Worcester Polytechnic Institute
As a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Rachael Heard studied biology and biotechnology, not ever imagining she’d go on to work in higher education. After an internship in Washington, D.C., during her undergraduate program, Heard realized she loved working with people outside a STEM context, which pushed her into becoming an orientation leader and later pursuing her master’s in higher education.
“[I] fell in love with supporting [first-year] students as they were transitioning into the institution,” Heard says. “I really enjoyed watching the light bulbs go off and helping them find their passions.”
Heard’s full-time role as director of academic programming and student transitions in the office of academic advising at her alma mater allows her to do just that, connecting incoming students to the institution in intentional and community-oriented ways that prioritizes individual experiences.
Heard spoke with Inside Higher Ed about her inaugural role at the university, which has 5,000 undergrads, and what she’s learned since starting in June 2022.
Q: What is your new role and what’s included in your purview?
A: I mainly oversee the onboarding and transition process for all new students, including first-year and transfer students. So as they are enrolling into the institution, throughout the summer, during their onboarding process and then throughout their entire first year as they are transitioning into the institution.
I also oversee academic success initiatives for first-year, second-year and transfer students and a myriad of other things—that bullet point that we all have on our job descriptions—“other duties as assigned.”
Q: What does it mean to you to help students feel like they belong at the institution?
A: I think it comes down to two simple things: Do students have somebody on campus that has their back? Somebody to support them, somebody to go to. And the second thing is, are students doing something that is meaningful to them? Something that brings them joy, at least once or twice a week.
Those two things, I think, really contribute to a student feeling like they are part of a community, that they are getting the most out of their college experience instead of just going through the motions like a hamster on a hamster wheel … It’s not always those two things, because every student is different and needs different things, so it’s individualized sometimes, as well.
Q: What have you found are the student transition and retention challenges that WPI is trying to target?
A: As it relates to transitions, when I first came into the role, it was brand-new, and I think there was a lack of structure in those months leading up to the first day of class. My main goal was figuring out, OK, what do I need to do to make sure that students feel supported and make sure that students are able to start making connections with the institution before they even get here to make that transition in August or September that much easier?
That was something that WPI over all was looking at, to make sure that gap was no longer there. We have our first-year welcome experience and our transfer welcome experience that happens in the months of June and July, so students are able to come to campus in smaller groups. They can bring family members if they want; they can meet peers, connect with folks in their class, as well as meet faculty and staff members who are going to be there to support them, learn about WPI, all that we have to offer, our curriculum, things like that.
Retention is something that I would say I’m still looking at … I think, in the traditional sense, when folks think about retention, they think about numbers. But there’s always a story. There’s always a student behind every number, right? So I’m trying to be very intentional with the way that I am looking at and assessing retention and then implementing programs and initiatives to support our retention efforts.
As an individual, when I think about retention, I go back to those two points that I mentioned before—do students have people on campus that they can go to for support, and are they doing something that is meaningful to them? Are they doing something that brings them joy? Because those two things are, I believe, the foundation for students persisting through.
It’s quite literally impossible to be able to find every single reason or every single circumstance that leads a student to persisting, or [leads] a student to maybe taking a break from their college experience or leaving an institution. It’s absolutely impossible to be able to figure out what all those elements are and put in stopgaps to prevent that.
But what I’ve learned is that, even though we can’t figure all that out and stop all of that, what we can do is give students stability and provide the ship with an anchor. Students are going to be storming all the time; students are going to be going through it all the time. And while we can’t solve all those problems, we can give a student an anchor and stability. And I think sometimes that’s the best thing that we can do for a student.
Over all though, when we do think about numbers and we do think about data, I think it’s important not only to look at the overall retention number that we track, but rather dig a little bit deeper and determine, “OK, who are the students that make up that number and what are they doing? And why are they here and why are they still here?” to figure out what we are doing and what’s working and what’s not.
That’s a really long-winded way of saying this is an ongoing assessment project.
Q: Coming from a background in multicultural affairs, how do you see your role involving finding connections between students, not to the institution, but to each other?
A: When I was first in the role and looking at the student experience holistically and drawing on my previous experience in multicultural affairs and multicultural education, a lot of the conversations that I’ve been having with students—particularly students who identify as underrepresented in STEM and at WPI—were that they felt like the one, they felt like the only. So I wanted to sit down with that and say, “OK, how do I make sure that students know they’re not the one, and they’re not the only, and they have folks in their corner to support them?”
This year, our office worked with a couple of folks on campus to create affinity spaces for first-year students that were both residential in nature and academic in nature. Students [who] had a shared identity lived together in a residence hall and also took the same classes, as well as participated in our Insight program—which is geared towards first-year students and transfer students within the fall semester to help them transition into the institution.
With that, they had this built-in network with their peers who have shared identities, as well as support through faculty [and] staff members on campus who also share those same identities.
We’re still in our pilot phase with this, but so far, so good. I think that the feedback so far, it’s been absolutely wonderful. So I’m very, very happy that we were able to do that for the first time this year, and I’m hoping to expand it in the future.
Q: What are your goals for this upcoming year?
A: Moving forward, taking what I’ve learned in the first year, what I’ve observed in the first year, I am seeing a disconnect when students are onboarding into the institution in terms of the information that they have or they don’t have, and the information that is there—is it easily accessible or is it very hard to find?
And then the way that we communicate with students as they are onboarding and transitioning into the institution and making sure that that communication is efficient and effective, while not being overwhelming.
Right now, I am working with a couple folks on campus to create a more centralized onboarding hub that is individualized to every single student. Individualized meaning to their intended major, program of study, any sort of pre-orientation or onboarding programs that they’re participating in, any athletic teams that they’re participating in, things like that. So everything is all in one place, but it’s catered to the student who is on the other end of the screen.
It is a big project, it’s a large undertaking, but I think that it’s going to be an extremely helpful tool for students so they’re not going to 16 different websites and platforms to figure out what they need to do as they’re joining the WPI community.
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