Florida International University’s (FIU) commitment to putting students first positions the university as a leader in producing minority degree-holders in various academic fields.
With the Student Support Services Program, evidence-based student success strategies and a holistic approach to student success overall for its diverse student population, FIU has improved its four-year graduation rate by 14 percentage points in the last six years.
Dr. Elizabeth María Béjar
“We empower students with an extensive coaching and support system to ensure they complete their degrees in a timely manner,” says Dr. Elizabeth María Béjar, senior vice president for academic and student affairs at FIU. “Our Student Success Initiative targets students at every stage of their college career to help guide them and offer support.”
Student support is the responsibility of everyone at the Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI).
Programs like the multi-year Gateway Project – supported by a Department of Education Title V grant and FIU’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching – help students make the transition to college life through customized education plans and peer mentoring.
Faculty teams redesigned, and constantly refine, more than 20 gateway courses, Béjar says, and the project works to improve students’ competencies in skills such as reading, writing and math.
“Within many of these courses, we embed our Learning Assistants (LA), undergraduate students who are trained in how to support their fellow students’ learning,” Béjar says, allowing for the LAs to become part of faculty members’ teaching team so that faculty implement learning-centered, evidence-based and culturally responsive teaching methods.
Because of the Gateway Project, FIU saw more than 5,000 additional math course completions during the last four years, she adds.
The Faculty Senate also includes a Student Success committee, which hosts an annual Faculty Innovations in Student Success Showcase for faculty to share course designs, assignments and activities that are proven for student success.
Leaders also created the university’s Student Support Services Program to increase student retention and graduation rates by offering academic development and advising, career counseling, financial aid and support, tutorial services and computer labs and study tables, among other services.
Initiatives under the program include the Federal TRIO Programs; the Freshman Pathways program; the Emergency Aid Lab for emergency loans, waivers and scholarship grants; the Mastery Math Lab; and Fostering Panther Pride for students coming from foster homes or who struggle with homelessness.
FIU’s Student Success Initiative awarded more than $79,000 in grants in the 2017-18 academic year alone to help students reduce monetary obstacles and achieve degree completion.
Ke-Ana Durham, a rising junior majoring in social work with a certificate in public policy, is a student in Fostering Panther Pride (FPP). During her experience, she says that she had a professor reach out to her after missing a class.
“She emailed me personally just to see how I was doing, which was kind of nice because even though I may not have realized it, it was like, ‘Wow, she knows who I am out of 50 other students,’” Durham says.
Through FPP, Durham has a tuition exemption waiver, and the university provides FPP students with stable housing, an emotional support system and financial support if students need it. Further, FPP has a pantry with supplies for students, and the program works with other campus partners.
Durham also uses the math labs, and says that her relationships with peers, others at her job at FIU Foundation and with teachers makes it so that “everyone feels like family” to her. She adds, “I love FIU. They’ve given me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”
Durham secured a summer internship in D.C. with FIU’s help, and acknowledges that FIU has prepared her and other students for after college.
Part of FIU’s success with students stems from its enriched advising experience for undergraduate students. The school hired more than 80 new academic advisers to improve the adviser-student ratio so that advising is tailored to a student’s needs and moves “beyond a transactional interaction focused on merely helping students identify and register for courses,” Béjar says.
In addition, advisers receive ongoing professional development and training that includes an emphasis on adopting an “Appreciative Advising” philosophy. This approach is collaborative and asks students positive, open-ended questions that help them enhance their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals and potentials, according to the model’s definition.
Faculty also work with advisors to generate early alerts when a student is struggling to get them back on track, Béjar says. Academically at-risk students then receive a phone call or email from the Student Success Initiatives Team.
The College Life Coaching program provides additional support to struggling students through face-to-face meetings either biweekly or monthly so they learn success strategies and time-management.
Last month, FIU held eight summer commencement ceremonies where school officials celebrated students’ academic excellence and perseverance despite obstacles. Leaders also recognized the university’s Worlds Ahead Graduates.
“These students truly represent the spirit of grit, determination and talent at our FIU,” said President Dr. Mark B. Rosenberg. “They have taken responsibility and exceeded expectations. We are proud of them.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.
This article appeared in the August 23, 2018 edition of Diverse and is the first in a series of profiles about some of the institutions that made our Top 100 list.