Minding the Gaps

How Coker College is Eliminating Obstacles to Student Success

 In the past, a typical college student could be narrowly defined as 18-22 year-olds from middle-to-upper-class families with intentions to pursue a profession.

Things have markedly changed. Coker College and colleges all across the country are educating “the new student majority,” a term borrowed from Gloria Nemerowicz, president of the Yes We Must Coalition (of which Coker is a member), which includes substantial numbers of first-generation students, students coming from under-resourced high schools, underrepresented students and adult-age students. This new student majority makes up a realistic slice of a very diverse American pie. “This is really who we are now,” says Nemerowicz.

Evolving student demographics mean that incoming students face a different set of challenges than previous generations. Coker is making tremendous strides to improve and expand services for the modern-day student. The key to our students’ success and the success of our entire college community is identifying and eliminating achievement gaps so that more and more students are persisting to graduation.

“I call it a national movement for change in higher education that’s really being led by schools like Coker,” says Nemerowicz. “The work is so critical to the future of our nation and obviously to the students who are enrolled. And I think it’s great for the colleges themselves, the faculty and the students, to kind of understand that they are a part of a national movement for change in higher education.”

“It doesn’t matter what opportunities you did or didn’t have growing up; you should be able to come to Coker College, get an education, graduate, and do well in life,” says Brianna Douglas, Vice President of Student Success at Coker. “Everyone has an opportunity here.”

Coker College is now offering more support opportunities than ever, thanks to a number of new initiatives across campus.  

Building Connections

Student Success Coaches

“Students, more than you would think, don’t understand the college language,” says Whitney Watts, Dean of Student Success. “So we’re helping to make students more aware, and helping acclimate them to college. It’s not just about the academic side or the financial side. It’s knowing how to navigate the college system.”

"We’re helping to make students more aware, and helping acclimate them to college." 

To help students learn their way, Coker now has three student success coaches on staff: Lyn Joyce, who works primarily with traditional undergraduate students, and Dick Coldwell and Aaron Beebe to assist students in the Adult Degree Program (ADP).

The student success coaches offer guidance in a number of areas, ranging from time management and study skills, to course registration, to understanding tuition bills and online learning systems. Coker plans to add one success coach per year over the next six years, so as new students come to campus, they will have access to success coaches through every step of their college journey.

In addition to student success coaches, Coker is implementing new strategies for off-setting some of the most insistent hurdles for new students. Kendrick Reed, coordinator of residence life and the first-year experience, says, “We’re being proactive providing students with data-driven programs and services that we know will assist them in their persistence in and transition to college. We developed an online orientation course this past summer that taught students technological platforms–email, WebAdvisor, and Blackboard. That was one thing we heard, that students struggled with those platforms...Before they got here, they had to complete it [online orientation course]. So they arrived knowing how to access their email, knowing what WebAdvisor was, what Blackboard was.”

“We’re seeing that students need these resources,” says Watts.

A Common Experience

Research shows that students who participate in a shared group experience in their first year of college are more likely to return for their sophomore year, and ultimately, graduate. With that in mind, Coker designed the Common Experience—and in September, 250 first-year students, sophomore commissioners, and faculty and staff from Coker College 101 (CC 101) courses traveled together to Washington, D.C. for three days of immersion into the history and culture of our nation’s capital.

Students visited iconic sites throughout the city, with each CC 101 class studying different topics. One group participated in a community service project at the Sasha Bruce transitional home in southeast D.C. Others explored monuments and museums, including the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“[The D.C. Experience] is a shared, unique experience,” says Darlene Small, Assistant Dean and Director of Coker’s Trans4mations program. “[It] gives them a sense of what it means to belong to the Coker community and the transformative advantage of a Coker College education.”

The timing of the Common Experience is intentional. “The period about a month after move-in and the start of classes can be one of the most challenging for first-year students,” says Tracy Parkinson, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships and Special Assistant to the President. “We know that first-year students who need help of any sort are often hesitant to seek it out, and these connections could prove to be lifelines well after the trip has ended.”

“It’s good to get out of your comfort zone and get into different scenarios with people,” says freshman Zandra McNair. “Washington had so much to offer...and to go there, especially during this time, it was amazing.”

Starting with a Strong Foundation

Coker Connection, the adventure-based three-day orientation session for incoming students, has long been an optional program. Now, starting with the 2018 - 2019 academic year, it will be mandatory for all first-year students. As always, Coker Connection will provide experiential learning, coupled with the opportunity to meet new classmates, stay in the residence halls, and explore campus before classes start.

“Connection catapults our incoming students into Coker action and adventure,” says Caroline Carter, Director of Student Activities and Leadership. “Three days of games, competition, and activities challenge them to meet and work with new classmates each step of the way. While they also talk about academic success strategies for the classroom, attendees often learn the most about their own ability to come together as a community and overcome obstacles.”

Data shows that students who participate in Coker Connection are more likely to succeed at the college than their counterparts who have not taken advantage of the program. “We are having more sessions for Coker Connection throughout the summer,” says VP Douglas. “We’re doing them on weekdays and weekends. We’re completely revamping how we’re doing it, and including more opportunities for the incoming students to engage with faculty, staff and each other.”

There is a place here for everyone

Introducing the Coker Gentlemen

There are a number of reasons why students leave college, but one of the most pervasive is feeling like they don’t belong. The Center for Diversity, Interfaith, and Inclusion Education at Coker College was created in an effort to promote the wellbeing of all Coker students, and to ensure that everyone is able to experience a sense of belonging on campus.

“Students who aren’t persisting, they’re leaving because they feel like they don’t belong,” says VP Douglas. “Through cultural awareness programming, we’re hoping to increase that sense of belonging.”

“Through cultural awareness programming, we’re hoping to increase that sense of belonging.”

The Center’s newest initiative is the Coker Gentlemen mentoring program. Designed specifically for sophomore male students, Coker Gentlemen provides mentees with the opportunity to meet confidentially with their mentors to discuss issues such as academics, personal concerns, or spiritual matters. By the end of their sophomore year, the goal is that mentees have a strong support system in place and a positive self-image—and the necessary encouragement to stay in school through graduation.

“It’s a program that looks at the academic and the emotional, but it’s also a program that looks at how men perform masculinity,” explains Reverend John Foster, III, Director of the Center for Diversity, Interfaith, and Inclusion Education. “Many of our men have problems in social spaces. A lot of our men come from backgrounds that have not been supportive. A lot of men come from backgrounds where they’ve been given mixed messages about what it is to be a man...So how to deal with power benevolently will be one of the goals, the many goals, that we have to help these men achieve, not only here at college but in the workplace.”

The Coker Gentlemen program is not an insular initiative; the Center will offer other male-centered programs, open to all men on campus. There are also plans to develop a similar mentoring program for women at Coker.

Meeting the Most Basic of Needs

20% of students at four-year colleges and universities experience food insecurity—or a lack of access to the amount and quality of food necessary for an active, healthy life—according to a 2016 collaborative report from the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and the Student Public Interest Research Groups. It is, unfortunately, a nationwide problem that extends to our Coker community.

To help students overcome this significant obstacle, Coker’s residence life team launched the Cobra Cupboard food pantry in November. Students apply to the program via an online application and, if approved, are allowed to visit twice a month, including the summer months.

“This is another initiative we’re doing to ensure our students have all the resources they need to be successful,” says Reed.

“We also seek recommendations and have faculty and staff, even students, refer other students to it,” says Tymon Graham, Director of Residence Life. “We’ve partnered with the Student Success Center...a lot of times, through their dialogue with students, they’ll find out students are having trouble in this area and it impacts their education.”

The Cobra Cupboard depends on donations for operation and accepts only non-perishable food items. Monetary donations and Walmart gift cards are also welcome, which allow staff to replenish the pantry with necessary items.

Set Up for Success

Leveling the Technological Playing Field

Coker is committed to lifelong learning through the use of innovative technologies that personalize the college experience, create connections and reimagine collaboration. Starting next year, all incoming freshmen traditional day students will be given an iPad, eventually ensuring that every member of Coker’s campus community has the same access to technology.

“This is what they’re accustomed to, not a textbook or worksheets,” says VP Douglas. “If you get on their level and speak their language, then they’re going to be more successful.”

Everyone knows that lessons are not confined to the classroom. With this initiative, Coker aims to provide an environment where students, faculty and staff can more easily engage, offer and receive feedback, and experiment with new approaches to problem-solving. With everyone having access to evolving communication channels and new media, this initiative has the ability to transcend geography, scheduling conflicts, and many other logistical barriers.

“One of the first things [the students said] when we had a student focus group, they said, ‘this is going to put everybody on an equal playing field,’” says VP Douglas. “This puts a device in everybody’s hand...Students want it for each other.”

“It gives all our students the opportunity to be successful,” says Reed.

Better Understanding What Contributes to Persistence

Coker College will serve as the lead institution on a research project involving five additional colleges, using a five-year $4,446,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program (NSF S-STEM).

The grant will fund the STEM Scholars in Biology (SSB) program for high-achieving students interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields and who are in need of financial assistance to attend college. The grant provides scholarship aid averaging $6,000 per year for each of the recipient's four years in college; an anticipated 114 students from the consortium of six schools will be supported by the grant. The first group of students to be enrolled in the SSB program will be selected from first-year students entering college in the fall of 2018 with a commitment to studying biology; Coker will have 18 scholars participate in the cohort.

The project hopes to generate new information about factors contributing to the persistence and success of biology students who need financial assistance. It will contribute new information to the literature specific to low-income students and will ultimately help increase graduation rates of STEM scholars, while increasing their participation in a STEM-related graduate program or field of employment.

“Every student who walks through our gates deserves an equitable opportunity to be successful, and this very generous grant helps us ensure that opportunity for each of them,” says VP Parkinson. “We will be able to better provide support structures for their academic success, and we will be able to reduce the financial stresses that need not be barriers for talented and capable students. Our biology program will benefit from their presence and, when they are graduates, our communities and regions will benefit as well.”

Joe Flaherty, professor of biology and director of undergraduate research at Coker, is the principal investigator for the project, with Tracy Parkinson serving as co-principal investigator.

In addition to the four-year scholarships, SSB participants will receive an integrated first-year experience, including a STEM-based first-year seminar, new laptop computers, mentoring by external scientists, intrusive advising from faculty and support from peer mentors, research or project-based learning experiences and support to travel and participate in an annual SSB Institute held in Washington, DC. The impact of these activities on enrollment and retention, graduation, and post-graduate placement rates will be examined.

All six colleges participating in the NSF S-STEM collaborative grant belong to the Yes We Must Coalition, which strives to increase low-income and underrepresented students’ college-degree attainment at small, independent, nonprofit colleges and universities: Coker, College of Saint Elizabeth (Morristown, NJ), Ferrum College (Ferrum, VA), Keuka College (Keuka Park, NY), Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, NY), and Thomas University (Thomasville, GA).

Why Student Success Initiatives Matter

In most cases, economic empowerment comes as a result of academic attainment. Two-thirds of all jobs today require some kind of postsecondary credential. Student success initiatives are becoming critical components of college life because they help close achievement gaps that oftentimes hinder a college student’s persistence to graduation. Only by eliminating those gaps and increasing persistence can we ultimately have a positive impact on society as a whole.

When Gloria Nemerowicz reflects on the significance of student success initiatives, she sees the bigger picture, “If you look at some of the practices and policies and delivery forms of education, especially higher education, it hasn’t [always] been student-centered. It’s been institution-centered or faculty-centered, and now these colleges are moving to be more student-centered, [keeping] more of an eye on what helps the student in terms of the relationship to the material being presented, the way it’s presented–interactively instead of by lecture, flexibility in scheduling...because it accommodates the needs of the student. The institutions that are at their heart at student-centered, like Coker, that’s good for all students that attend because you’re being responsive to the learner, and all good education theory tells you that that increases learning.”

“There are very few of us that can look back on our entire college career and not see a moment of challenge from which we would have benefitted from a support network,” says VP Parkinson. “The advantage of a place like Coker is it’s personal.”

Freshman and Coker’s first Business Fellows scholarship recipient Mary Kooper says, “When I came here for orientation, they said, you won’t just be a number or a face in a crowd. You will be you. That’s the biggest thing is it will give me the one-on-one with professors...I think that that will be the main thing that will benefit me...we stick together, and the teachers care and the students care, and I think it will give me what I need to be successful.”

Coker alumnus Seth Rainey says, “Some people may like the hustle and bustle of big town life, the big school life. For someone like me, it was the one-on-one...You can’t hide...And it truly holds you accountable. Every professor knows your name...I don’t think you can get that at big schools.”

"Every professor knows your name...I don’t think you can get that at big schools.”

“That’s why you go to a small private college,” says visiting ACE Fellow John Miles. “Because you want support and help.”

“If a student wants to go to college, and they’re willing to put in the work, we want to help them succeed,” says Watts.

“The college landscape is constantly changing––we’re in a state of greater access and opportunity,” says Coker College President Dr. Robert Wyatt. “It’s up to us to ensure that students have the resources and tools needed to turn their Coker experience into a success story. The data shows that student success initiatives and programs help provide a fundamental support system for all our students, and that’s all the more reason to keep pushing forward.”

Coker College already excels in educating and supporting the new student majority. 2017 marks the seventh consecutive year that Coker College has been ranked in Washington Monthly’s top 100, and according to those most recent rankings, Coker College is in the...
  • 75th percentile - “Social Mobility” Ranking, National Bachelors Universities
  • 79th percentile - “Service” Ranking, National Bachelors Universities
  • 93rd percentile - Graduation Rate vs Predicted Graduation Rate, National Bachelors Universities (17 of 227)
  • 82nd percentile - “Best Bang for Buck” Ranking, Southeast
  • 63rd percentile - “Pell Performance” Ranking, Southeast
  • 94th percentile - “First-Generation Performance” Ranking, Southeast (15 of 256)
  • 56th percentile - “Earnings Performance” Ranking, Southeast
  • 80th percentile - “Graduation Rate” Ranking, Southeast


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