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Five students a day.

That’s how many students on average were leaving Oakton Community College in Chicago’s suburbs in 2015, said Joianne Smith, Oakton’s president.

The college, which enrolls roughly 9,000 students, was behind its peers in persistence and retention rates. So faculty members in the humanities department tried something new to keep students from dropping out.

In 2015, Smith introduced All for One, a program that encouraged each faculty and staff member to reach out to at least one student at least five times a semester. Faculty members also began their own project to help accomplish the All for One goal, which they called the Persistence Project. That effort, which was described during Achieving the Dream’s national conference last month, gives Oakton faculty members a better way to reach out to students.

“If we could all work together to save just one student a day, it would increase our rate,” Smith said, adding that the college’s graduation rate has increased from 18 percent to 22 percent.

Humanities and philosophy instructors set a series of goals for themselves for the first three weeks of the semester. In at least one class, they would learn their students’ names and have their students learn one another’s name. They would give feedback on assignments or quizzes before the end of the three weeks. And they would set high standards but wouldn’t penalize students harshly for minor issues like a late assignment.

Most importantly, the faculty members agreed to schedule 15-minute, one-on-one conferences with every student in at least one of their classes.

“The point is not to give students advice on how to study or explain the syllabus,” said Hollace Graff, a philosophy professor who chairs Oakton’s humanities and philosophy department and who led the Persistence Project. “The purpose of the conference is for us to listen to students.”

Getting to know students beyond academic assignments and lectures proved to be a key for Oakton, in addition to other changes the college made to improve the first-year experience. In one year the overall fall-to-fall persistence rate increased from 45 percent to 48 percent. Last year the rate increased to 50 percent. But the persistence rate for approximately 1,200 students who were directly affected by the project was significantly higher -- 53 percent last year. Oakton’s goal is to eventually reach a 54 percent rate for the college over all, which would put Oakton on par with its peer institutions.

So far just a quarter of students have been a part of the project, but the college would like to see those numbers grow.

‘Joy and Despair’

Graff said she recommends that faculty members start slowly by attempting the project with just one of their classes.

“It is stressful, and in the first few weeks it’s really stressful,” Smith said. “It’s not just about the time. They’re hearing students’ stories and you grow to hear about students in a way you haven’t.”

Much of the stress comes from listening to problems students face outside the classroom, she said, which many faculty members wouldn’t hear if not for the 15-minute discussions.

Eva de la Riva, a psychology professor and chair of the behavioral and social sciences department, said one challenge has been faculty frustration over the nonacademic challenges students face.

“Unfortunately, a lot of things they are experiencing, we can’t do anything about,” she said. “This model of approaching our students is very empathetic. It brings a lot of joy and despair for faculty … This project is not for the weak of heart. There will be situations when you feel completely hopeless.”

Graff said students often struggle with food insecurity and transportation issues, as well as major family illnesses or, for immigrant students, fears of deportation.

But students feel more comfortable approaching professors in this way because their first experience -- a 15-minute meeting at the start of the semester -- is a positive one and not a situation where they’re first approaching instructors when they’re in academic trouble later in the semester, she said. Some professors, said Graff, have tried the project’s methods in more than one of their classes.

To make sure students attend the 15-minute sessions, some instructors give credit that counts toward the final grade in class or make sure students schedule time for the meetings during their first week of classes. Some faculty members found time during classes to meet with students.

In online courses, Graff said students who live near campus have been eager to meet in person or talk over Skype or FaceTime.

After the first three weeks, the initiative continues with faculty members making a commitment to attend at least one co-curricular event or activity with students. They’re also encouraged to become more familiar with outside-the-classroom resources that may be available for students who struggle in class or in their personal lives.

The project is voluntary. Graff said more than 200 instructors across 22 departments are participating.

“We have heard hundreds of stories from our faculty about why this works so well,” Graff said. “It’s because this project emphasizes human connection. If a student makes that connection, the student is more likely to persist, but it also makes us better teachers.”

But the effort comes with challenges.

For instance, Smith said, 60 percent of Oakton’s courses are taught by adjunct instructors.

“It’s difficult for adjuncts to implement the project, because they teach at many institutions and it makes scheduling nearly impossible,” Graff said, adding that adjuncts also tend to be less familiar with the college.

Smith said Oakton is considering a small financial incentive for participation and options for private office space for adjuncts.

“Not all instructors feel comfortable with the one-to-one conference,” Graff said, adding that some faculty members may be too comfortable with oversharing.

But the college is offering professional development to teach faculty to ask open-ended questions, she said, and to help them avoid testing students’ boundaries and pushing them away.

“We’ve tried a lot of different things in Oakton, but nothing matched this data,” Smith said. “We mandated new student orientation … we changed developmental course work and we saw improvement around the edges, but nothing compared to this data.”

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