You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

College green and alumni gateway at Ohio University on a fall day

Ohio University faculty and staff can apply for a mini grant to engage first-year students in the spring term, following a 2024 pilot.

BSPollard/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus

In recent years, faculty members have noted the decline of the student-faculty relationship, with less trust, more transactional relationships and less overall support between the two.

However, studies have shown that students’ feelings of belonging can be tied to how they perceive faculty members care about them, making it a retention concern to prioritize interpersonal dynamics between professor and pupil.

In response, college leaders at Ohio University established a pilot program to fund outside-of-classroom activities to boost faculty-student engagement. This spring, eight grants helped connect hundreds of learners with faculty members through creative and intentional ways.

The background: At Ohio, incoming first-year students participate in orientation and then almost all (98 percent) join a first-semester learning community, which is linked to a student success course and a major or general education course, depending on their discipline.

The learning community provides a launching point for students to connect to the university, but University College dean David Nguyen wanted to consider how the institution could provide ongoing support beyond that first term.

Previously, Ohio had an initiative called the Lasagna Project, which brought students and professors together at the professor’s home, to share lasagna and some other dishes to bond and build connections. Nguyen wanted to do something similar, an informal connection space, and provide an opportunity to lean into students’ and faculty members’ shared passions.

By the Numbers

Ohio University admits around 4,000 students in its first-year class at the Athens campus and averages around 80 percent retention over the past six years, according to institutional data.

After learning about the University of Texas at San Antonio’s first-year student experience and faculty engagement mini grant at a conference, Nguyen modeled a pilot for Ohio faculty to submit their own ideas for ways to connect with new students (first time first-year or transfer) centered on interests or disciplines.

The pilot: Ohio University announced applications for the grant program in fall 2023, with the intention of awarding up to 10 grants using funding from the university college department. Ultimately, the university received 15 applications and awarded eight grants. The department budgeted up to $1,000 for each award but the grants averaged around $700, Nguyen says.

The program gave priority to grants that focused on first-year students and those from at-risk student groups, including first-generation students, underserved communities and Pell-eligible students.

Among the recipients were a theater professor, who used funding to transport and pay for a dozen or so students to attend a theatrical performance in Columbus and a chemistry professor who brought students on a site visit to a chemical engineering plant to expose them to future careers.

Not all grants went toward academic interests—one faculty member launched a knitting club for students to meet regularly as a large group (20 to 50 students) to knit, and another created a hammock group, purchasing hammocks to allow students to lounge on campus.

What’s next: Overall, the program was successful in supporting student-professor relationships, and university leaders plan to continue the initiative on an annual basis, awarding funds for the spring term, Nguyen says.

Faculty members said they were thankful for the new kinds of experiences they could share with students, like listening to theater students discuss the production from the back of the van on the drive back to campus, or giving first-year students a glimpse into what their lives in the workforce could look like early in their college career.

One of the next goals is to create more awareness about the initiative among professors (such as through university-wide emails) to ensure there’s diversity in award offering across disciplines and interests.

Ohio hosts a student success symposium each year and faculty members who received mini grants will be asked to present a poster about their project to share with their colleagues, which will hopefully boost awareness, Nguyen says.

Officials will track program engagement against fall-to-fall engagement to measure a return on investment, as well.

A key feature of the success has been letting the grant program be so broad in application, Nguyen says. “Everyone in their own college has an idea of what it could look like,” he says, so administrators should remain open to the possibilities presented and how they can benefit students.

“I think anything we can do to help people feel connected to the institution, especially in this post-COVID world, is worth the investment,” Nguyen says.

If your student success program has a unique feature or twist, we’d like to know about it. Click here to submit.

Next Story

More from The College Experience