By TODD GOTTULA
KEARNEY – Universities followed the same model for years when trying to engage students and get them excited about life in residence halls.
“Bring in some pizza or popcorn, talk about diversity or another topic and boom, you were done,” explains Trelana Daniel.
But soda and donuts don’t cut it anymore, which has residence life staff searching for ways to keep students living on campus after their freshman year.
At the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the Office of Residence Life is focused on academic support by promoting campus resources and services, providing a top-notch living environment, and retaining students by meeting their many expectations and diverse needs.
“There is a lot more intention to what we do. We host a lot of events simply meant to engage students and just have fun. Others are much more intentional and follow UNK’s vision of creating leaders of the future,” says Daniel, UNK residence life’s associate director of residence education. “Our goal is to make sure students leave our residence halls with an understanding of how to be that global citizen we want them to be.”
NEW RESIDENCE HALL
One of the most exciting residence life projects happening at UNK is the construction of Village Flats, said LeAnn Jochum, UNK residence life associate director of operations. The $16 million residence hall, the first in the new University Village development south of campus, is a 130-bed apartment-style complex.
Village Flats targets nontraditional, graduate, married and University of Nebraska Medical Center students and offers modern living spaces. It opens in summer 2018.
“Village Flats is a game changer. It’s a new era for residence life at UNK and a project that offers contemporary-style living we’ve never had before,” said Jochum. “It combines living and learning, and has a clubhouse feel with a location second to none. You won’t find the affordable pricing and academically-friendly contracts anywhere else.”
Students today have high expectations of their campus living spaces, and UNK is always working to meet those needs. A new residence hall such as Village Flats opens eyes, but new buildings don’t come often. Making regular updates to residence halls, such as adding new furniture, is also important to students, said Jochum.
“We know the living environment is a major factor in where they go to college. It determines what their college lives look like,” Jochum said. “When students visit campus that’s what they look at in determining what it will feel like to be a Loper. When we invest in our residence halls, our top priority is to make it feel like a community that is engaging, inclusive and supportive of academics.”
Event programming is at the forefront of that student engagement and retention, and it has changed significantly at UNK in recent years.
The Office of Residence has a long list of events it hosts each year. There are study breaks, a foam party, movie and bingo nights, bowling, laser tag, donut hole eating contest and ice skating. Other activities such as The Big Event, Fall Ball, Kearney-Val, Taste of Housing, Puppy Project and Holiday Coffeehouse give students a variety of ways to connect with others on campus and in the community.
“These activities are pivotal to student success at UNK,” said Daniel. “A lot of thought goes into programming and our reasons for hosting those activities.”
Residence life has adopted a Rally Around Resources theme, which includes events meant to teach students about vital resources and services on campus. For example, they attend Destination Downtown during Blue Gold Week and Edutainment events sponsored by Peer Health that encourage healthy lifestyles.
One of the office’s major retention initiatives is its residence life traveling collaboration with Learning Commons. That program puts a tutor and success coaches as a point of contact with students. Resident Assistants and Learning Commons tutors go door to door to talk about a student’s preparedness for college and share with them how to get assistance if they are struggling.
“This is a huge retention initiative and puts students in touch with tutors who reach out when early warning referrals begin and we notice they’re not doing so well in their classes,” said Daniel.
Another Learning Goal – called Utilization of the Environment – includes discussions with students about how to live in a residence hall environment.
“We make sure they know study locations in the halls, how to use laundry facilities, and resources available at the front desks such as Crock-Pots or board games so this can be a home away from home for them,” said Daniel.
Residence Life staff had 1,925 interactions with first-year students their first two weeks on campus. “We made sure to talk to every student in the residence halls to ensure they are set up for success at UNK.”
FOCUS ON STUDENT SUCCESS
UNK’s message to students – and their parents – is simple.
“We want them to know that we genuinely care about their success. We have resources in place to assist students, and our smaller campus keeps them from getting lost in the crowd,” Daniel said. “We will find a strategy that will help them be successful. That is why our students who live on campus achieve at such a high rate.”
UNK students who live on campus two or more years have higher grade point averages and a 69 percent greater chance of graduating in five years than those who don’t, said Daniel. “They will not lose their way if they live with us,” she said.
Added Jochum: “We know that living on campus that second year is crucial to students walking across the stage with a graduation cap. If they live off campus that second year, there is a significantly greater chance that they won’t make it across the stage.”
Living on campus helps students stay involved and also avoid daily stresses that often come with renting, said Jochum.
“Students don’t always think about all of the little nuances and challenges of living off campus,” she said.
Buying groceries, roommate problems, paying for cable and internet, rent and leases, and “dealing with landlords who won’t fix a leaky roof or life’s problems that tend to compound on them and keep them from focusing on academic success,” she said.
Writer: Todd Gottula, Director of Communications, 308.865.8454, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Trelana Daniel, Associate Director Operations, Residence Life, 308.865.8519, email@example.com
Source: LeAnn Jochum, Associate Director Residence Education, Residence Life, 308.865.8519, firstname.lastname@example.org