of different fields. So, that's a great option for students. Then finally, our veterans program. We have a really robust program for our military connected students, and this is an opportunity, as these students are coming back many times from service, for them to dive into the Baylor community and develop a new chapter in their life for servant leadership. They oftentimes use the phrase from salutes to [inaudible] as students come in and have served [inaudible] joining the Baylor family. So it's a wonderful community. So that's just a quick highlight of the areas that we lead out on at Baylor.

Derek Smith:

Well, that is a great rundown here as we visit with Michelle Cohenour, Director of Student Success Initiatives here on Baylor Connections. Michelle, this is a bit of a broad question because you serve so many students of so many different backgrounds, but obviously you talk about helping meet their needs to aiding the transitions, what are some examples of, I don't know if challenges are the right word, but areas that you know you can especially be there for students as they make that transition to college? Again, I know there's so many different backgrounds that you all work with, that's probably a pretty broad question for an area that can go a lot of different directions.

Michelle Cohenour:

Sure, I think in a couple of examples that come to mind. One is our students that are food insecure. We did a study through our Institutional Research Office at Baylor recently and discovered that 15% to 25% of our students at Baylor struggle with some level of food insecurity, so not having access to three meals a day. That's important for students to be able to bring their best self to the classroom. So that's a challenge that we were able to identify with data and recognize that we needed to provide that additional support. We see providing food support very similar to providing tutoring and academic advising for the Success Center. It's all in that same family. Then the same for, I think the challenge that we noticed that our first gen students have, is just that feeling of finding their footing and feeling the understanding that they belong here at Baylor. Many times when they encounter, let's say a first quiz or exam, and the grade may be a little bit lower than they thought, a little bit of that self doubt starts to set in and students think, am I really cut out for this? Having a program team that is ready to rally around the students to provide that support and encouragement, to let them know, yes, let's get you connected to a few additional academic supports. You can do this, let's really gear up before your next round of exams, goes along way to provide this.

Derek Smith:

Michelle, how much does it mean to students when they're facing an inevitable challenge of college life to be able to talk to someone within your office who's able to help them navigate that, and also to know that maybe what they're feeling, what they're experiencing, is pretty normal or pretty common to lots of students when they face these things?

Michelle Cohenour:

Yeah, that's a great question. I think there's power in students knowing that they're not alone. I think many times when students face difficulties, there is a bit of isolation that comes with that because they think surely I'm the only one that didn't do well, or surely I'm the only one that doesn't know what the right answer is to navigating whatever is the difficulty. I think having a place where students can come, where they feel safe, where they feel they can be vulnerable, and be honest, and share, here's the misstep that I had, or I didn't know X, Y, or Z, how do I navigate this? Having someone that can be open and someone that can be a good listener, and again, advocate for them, I think makes all the difference. I think I see success in our students coming back time and time again to our team as a great marker that students do feel comfortable when they have questions or concerns. So, I'm thankful for that.

Derek Smith:

How has COVID-19 and the challenges that are commensurate with that, how is your office navigating that, and what are some ways that maybe you're anticipating serving students, whether it's differently or being even more proactive to meet certain needs?

Michelle Cohenour:

Sure. Well, I'll be very honest and say our sense of normalcy is definitely off. It did take us a bit of time to collect ourselves and think, okay, going back to the core mission of who we are and why we are here at Baylor, how do we need to adjust and pivot and change? One thing that we have realized recently is that we can still do this good and meaningful connected work in the virtual space. We know that for some of our students, they will still want to meet face to face and have opportunities, and so we've really restructured several of our programs to have small group components. So students meeting in smaller family groups under tens, and that they can gather in person. But some of our larger programs we've put in place new connections that are virtual. We just launched that actually two weeks ago with our first gen students. What we found is that they were able to connect beautifully still in a virtual environment. So, doing team builders virtually really helped to build that sense of community and allow students to open up and share how they were feeling about their transition to campus and what they were excited about. So I think we've just learned that we need to be thinking quick, and on our feet, and ready to pivot to meet whatever the next challenge may be.

Derek Smith:

What normally does that balance of individual meetings with students, that one on one component, versus some programs or resources that are more of that more for a larger group?

Michelle Cohenour:

Sure, normally if we were, let's say meeting today in our office, our office would normally be filled with students. Students popping by that are in between classes, or that had a quick question, or that want to come study. We have what we call a food table in our office, so our students know that they can always pop by and grab something for breakfast or grab a snack because we really feel like that's just a way to show hospitality to our students and welcoming them in. So that's what a normal time would be for us, students just being present, our team being present there with them. So, we're putting in some new ways for students, when they do pop by our office in person, for us to connect with them, whether virtually, if that's what students feel more comfortable with, or in person. But we definitely place a high value on connection with the students.

Derek Smith:

What are the moments that mean the most to you and your team as team members? If you could take us inside what that looks like, those moments that really drive home why you do what you do.

Michelle Cohenour:

Yeah, that's a great question. I think for me, the moments that seem to mean the most, or resonate the most with me, is when I have students that seek us out when they are having a difficult time or when they've had a rough go. I really love when students trust us with that part of the journey. I oftentimes meet a lot of parents and students at admissions events, recruitment events, orientation, and I always let them know, here's my card, please call whether you have a question that's big or small, anything in between, I want to hear from you. I'm so thankful when students take the time and trust me and our team enough to share what's on their heart, whether it's a hope and then wanting to get connected to an internship or an opportunity that they've sought out, or whether they're navigating a difficult time in their life and want to get connected to resources. Those are the times that mean the most to me, because it lets me know that we are doing our job. For many of us, I say job, but really to us, it's like a calling that we feel really drawn to this work and being present with the students and supporting them on the good days, the highs and lows, are what it's all about for us.

Derek Smith:

Talking to Michelle Cohenour, Director of Student Success Initiatives. Michelle, certainly it sounds like just from talking to you and some of the ways you're growing the office, isn't just trying to maintain what you've been doing during a pandemic, but grow the resources you offer to students. What are some new, whether it's, I know you talked about Navigate Baylor App or other programs, or just ways you're looking to expand the services you and your colleagues provide to students?

Michelle Cohenour:

Yes, absolutely. So a few things that are on their horizon for us, we do have a new student app called Navigate Baylor. This is something that already 90% plus of our new students have downloaded and are actively using. We're about to launch that to all of our continuing students. This is a way for students to get connected to just-in-time information that is personalized to them. For instance, if they are about to have an opportunity to meet with their academic advisor to get registered for the next semester, it will do a just-in-time text or nudge to those students to have them sign up. We hope that this will be a helpful way for students to be able to understand and know what opportunities exist for them. So we're very excited about that. Another opportunity that we're about to launch in just a few weeks is our New to BU Survey each fall. Each fall we survey our new students that are coming into Baylor to ask them about their journey, what's going well, what can we help with. We're actually launching some new COVID questions this year with that to make sure we're checking in to see what our students may need. We normally have about 97% of our new students that take that, but it's a way for us to connect with them and show them someone from the Baylor family and get them connected to our community. Another and final thing that we're doing that is on the horizon is really expanding our services to our low income students so that they can bring their best selves to the classroom and have the resources that they need. We're ramping up some additional technology supports for our students, rounding out our opportunities for students to have access to food resources. Then we did just launch a textbook scholarship for students this fall. So we're very excited about that, and we're definitely keeping our foot on the gas for that initiative, as we want to make sure that we're providing supports so that our low income students can have great success at Baylor as well.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned scholarship there, you talked about the pantry earlier that provides food to students, are there ever any ways that the Baylor family can support that work?

Michelle Cohenour:

Oh, absolutely. With our food pantry, we have opportunities to give on our website, whether financial donation, or we have a wishlist on Amazon where [inaudible] food in. Another fun fact that I just love about the Baylor community is we have some parents that send foods regularly to us. So we have a moms group from Arizona and Chicago that regularly send food to our pantry, and we love, it's like Christmas when we open those packages. It's just a good way for us to be encouraged about that. So we're very excited. We're always looking for volunteers too, so if ever anyone wants to volunteer, they can always reach out and get connected to the work that we're doing.

Derek Smith:

Well, Michelle, if people are listening and would like to get involved or know of a student, maybe they're a student who would like to get connected with SSI resources, what's the best way for people to connect with your office?

Michelle Cohenour:

Sure. The best way is to call or to email us. Our email is really easy to remember. It's just ssi@baylor.edu. Our team directly gets those emails, I do as well. So that's probably the easiest way to connect with us, or stop by and see us. We're in Sid Rich at the lower level, East wing, but we would love to hear whether it's an individual student that may need a little bit of support and care, we would love to hear about that. We oftentimes hear from our Baylor parents and we always welcome those conversations. Then for students as well, students can reach out to us and we'd love to connect.

Derek Smith:

ssi@baylor.edu, easy to remember. Well, Michelle, a lot of great work you and your colleagues do. Really appreciate you taking the time today to come on and tell us about it. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Michelle Cohenour:

Thanks so much for having me Derek, I appreciate it.

Derek Smith:

Thank you. Michelle Cohenour, Director of Student Success Initiatives at Baylor, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, a reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections, online at baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.