The students most likely to seek academic or other assistance tend to be those doing well but ambitious to improve their marks.
But Wiggers says those with “the lowest GPA [grade point average] and highest risk are the students who are the least likely to know help is there, and they are also the least likely to go and get it.”
That said, he adds, “anything that an institution does to make a student feel the institution is trying to help them and that the program is trying to ensure their success is helpful to do.” Just don’t assume, he cautions, that a single program such as peer mentoring will be a silver bullet for student engagement and retention.
In a 2011 paper for HEQCO, on defining and measuring student success, Wiggers and fellow researcher Christine arnold found that “very few” students knew about the wide range of academic, personal and financial support offered by Ontario colleges and universities.
The report recommends that institutions “make support services as easily accessible as possible.”
Improving student retention, ASAP
Self-identified aboriginal students make up about 15 per cent of the first-year class of the College of arts and science at the University of Saskatchewan, well above their presence on the campus as a whole.
But only about half of the 300 First nation, Métis and Inuit students who enter the college make it to second year, tripped up by inadequate finances, a lack of academic preparation, an absence of role models and family obligations.
Improving the retention rate – currently about 55 per cent compared to 75 per cent for other first-year students – is a priority for the college.
“Until we do that, it’s almost inappropriate for us to increase the number of aboriginal students coming through the door,” college dean Peter Stoicheff says. “We know something is happening in first year that is not quite right and we are trying to address that.”
Last year, as a pilot project, the college introduced the Aboriginal Student Achievement Program (ASAP), which offered small classes, student advisers and peer mentors to 68 self-identified aboriginal students.
This year, the university expects 120 students to join the program, patterned on the university’s successful use of “learning communities” for small cohorts of first-year-students to study together and connect to older student peer mentors and the university.
Since its introduction of learning communities in 2007, the university reports a retention rate of 81 per cent for participating arts and science students compared to 74.7 per cent for non-participants.
For Jacquelyne Nokusis, who lives in Saskatoon but whose home community of Peepeekisis First Nation is about 350 kilometres southeast of the city, arriving on campus last year was a little unnerving.
“I did not know what to expect,” says Nokusis, who worked in Saskatoon for several years and is the mother of a seven-year-old daughter. “Especially being 26 and a mother, I didn’t think i was prepared.”
She signed up for ASAP, which linked her with academic advisers and peer mentors – older students trained to offer workshops in study habits and time management and to provide general advice and encouragement.
“The program has done so much for me,” says Nokusis, who hopes to become a doctor trained in conventional medicine and native healing. She is majoring in microbiology and immunology, with a minor in toxicology.
Earlier this year, in second term, she bonded with an aboriginal peer mentor who was one of the few recruited for the pilot program. “she, like most of us, had a family and it was a lot easier to connect,” Nokusis said.
She did well academically in her first year – especially in the small-class learning communities with other aboriginal students – and applied to become a peer mentor for this fall.
“I really want to connect with other aboriginal students and hopefully inspire some of them to continue their studies,” Nokusis said. “I have lived in the city and worked in non-aboriginal communities for many years, but it was still hard for me to make the transition to university.”
This year, the university has signed up eight aboriginal students (out of a total of 14) as peer mentors.
“We hope that this proportion will continue to increase as more aboriginal students go through ASAP and so more upper-year students are aware of the program and its value,” writes Kristina Bidwell, the college’s associate dean of aboriginal affairs, in an e-mail.
Bidwell says, “I think it is valuable for aboriginal students in first year to see other aboriginal students who have made it through that tough first year and are now successful and continuing students.”