As colleges and universities have begun to experience an evolution in the makeup of their student bodies — with incoming classes more diverse now than ever — many institutions are doing more to ensure that students of all backgrounds and needs have the resources and support necessary to thrive.
The following private universities are doing their part to help students of all backgrounds navigate the higher education landscape, launch successful careers, and be prepared to meet future challenges head on.
Founded in 1866 to serve first-generation adult students and student-veterans, Davenport University in Michigan has made a niche for itself in higher education. To fulfill the needs of both its students and the surrounding community, the university has remained true to its mission to offer degree programs for in-demand fields that meet workforce development needs.
“Even as people were returning from the Civil War in 1866, the first version of Davenport University was looking at what skills people needed to build up their communities, and we have never really strayed from that mission and vision,” says Karen Daley, PhD, dean of the College of Health Professions at Davenport. “We look at what is happening in each of our communities — the entire state, not just Grand Rapids — and [consider] what we can do to meet their needs.”
To achieve its mission, the university offers only what Daley describes as “employable degrees”; these include fields such as healthcare, business, technology, and urban education — disciplines that are of great interest to Davenport’s nontraditional student population. In keeping its finger on the pulse of the job market, the university engages with employers statewide to determine in-demand jobs to develop degree programs around.
“We’ve been working hard to make sure that people can [enroll], get educated, and go out and get good jobs — so much so that we actually guarantee a couple of our degrees,” says Daley, adding that one such program is forensic accounting. “We’re so sure there are jobs out there for [those] students that if they sign an agreement with us, follow best practices, and then don’t get a job, then we give them credits toward a master’s degree.”
In place now for a year, the program has yet to have a single graduate return without employment. Because of this success, the university has since guaranteed several of its nursing and technology degrees. Similarly, Davenport offers credit for many of the real-life experiences its adult learners and student-veterans bring to campus.
“For instance, if we have someone who was a medic in the Army and was out in the battlefield saving lives, we are not going to make that person take the nursing class that teaches them how to take blood pressure and make a bed,” says Daley. “We’re going to make an assessment to make sure they meet our standards, and as long as they can show us what they know, then we’re going to give them credit for that knowledge. Instead of staying at a basic level, they can build their knowledge and skills at a higher level and move on to something much more meaningful.”
For Daley, recognizing the skills and knowledge that veterans in particular bring to the table is an important part of serving and supporting them as students. “We communicate very clearly our respect for their experience and understanding of their leadership,” she says, “… and we build on that [by letting them] move a little faster, instead of doing an entire bachelor’s degree without any recognition for the fact that they served their country and have different pockets of expertise that are useful in academia.”
Because veterans and nontraditional students often come to Davenport with unique needs and varying life circumstances — such as jobs, families, and financial obligations — the university offers comprehensive services and support to address barriers to their learning. Flexible and part-time schedules, online classes, tutoring, 24/7 student services, career and interview preparation, and mentoring are just some of the services Davenport provides. Once admitted, students are also assigned academic and financial aid advisers who help keep them on track.
“We make sure that we stay in touch with our students so we know how they’re progressing and can catch them [if they’re starting to fall],” Daley says. “We try very hard to do an early-warning system. If the advisers detect any kind of issue — a student doesn’t show up for class, for example — we reach out to them right away.”
For its work to support student-veterans, Davenport has continuously been recognized as a “Best for Vets” college by Military Times and has received gold-level status as a Michigan Veteran-Friendly School. But Daley believes that what truly sets the university apart is its willingness to listen to students and act on their feedback.
“We survey our students when they’re here,” she says, “and then we ask them when they leave, ‘What did we do well for you, and what could we have done better?’”
Saint Louis University
A Jesuit institution in Missouri, Saint Louis University (SLU) — which also has a campus in Madrid, Spain — prides itself on having a global focus.
“Jesuit institutions think globally, and that’s part of our history, heritage, and tradition,” says Kent Porterfield, EdD, vice president of student development at the university, which was founded in 1818.
For modern-day SLU, this heritage translates to support for international students and those of different faiths and religions. Through INTO SLU — a collaborative program facilitated by the university and INTO University
Partnerships, an organization focused on expanding higher education opportunities for students worldwide — SLU offers a variety of services for students from around the globe. Many of its programs are designed for those who often “do not meet the requirements for direct entry” into degree programs, according to the university’s website.
“SLU and INTO have developed academic pathway programs for international students to improve their English language comprehension while also preparing them to be successful degree-seeking students at SLU,” says Tim Hercules, JD, INTO SLU executive director.
INTO SLU has several programs and initiatives focused solely on introducing international students to campus. Students participating in the International Ambassador Program, for instance, welcome new international students to campus and assist them during their first year in St. Louis. Through University 101, a course meant to help international students with the transition to SLU and the U.S., these newcomers reflect on their goals and who they hope to become while at the university. To integrate them into the campus culture, however, SLU engages the entire community.
Porterfield says that SLU encourages international students to live with domestic students, or host families, to get a “fuller experience” and help build their confidence with the English language. The university also facilitates faculty support through its Culturally Responsive Teaching Academy. The center, Hercules says, “supports faculty development in effective teaching practices for international and multilingual students.” In addition, many faculty and staff members across campus speak a variety of languages and are often able to assist with translation, Porterfield says.
Students enrolled in INTO SLU programs have access to specialized support services as well, like tutoring, writing assistance, supplemental instruction, and counseling, as well as campus facilities and resources, including transportation services and campus ministry. The university also makes a point of hosting a range of multicultural events each year, many of which take place in SLU’s 70,000-square-foot Center for Global Citizenship. Cultural Tastes are just one of many such events.
“Cultural Tastes are an opportunity for SLU international students to share samples of food, drinks, and culture from their home countries with the SLU community. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get a ‘taste’ of the cultural diversity our international students bring to SLU,” Hercules says, adding that this year events featured China, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, India, Bosnia, Thailand, and more.
Additionally, SLU students have access to on-campus prayer and interfaith sacred spaces through campus ministry, as well as 15 affiliate ministers who serve different faith traditions. For Muslims specifically, a mosque and feet-washing stations are available.
Hercules says that SLU provides opportunities for students to not only “grow deeper in their own faith,” but to also engage with and learn about individuals of different beliefs. “Obviously we’re a Catholic institution, but we are providing opportunities so that students from virtually every faith can find a community and support here,” Porterfield adds.
He believes the melting pot of cultures, religions, and nationalities present at SLU helps better prepare students for the wider world. “It opens up our students’ eyes to the idea that they don’t live in a vacuum,” Porterfield says. “The issues that are happening sometimes several thousand miles away are going to affect them wherever they land, whether it’s in New York City, St. Louis, Seattle, or a small town in Illinois.”
Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth University — a Christian liberal arts college founded in 1890 — recognizes the link between students’ retention and success and their connection to campus. For first-generation and underrepresented students, this affiliation is of particular importance, says David H. Garcia, MEd, assistant dean of student diversity, equity, and inclusion.
To ensure a positive experience for these students, Whitworth offers several programs focused on increasing their sense of belonging on campus, as well as helping them build social networks and connect with resources. One such initiative, BUCS (Building Unity and Cultivating Success) Bridge is a four-day program for first-year students of color and those who are the first in their families to go to college. The program’s three pillars, Garcia says, are community building, identity development, and college navigation.
Prior to the start of the fall semester, students come to campus where they reside in residence halls with other BUCS Bridge participants and peer guides. Moving from validation to identity development over the course of several days, Garcia and other program staff help participants build a strong foundation from which to jumpstart their college careers.
“We want to validate their being here and [demonstrate] that they belong here and are smart enough to be here,” says Garcia, adding that the identity development aspect involves getting students to think about some tough questions. “We want them to be asking themselves, ‘What do I know about myself?’ and ‘What do I need to know about myself in relation to this environment and the members of the community [in order to] flourish at Whitworth?’”
Faculty and staff also get involved by participating in group discussions with students around important topics and questions; these conversations help students form relationships with people who can serve as resources down the road. “One question might be ‘What is something that you wish you would have known when you were in college?’ or ‘What’s one tip you have for a first-year student coming in?’ It may be to frequently visit faculty members [during] office hours or to ask questions,” Garcia says. “We try to get individuals from the different buildings across campus so that students will essentially have a contact in each [one].”
A similar program, BUCS Mentoring is a year-round initiative in which first-year students from underserved populations are paired with upperclassmen mentors based on their interests, backgrounds, degree program, or other factors. Mentors meet regularly with their mentees to check in, as well as to attend monthly topical workshops together that are focused on navigating campus or identity development.
Whitworth’s Trailblazers Project, an initiative also designed with first-generation students in mind, seeks to embolden these individuals by creating a peer-support network, as well as raising awareness of this underserved group on campus. “We wanted [first-generation] students to be proud. They’re blazing the trail for their families, for their communities, and so we wanted that to be something that we highlighted,” Garcia says. “We want them to know that there are other students who are first generation who can be of support to them, to know that they’re not alone.”
Using responses from a series of focus groups with first-generation students, faculty, and staff at Whitworth, Garcia’s office launched a campaign; phase one consists of four posters and a video. “We asked them a series of questions about what they wished they would have known while they were in college, why they’re proud to be a trailblazer, and what tips they have for incoming students, and we compiled all of that,” says Garcia. He and his staff are attempting to create awareness around who these individuals are. Often, Garcia says, people don’t consider the fact that many white students are the first in their family to go to college — which means they may not get the support they need — and that not all students of color are first generation.
Trailblazers is also in the process of developing a handbook, informed by the focus groups and other sources, designed to help these students navigate Whitworth. Additionally, Garcia’s office is working on launching a monthly newsletter that will provide the parents of first-generation students with tips on how they can help their children overcome challenges.
All of these efforts and more, Garcia says, are an outgrowth of Whitworth’s commitment to recruiting and educating diverse students. “As long as we’re going to recruit students to Whitworth,” he says, “we [have to be] committed to finding ways to support them.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Davenport University is a 2012-2016 HEED Award recipient, Saint Louis University is a 2016 HEED Award recipient, and Whitworth University is a 2016 HEED Award recipient.