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As a college student, Josh Landau was close to dropping out. He had not declared a major or developed an awareness of his needed academic tools, but Landau was motivated to learn for the sake of learning. Now, as a higher education professional, he wants to support others to succeed in the ways he did.

Associate provost for student success at York College in Pennsylvania since 2016, Landau spoke to Inside Higher Ed about his philosophy for student success, his struggles as an undeclared undergrad and how his team creates checkpoints for students to ensure academic success.

Q: What inspired your career in higher education?

A: I went to graduate school for a master’s in experimental psychology at Central Michigan University, and there were two faculty members who would argue, but friendly [natured]. It was a constant jabbing at each other over theory and the approach to psychology and research, and I just loved it. I loved the back-and-forth banter.

But I wasn’t a good high school student, so I had to learn a lot just to get up to the level that my peers were. I had to do a lot of brute force, going back and learning things that they already knew.

But listening to these two professors argue, their offices were catty-cornered, and I would sit in another office and just listen to them go back and forth, and it got me excited. I was like, “This is a great life, to be able to turn over ideas.”

Q: What led you to your role as associate provost for student success at York College?

A: I came here to York College to teach, and I did that for many years. I got interested in administrative-type issues. I was working in the margins, I was working on revamping our student observation processes, and I kind of liked it, and then I worked on our Middle States review for accreditation and I started to get this bigger view of the whole institution. … I liked that the lens that I was looking through just kept getting wider and wider.

This position, in what was then Academic Services, came open, and we revamped it into a student success division. We built our student success [division] by connecting to tutoring and the writing center, advising [and] student accessibility services.

Q: How do you define student success?

A: My background is in measurement, and understanding how to measure human memory is tricky, because you don’t really ever see it. You infer that it’s happening based on people’s behavior and what they say to you. I quickly got to the point where, the way that a lot of places measure success is graduation rates, retention, GPA—and I was like, “No, that’s not it. That’s not what student success is. It has to have context—context matters.”

So we actually really walked away, as a division, from defining it by any of those things. We just redid our mission … which is, “Teaching and empowering you,” because we’re focused on students “to build a successful college experience.” And that could mean anything.

We have students that come here that are just taking one class—they want to learn about, could be ceramics, they want to learn about one thing. We have other students here that are trying to repair their GPAs. We have other students that want to get a four-year degree, [and] we have students that want to get a two-year degree.

My [academic] path was such twists and turns that I wouldn’t have been measured well by retention or graduation rates. So for me, it was more about thinking, “What’s the student’s path? And how do we, as a college, as an institution, how do we remove those barriers and support them to get where, wherever that goal is?”

My title is associate provost for student success. And there is nothing, or very little that I can do on my own, that would actually lead to student success. If I tutor a student, I may meet with a student and talk to them about their goals and try and set them on the right path. But student success is a campuswide effort.

I want to work on the campus that looks at looks left and looks right and says, “OK, these students need these resources in order to be successful, how do we connect them? And how do we follow up to make sure that they’re taking advantage of them, rather than blowing them out the door and thinking I’ve done good work?”

Q: How do you and your office remove barriers to success for students?

A: There’s only one place where I will put a barrier in front of a student, and that’s to have a conversation with someone who has the knowledge [to help].

We used to have a withdraw-from-course policy here [at York College]. Up to a certain date, you could just walk over to our records office and say, “Hey, I’m Ashley, I’m in Math 110, I don’t want to be anymore,” and they will take you out of it. And that has downstream effects on your credit ratio, your graduation, your graduation path, whether or not you can live in the dorms—all of that can be affected.

So we put up one barrier … and that is you have to talk to an academic adviser. Nobody stops you, nobody says, “You have to stay in this class, I know you hate it and it’s miserable,” but “Here’s what happens if you do drop it.” I think the faculty sometimes think it’s an approval process, where they approve the drop, but it’s not—it’s really just making sure that they’re sharing the right information, so that a student is making a knowledgeable decision.

Q: How do you and your office support undeclared students?

A: It’s a lot to ask of a 17-, 18-year-old to nail down their major and or career. I have two kids, and I said to both of them, “It’s OK to go into college undeclared.” It’s worse, to me, to be in a major that you’re not comfortable in and try to navigate those waters if it’s outside of your skill set.

I like undeclared—it still suggests to me that you’re exploring … I was undeclared. I just didn’t know that it was OK to be undeclared. I figured, I’m spending this money and I should have a set idea of what I’m going to get, and undeclared sounds like it’s counter that. And it’s not—to me, it gives students the chance to explore and really poke around.

So we are doing something that I really like: Stephanie Perago [York’s coordinator of undeclared student advising] has peer advisers. I think of them sort of as ambassadors, partners, a shoulder to cry on for incoming students.

The peer advisers—we call them PAs—are sort of on the front line. But I think of them as our triage, in some cases, because they’ll hear a problem and they’ll be like, “OK, is this something that somebody in academics can help with? Is this somebody in student affairs? Is this somebody in advising?” and they are about connecting the student to the right resource and making them comfortable with accessing that resource, getting rid of that stigma.

I see them as being really important. They’re very effective—they’re some of the best students on campus, but they’re also really empathetic. They’re good listeners, they’re very much interested in helping the students be successful.

Are you a higher ed leader with student success in your job title? Tell us what part of your story stands out most among people in similar campus leadership positions elsewhere.

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