Stanley Washington understands that not every student thrives in college the way he has. Washington, a communications major from Chicago who is president of Elmhurst’s Black Student Union and executive vice president of the Student Government Association, has seen friends struggle with college life.
“I’ve seen people have trouble adjusting academically, socially, financially,” said Washington, a junior who plans to attend law school. “But I found that once you get involved on campus and start building relationships, you can succeed.”
That’s a message Washington wants to pass on to other students. So, starting later this month, Washington will be mentoring newly arrived first-year students in Elmhurst’s President’s Leadership Academy, an innovative four-year program for first-generation college students and students of color. The program aims to foster the leadership skills that will help students succeed at Elmhurst, graduate, and move on to productive post-collegiate lives.
The academy is being launched at a time of growing national concern about the way colleges and universities are preparing young people to contribute to a changing society. In his 2013 State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama called for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Meeting that goal will mean graduating more low-income students, students of color and first-generation students. But at Elmhurst and at colleges nationwide, those groups of students remain in school through graduation at lower rates than the general student population.
Eileen Sullivan, Elmhurst’s dean of students, said that providing academic and social support is key to seeing those students through to graduation.
“The sink-or-swim mentality is gone,” she said. “We have to be super-responsive with students if we want them to be successful.”
The academy is one of a menu of programs developed at Elmhurst to engage students academically and socially. While similar programs at other schools aim to acclimate students to college life in their first year, the President’s Leadership Academy will bolster students throughout their college experience.
“What’s unique here is that we want to give students continued support and development, not just at the start, but over four years, to see them graduate,” said Desiree Novak, associate dean of students and director of student success and retention. “Building a bridge to college is great, making that initial transition is important, but what happens after that?”
What happens all too often is that students leave college, defeated by some combination of financial pressures, academic struggles and lack of social support. Only 56 percent of American students complete bachelor’s degrees within six years. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 34 million Americans over the age of 25 have some college experience, but no degree. Many remained in college just long enough to acquire the burden of student loans—but without gaining the boost in earning power that comes with a diploma.
Novak said the President’s Leadership Academy responds to that problem by offering students a mix of coursework, mentoring, and personal and professional development activities. It begins with a three-week summer academic course in leadership, featuring half-day workshops led by Elmhurst faculty. Over the next four years, students progress through the academy as a group, with each year’s programming focusing on various aspects of leadership development, self-formation, career exploration and professional preparation.
“These students are going to be intentionally guided in leadership experiences through the four years of the program,” said program director Laila McCloud. “We start out focusing on theories of leadership, then move students toward engaging intentionally in activities on campus and beyond. We’re encouraging them to think more broadly and get the most out of their Elmhurst experience.”
The 35 students selected to participate in the academy each year receive a stipend to cover the costs of books for all their Elmhurst classes as long as they continue in the program. In addition, they must remain active in co-curricular groups, participate in academy-related workshops and meet regularly with one of the seven peer mentors assigned to guide them through their introduction to college life.
“Students connect to students,” Novak said. “That’s who they really want to hear from. And connecting students to their peers and to the campus community is so important to their success.”
Stanley Washington agrees. Two years ago, as a first-year student, he participated in an Elmhurst program called DirectConnect that shared some of the goals of the President’s Leadership Academy. He said the experience introduced him to upperclassmen doing remarkable things with their time in college.
“I learned from them, and that really made me want to get involved on campus,” he said. And, he said, the friendships that grew out of his participation in campus life helped him navigate college’s inevitable challenges. “There were times when I couldn’t figure things out for myself, and I needed some help. And there are people who will help you. That’s why it’s important to start developing those relationships.”
So when he learned about the chance to serve as a mentor in the President’s Leadership Academy, he didn’t hesitate. “It’s only natural that I would want to share what I’ve learned,” he said.
Novak says that’s good news for the academy’s first class of students.
“These students are go-getters. They’re giving up some of their summer because they want to be involved,” she said. “A lot of them have had to overcome adversity. They deserve some support, and the best we can do is give it to them.”
The President’s Leadership Academy is just one way Elmhurst is helping students work their way through the challenges of higher education. Steps to Success, a program introduced earlier this year, provides guidance and support for more than 200 students encountering academic difficulty.
“Students have to take ownership of their own learning,” Sullivan said. “But they also need to be reminded that, if they bomb that midterm, there is help for them. To reach the goal President Obama set, we have to have more students completing college. We want to do all we can to make it possible for them to succeed.”