Small but Mighty

Mary Anne Lewis Cusato shares seven successful strategies she used to boost an academic program led by a single full-time faculty member.

July 28, 2021
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Ohio Wesleyan University’s French program recently set the record for the most French majors ever declared -- 21 -- in its institutional history. This was accomplished despite COVID preventing students from going abroad, which is a requirement for the major; broad skepticism about language and culture curricula in general; steadily declining enrollments at our institution; the university’s significant and highly publicized challenges; and both full- and part-time faculty facing diminished resources.

I direct the French program at Ohio Wesleyan, and I have spent the last three years with a clear target in mind: recruit and retain more French majors. I rolled out several strategies that helped those of us teaching in French to meet this goal, and I share them here not only for language and culture programs but also for other programs that could use a boost in numbers and strategy.

When I became the only full-time faculty member in French during the summer of 2018, I also took on a new relationship to the program. Rather than simply teaching classes, I felt responsible for the program's flow, outcomes, structure and success (or lack thereof). I approached this new phase by focusing on building out the most relevant aspects of the program, as well as moving beyond content to encourage the development of certain key skills and personal qualities in students. From these efforts, several strategies naturally emerged, and here are the seven most important ones.

No. 1: Partner with current students and recent alumni. After my former colleague announced her imminent departure, I set up a lunch meeting with graduating seniors a few days before commencement. I asked them three questions: What do you most appreciate about our program? If you could change something, what would it be? What are your plans after graduation?

I used their answers to develop new courses and modify extant courses. Most important, this was the moment when I began to partner with current students and recent graduates meaningfully and consistently. They became my collaborators as I assessed curricular flow and offerings. Indeed, all the strategies that follow were developed in consultation with current and recently graduated students.

No. 2: Craft a clear mission statement. The mission statement describes the program’s business, objectives and approach. As an example, our program’s mission statement is:

The French program at Ohio Wesleyan University trains students to understand, read, write, and speak the French language; appreciate the language’s role and place throughout the world; analyze and interpret cultural documents with rigor and precision; pursue meaningful educational and professional opportunities throughout the French-speaking world; and communicate effectively across cultures and differences.

The mission statement functions both descriptively and prescriptively, and it anchors the direction and work of the program.

No. 3: Build and develop a team. Having articulated the mission, it was time to build and develop the team accordingly. In our case, that meant both some personnel changes and additional training and discussions among seasoned instructors. No matter the personnel steps a program takes, the mission statement must center training, strategy and programmatic shifts. When curricular decisions are made, they are made as a team, united by the mission statement. When students are recruited, the mission statement bolsters the messaging, and so on.

No. 4: Map the mission onto the curriculum. Next, we needed to ensure that our courses were in alignment with the mission statement in terms of content mastery, skills development and the enhancement of certain personal qualities. The greatest result of this process was an “elevator speech” for the program. Moving from detailed analysis of individual courses to a bird’s-eye view of the program unearthed a cohesive and important story, one of: language proficiency; close, careful and effective interpretation and communications skills; a global and growing language likely to be spoken by some 700 million people by 2050; and cultural knowledge spanning such topics as immigration, national identity, world cinema in French and decolonization movements throughout the French-speaking world.

Finally, stories of individual students -- the premed and French student working with francophone patients in West Africa, the international studies and French major working at the United Nations on the Prevention of Gender Violence, the student working for the Peace Corps in Morocco, and so on -- allowed mission statement, coursework, advising, messaging and student outcomes to harmonize.

No. 5: Develop assignments that connect students with the real world. Students engage most deeply when they see their coursework as relevant and connected to their goals and world. For our program, I developed three assignments to connect the program’s current students with particularly successful recent alumni and to train them to articulate their competencies and skills.

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First, I collected testimonials from recent alumni, who shared a professional photo and their year of graduation along with their majors and minors, plus a quotation about the role of the program in their life today. We’ve used those testimonials as the basis for posters in our hallways and on our website, as well as in various reflection assignments in our classes. They’ve also served as examples of program outcomes for current and prospective students alike, and even with faculty colleagues -- many of whom might not otherwise fully appreciate what we do with students, especially at the upper levels.

Second, I worked with current students to collect and record interviews with recent graduates that we then edited into three separate videos about upper-level courses, skills honed throughout the French program, and study abroad. I paired these videos with an assignment I use in the second-semester class so that students emerge fully educated on the program’s offerings and outcomes alike.

Finally, I developed a transferable skills assignment for fourth-semester students that ensures that students recognize the skill development at work in their courses. Using the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ “Key Attributes Employers Want to See on Students’ Resumes” and “Transferable Skills: What Do You Do Well?,” published by the Career Services Office of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, I train students to reflect on and articulate such valuable skills as “Motivate team members to work toward common goals,” “Organize and present ideas effectively in speech and writing,” and others. This work deepens students’ understanding and engagement with coursework. In addition, by making students aware of how relevant and marketable the skill sets they’ve developed in their French courses are, we can break down perceived barriers for students who might not otherwise have considered French as a viable, valid or valuable course of study.

No. 6: Conduct one-on-one meetings. Each semester, I hold at least one one-on-one meeting with every student in the three classes I teach. Although this takes time, I am consistently reminded of its extraordinary value. During this meeting, I share with the student two points of encouragement/praise and two opportunities for improvement.

This is also the perfect opportunity to assess students’ relationship to the program and to put them in touch with another student or alum. These meetings inevitably result in the student feeling seen, understood, recognized and challenged to continue making progress. Indeed, the one-on-one meeting is among my most valuable tools for increasing student engagement.

No. 7: Follow the data. Collecting and analyzing data related to enrollments, majors and minors in our program over time and then comparing that data to other programs has been crucial to our strategy and growth, giving us a sense of the program’s contribution versus its cost to the institution. We’ve all heard the stories of colleges cutting language and culture programs, and these stories and processes serve as a reminder that if our programs are not perceived as relevant and cost-effective, they are at risk. Data can and should be used to meet these criteria.

We know that higher education is grappling with unprecedented changes and challenges. Increasingly, prospective students and their families view a college degree as a ticket to higher wages and a prosperous career. But, of course, higher education’s value extends far beyond boosting earnings. It is in college and university buildings that students discover some of the greatest treasures of their minds and hearts. It is in conversation with great authors, musicians and thinkers that students unearth parts of themselves they did not even know existed. And it is in taking on leadership positions across our campuses that they dare to imagine themselves as leaders in the world beyond these walls.

The role of those programs led by a single full-time faculty member or small team is not to be underestimated. As we all work to meet the needs of our students and societies today, I hope these strategies bolster your work, your students and your programs alike.


Mary Anne Lewis Cusato is associate professor of modern foreign languages at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she was awarded the Sherwood Dodge Shankland Teaching Award in 2020. Committed to intercultural learning and understanding, Lewis Cusato also co-founded and now co-directs the Global Studies Institute and the Thomas W. Palmer ’69 and Susan Palmer Global Scholars Program at Ohio Wesleyan. She would like to thank Ashley Powers, her team member, for her dedication and support in building and maintaining the French program at the university.


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