First Year Experience Conference at CWRU Focuses on Service, Student Retention

The third Personal Librarian and First Year Experience Library Conference, held at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University on March 21 and 22, focuses on all aspects of the first-year student experience and the personalization of outreach and services for incoming students.

Attendees at the 2018 Personal Librarian and First Year Experience ConferenceAttendees at the 2018 Personal Librarian and First Year Experience Conference. Photo by Denice Rovira Hazlett

Episode number 550 of This American Life, titled "Three Miles," told the story of high school student Jonathan Gonzales, who was awarded a full scholarship to Wheaton College in Massachusetts. On his first day at Wheaton, he realized he couldn’t afford the required books so he didn’t buy them. Because he couldn't buy them, he didn’t do the assigned homework. Embarrassed, Gonzales stopped going to classes, failed out of Wheaton, and moved back in with his mom in the Bronx. The show’s producer, Chana Joffe-Walt, said there was one thing that could have helped Gonzales succeed, had he known about it. It had never occurred to Gonzales that Wheaton’s “beautiful, freestanding library on campus was there to serve and had a lot of the books [he] needed for free.”

Brian Gray is the team leader for research services at Case Western Reserve University’s (CWRU) Kelvin Smith Library (KSL) in Cleveland, Ohio. He says Gonzales’ experience is all too familiar. “That sounds exactly like many of the students we see coming out of high school these days,” Gray says. “And that’s exactly the kind of student we would want on our campus.” Gray, who co-chaired the third Personal Librarian and First Year Experience Library Conference held at CWRU on March 21 and 22, says CWRU librarians find two ends of the spectrum for first year students in relation to the library. “Many have no high school library experience because they have done most of their research with Google,” Gray says. “The other extreme is with students for whom learning and research skills came naturally and they always knew where to look for the answers. Now they come to the college experience with a new rigor they aren’t used to, and they don’t want to ask for help.”

Either way, the results can be devastating for both the students and the institution. CWRU had been finding that, compared to peer institutions, its student retention was lower. For CWRU, one solution was a Personal Librarian (PL) program. “We describe the PL program as a kind of concierge service,” Gray says, “It’s a guarantee that a first-year student will always know at least one person at the library to find the answers they need. Even if that PL is not an expert, they will know who the expert is and how to find them.”


Training PLs was what led CWRU to establish the National Personal Librarian & First Year Experience Library Conference. Founded in 2014, the conference is a two day event and, CWRU says, the first and only of its kind in the country that focuses on all aspects of the first-year student experience and the personalization of outreach and services for incoming students. Additionally, the conference is focused on creating sustainable library initiatives, assessing service and resource outcomes, and building collaborative relationships between the library and academic enterprise. Conference participants were treated to a wide range of sessions by presenters from all over the country as well as an evening networking session at the Cleveland Botanical Garden sponsored by Credo Reference. Conference organizers intentionally expanded the scope of this year’s conference to focus on diversity. In his opening keynote, Aaron Thompson, executive VP and chief academic officer for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, focused on integrating diversity and critical thinking to increase student success. He emphasized that an effective FYE course should focus on the whole person, making it the quintessential “student centered” course. Thompson noted that research studies demonstrate that students’ success is heavily influenced by the quality and quantity of their interaction with faculty members outside of the classroom and is positively associated with improved academic performance, increased critical thinking skills, greater satisfaction with the educational experience, and making choices that are in the best interest of their own success. To tap into that relationship, though, educators must understand the student’s individual uniqueness and multi-layered cultural background. By 2023, he said, people of color will comprise more than half of all children in the U.S. Valuing such diversity recognizes that all groups have contributed to the American experience, and also improves college performance by promoting creative thinking, enhancing career preparation and success, and stimulating social development.


New to this year’s conference was the inclusion of lightning rounds, a series of short, concentrated presentations focusing on specific ways libraries are using FYE and PL programs and their evaluations of such programs. Christal Young, reference and instruction librarian and Leavy First Year Experience Coordinator for University of Southern California, discussed intersectionality and the first year college student. Young introduced herself (a black, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender woman) as an example of intersectionality, how social categorizations like race, class, and gender are interconnected and have the potential to create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination. Young specialized in creating an FYE program that serves first year, first generation students who have decided to pursue a Masters degree or PH.D. Her presentation focused on that intersection of identities and the opportunities available for specialized outreach, programs, and services. One of her strategies involves establishing partnerships with cultural centers where students are comfortable going for support so that when they seek out resources at these centers they can be directed back to her FYE program.


Olga Karanikos is senior director of marketing for Credo Reference, which is partnering with conference organizers to create free webinars to keep conversation going between conferences. Some  presentations offered during lightning rounds may be included as webinars. Said Karanikos, "We need to amplify what libraries and librarians do, how they can set students off on that right foot, how they increase retention and persistence.” As part of that amplification, Credo has partnered with CWRU to annually honor a librarian and library who are innovating in the field. This year, Laura Kohl, associate director of library services for Bryant University (BU), and the Waidner-Spahr Library at Dickinson College were the recipients of the inaugural FYE Innovation Awards, including a $1,500 cash prize and a commemorative plaque presented at the conference. Kohl helped design and implement BU’s First-Year Gateway Program, a 13-credit program that utilizes learning outcomes assessment data in a curriculum to cultivate critical thinking and professional skills. She developed the program’s EPortfolio, used for student reflection and assessment, and then supported faculty and students during the implementation process and beyond. The Waidner-Spahr Library was chosen for their strong collaborative efforts, established assessment practices, and proven record at improving learning outcomes. The library’s integration of information literacy (IL) into the campus’ First Year Seminar (FYS) Program resulted in 89% of participating students surveyed reporting that they used the IL skills learned during their FYS in other courses. Credo is also developing a series of FYE guides as a free resource for librarians that will release section by section through June of this year, covering everything from orientation to assessment.


Increasing retention for at-risk students was another theme of the conferences sessions. Western Washington University’s student engagement librarian, Elizabeth Stephan, offers extra support for students, traditionally from underserved populations, who need more help in classes with a research and writing focus. The personalized, individualized pass/fail practicum is repeatable to a maximum of six credits including the original course. The peer-to-peer approach integrates research, reading, and writing to develop strategies of habit as well as reflect on individual strengths and goals. Stephan shared that 69 percent of students taking the practicum are people of color, 73 percent are first generation, and 62 percent are English language learners. One student’s feedback indicated that the practicum helped her not just within her studies but also outside of class. For another, self-conscious of her accent and writing ability, the practicum gave her confidence, a sense of place and support, self-advocacy, and a one-on-one relationship with her mentor. This one-on-one relationship was cited over and over again throughout the conference as a successful step toward retention. This is intentional at CWRU, Brian Gray says. “Our program has been directly tied to our residence halls,” Gray explains. “PLs are provided for each floor and work directly with RAs to find ways to connect with students, even if it’s social for social events that have nothing to do with the library.”


One of the most popular and meaningful presentations of each conference continues to be the student panel near the end of day two. This year’s students were Jhonatan Ewunetie of Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, Manpreet Kaur of Cleveland State University, Aidan Montare of CWRU, and Sai Somasundaram of CWRU. Ewunetie expressed his wish that high schools would focus more on how to use libraries than they currently do. “I have a stronger ability of searching the internet than using the library, and that worries me,” Ewunetie said. The students shared that they mostly thought of the library in their community as a place to hang out until their parents could pick them up after school, or a place to charge their laptop, nap, or avoid interacting with other students, instead of what they now know it to be: a place to find fair access to the education every student should receive. Gray says it’s this brutal honesty that draws conference-goers to the panel. “The students are giving us the kind of feedback we can’t always get from on-campus evaluations,” Gray said. “It’s a good way to pull everything you’ve been hearing for two days together and see how you can apply it. Two years ago, for example, a librarian asked what they should do differently to increase interaction between students and staff, and the student replied, ‘Why can’t librarians smile?’ That one simple action could open the door to better dialogue and outreach.” A similar question this year, answered a bit differently, resulted in a rousing round of applause from the audience. “Librarians are the best people I’ve ever met,” Ewunetie said. “I don’t know how someone can be so nice to you.” The closing keynote speaker was Steven Volk, professor of history Emeritus and director of the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College. His message boiled down to this: “Our most profound responsibility,” Volk said, “Is the student sitting in front of us.” He challenged librarians, educators, and faculty to create a proper environment for learning to occur: both challenging and safe, connecting the student with a professor or librarian who cares about them as a person. He stressed that having a mentor or caring professor or librarian increases by twofold a student’s purpose, social, financial, community, and physical well-being. He also shared that dining just one time in a staff member’s home increases a student’s success and satisfaction. In essence, relationships are central to successful college experiences, and FYE programs can play a significant role in building those relationships. View presentation slides, learn more about the conference, and get connected to CWRU’s FYE and PL community here.

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