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Professional Opinion

Engaging students early and often

How to encourage students to contribute to society, from admissions to graduation and beyond
University Business, December 2013

In my experience as president of a university where liberal arts and professional programs serve as complements, I have found that engaging students—both before they arrive on campus, and while they are completing their studies—is vital to creating the overall college experience that students are seeking. The more connected prospective and current students feel to the university early on, the more likely they are to feel a positive connection through graduation and beyond.

Sparking engagement with prospective students is no easy task, as this audience is bombarded with messages from hundreds of institutions vying for their attention. These students may have no existing tie to a particular university, but the key is to focus recruitment efforts on an issue that aligns with each university’s core messages and values, which should attract students with similar interests. If a university is heavily focused on having a global presence or experiential learning, it makes sense to target prospective students who view those characteristics as “must-haves” in a college, for example.

A culture of service

At Capital University in Ohio, we encourage our students to contribute to our democracy and our world, in their personal service and professional lives. This was the driver behind one of our admissions recruitment initiatives, called Common Good. Using social media, the program invited deposited students to vote for a particular cause—ranging from fueling social activism to fighting childhood cancer—they would like to see the university formally support.

It engaged incoming students in our culture of service and outreach before they even arrived on campus. It opened doors to them, helping them establish campus relationships early on. It also reinforced the work of current students, faculty and staff by building support for causes they champion.

Although recruitment programs such as this are integral in higher education, it’s important not to cast these efforts aside once prospective students transition to enrolled students. If a university has established a platform to help attract the right type of student, it has an obligation to continue similar types of engagement with its current students. This engagement can take the form of themed course offerings, volunteer opportunities, or activity programming—anything that aligns with the university’s core values.

Teaching empathy

For example, Capital University launched the Empathy Experiment to parallel the institution’s focus on service. The idea began in 2010 as a social experiment to instill empathy in undergraduate students by facilitating their participation in immersion experiences, pushing them to truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Through traditional and nontraditional learning experiences, students identified their preconceived notions about certain societal issues, educated themselves and deepened their understanding of those issues and the people they impact, and began to unpack the underlying complexities to see things from a new perspective.

Now the Empathy Experience, the program leverages faculty-driven projects to engage and immerse students in challenging social issues and forges meaningful partnerships with social service agencies, businesses, nonprofit organizations and local schools.

Although no university credit is offered and the experience is voluntary, student interest in the program remains high—a good sign for a university cultivating students who want to contribute to the world, without expecting something in return. The ultimate reward has been watching our student participants transform from indifferent to empathetic when faced with issues like living with disabilities and navigating poverty, hunger, homelessness and related socio economic challenges. I am confident that the experiences have permanently and positively impacted the students involved.

If the ultimate goal is to create a lasting impression on students, early and thorough engagement is necessary. It’s also crucial to focus efforts on issues that align with the university’s core values and the way it presents itself to prospective and current students. Executed correctly, launching specific efforts with each of these audiences ensures that students come to campus fully engaged, and leave as more complete and whole individuals ready to contribute positively to the world.

Denvy A. Bowman is president of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.