There has been a huge effort to improve retention rates at universities all across the nation. WIU is implementing its own program to help with retention. The program is called Building Connections and it was designed to help new students make the transition to Western easier. This program serves the entire freshman class which is around 1,750 students, as well as transfer students. Vice President of Student Services Gary Biller has been working hard to make this program a success. And a success it has been thus far this semester.
Building Connections is a mentoring-based retention effort which is primarily focused on Western’s freshman students. Over the summer, incoming freshmen completed what Biller described as a “college readiness form.” He said the university takes this information, compiles an inventory, and then provides the information to the mentors who later share it with the students.
“Two-hundred and twenty-two members of [WIU] faculty and staff are mentors,” Biller said. “We train these mentors how to go through the inventory and how to refer students to assistance. So if [students] need tutoring, counseling, or advising, we have those referrals for the mentors.”
On the first day of classes in August, all freshmen and transfer students received emails introducing them to their mentor. The residence hall assistants get involved as well, encouraging the next students to make an appointment with his/her mentor. Later in that first week of classes, all mentors reached out to their students via email, where they scheduled the first meeting.
“We’ve been doing very well so far this semester,” Biller said, “During [the week of September 17], we had over 800 students [make] an appointment with their mentor.”
During this first meeting, the main objective is to help the student make the transition from high school to college. The mentor talks with the student to help them understand the services available to them at Western. The mentor also serves as a point of contact should the student have questions throughout their time at Western. “For the university, [the goal] is to increase freshman and sophomore retention,” Biller said.
Biller said the national retention average for a school like Western Illinois University is between 74-77%. This past year, Western’s retention rate was 70.6%. “I’d like to get [the retention rate] to get back up to the national average, and higher, to 80%, but it will take some time,” he said.
“The nice part of this program is that [students] get to talk to [faculty/staff members]. You get to talk to them one-on-one and then the students know where the help is. What we try to do is get them the assistance before they go home and drop out,” Biller said.
Two-hundred and twenty-two members of Western’s faculty and staff, including Biller and even President Jack Thomas, are currently mentoring students. “All faculty and staff are volunteers,” Biller said. “We gave out a call to see who wanted to do it, and they stepped up. They go through a brief training, and then they are assigned anywhere from 7-10 new freshman.”
If you want to learn more about Western’s Building Connections program, visit http://www.wiu.edu/student_services/building_connections/.