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Two female students playing air hockey in the Student Center.
Beacon students engage in some downtime at the Student Center.
Many colleges intentionally are rethinking and reshaping what has broadly become known as the student experience. The goal is to make students’ time on campus more engaging, worthwhile, and successful — while also helping colleges’ bottom lines. As more colleges have emphasized student success and tried to raise graduation and retention rates, it has become apparent that academic success goes hand in hand with many aspects of students’ lives.

Hanah Diebold
Hanah Diebold
Beacon College has taken the student experience mission seriously. So much so that it has its own director of student experience, Hanah M. Diebold. Her job, in her own words, is to engage students in a “holistic and intentional way.”

“In-class learning is the foundation for higher education, and ensuring our students are able to bring their whole selves to the classroom and achieve their academic pursuits is very important,” Diebold said. “But outside-the-classroom learning is equally as important — providing opportunities for our students to engage with their peers, have fun, reflect on their experiences, articulate their learning, and develop into well-rounded individuals. By providing resources and opportunities that support both their in- and outside-the-classroom learning, we’re supporting the overall student experience.”

In recent years, markers of student success in higher education circles have included not just academic performance, but student satisfaction with their college experience. Purpose, motivation and persistence are goals many colleges push for, which is certainly true for Beacon.

The college has multiple transition programs for students, some of which are made available during their high school career and, in some cases, include support for those who are not pursuing Beacon but need help finding a school that best fits them. In addition, the school offers academic credit for students who want to start college but may still not feel ready for an on-campus experience.

This past fall, a new model for student support also was implemented for first-year students, focusing on their social, community, and academic engagement; a more collaborative and communicative approach to meeting students where they’re at.

To meet that goal, the college offers events with different levels of involvement: a movie night, for example, can provide enjoyment to students who may not wish to have a high level of interaction, whereas a trip to Disney will fulfill those looking for more stimulation.

Beacon also revamped orientation to reflect its engagement mission. Students in attendance may attend a crafts event, for instance, or a karaoke event, depending on their tastes. The overall orientation schedule this spring semester will also better align with this new model, providing support for parents, families, and students.

To that end, Beacon will offer three roundtable rotations during new student orientation weekend: a community engagement roundtable will focus on how students can successfully enter a pre-existing community, navigating confrontation and conflict resolution; a social engagement roundtable will teach them about managing anxiety, interacting with others, and participating in college life; and a third roundtable focusing on academics will teach them about classroom expectations and supports available to ensure their academic success.

“Often, our students begin school more timid or unsure of themselves, but through our student-first approach, our ability to develop individual connections with students, and our unique college model, we can see students develop more confidence in themselves, challenge themselves, and become more engaged,” said Diebold.

“I remember one student who came to Beacon during spring orientation and who lives off-campus; this student found it difficult to make connections initially but has now served as an orientation leader both this past fall and upcoming spring semester, has attended more on- and off-campus events than ever before, and has developed a positive social network,” she added.

Diebold said that opportunities for social engagement are vital for Beacon students, some of whom have difficulties interacting with others. And they have some say in the matter.

Students regularly provide input after on- and off-campus events, which allows student experience staff to tweak or improve activities based on feedback. Their opinion also informs new programming. In addition, the college provides a number of engagement opportunities through leadership roles, internships, teacher assistant positions, and on-campus employment.

Efforts have paid off. Student event attendance is up this year, Diebold said. And last fall, approximately 96 percent of new students were retained, she added. The college’s housing and residential life office also reported fewer calls to staff, fewer student disagreements and fewer student moves than ever before.

Knowing that connections amongst peers can lead to their sense of belonging is important to keep in mind, Diebold said.

“If our students feel connected, supported, and know their goals are an appropriate level of both challenging and attainable, that will drive them to stay enrolled at the college,” she said. “If colleges work to provide support and resources for all students, working to provide and maintain universal design, colleges may be able to better attract and support a diverse student body.”