Faculty & staff leaders highlight Elon Commitment successes

In an Aug. 18 conversation moderated by President Leo M. Lambert, six professors and administrators shared insights about progress on the university’s strategic plan as Elon formally opened the 2014-2015 academic year.

An annual program to open the academic year featured a unique twist Monday when Elon President Leo M. Lambert, in lieu of a formal address to university employees, welcomed onstage in Alumni Gym six administrators and faculty members whose roles are vital to the ongoing success of the Elon Commitment strategic plan.

This year the decade-long Elon Commitment plan reaches its midpoint, and Lambert used the Aug. 18 program to engage staff on the progress related to several themes, including a commitment to diversity and global engagement, a focus on building a vibrant alumni network, and attaining the highest levels of achievement across academic programs.

The university community also received updates on forces shaping the way the admissions office recruits students.

“Leadership at Elon is broad based, and we know that it takes many talented, committed and passionate people to implement a strategic plan as complex and ambitious as the Elon Commitment,” Lambert said.

Admissions and the Changing Nature of Incoming Students

Lambert opened the program with questions directed to Greg Zaiser ’90 G’95, vice president for admissions and financial planning, who told of the way students and parents over the past year have moved away from traditional questions about “life on campus” to more specific queries on academic programs, and alumni and career success.

The Office of Admissions is adapting to those concerns. Springtime programs will shift their emphasis to provide greater details about Elon’s academic experience. Additional time will also be spent hosting events on the road for admitted students and their families.

The university also will expand its recruiting efforts in California, Texas, Illinois and Colorado, four states where interest in Elon University is beginning to soar among prospective students.

Zaiser told faculty that successful recruiting happens because of their efforts in welcoming prospective students to campus. He also called on professors to inform the admissions office of especially bright prospective students who visit campus, and to share information or insights based on college searches with their own children.

“We know that you’re meeting with families and talking with students. You’re hosting students in your classes,” Zaiser said. “That’s what today’s audiences need. Our prospective students need to know what makes biology or German or political science different at Elon.”

Growing Programs for Alumni

The conversation segued from prospective students to Elon graduates. Lambert introduced Brian Feeley ‘03, the university’s new director of alumni engagement, and the duo discussed how “great universities have great alumni bodies.”

Sixty percent of Elon alumni are in their 20s and 30s, which reflects recent growth of the institution. Alumni also are living further away from campus. The average alum used to be about 250 miles removed from his or her alma mater; today, the average alum resides 400 miles away.

Feeley said that new alumni chapters and clubs are planned for this year and, once installed, will bring the total number of chapters to 30. Additional programs are also being created to cater to alumni who live in what Feeley called an “on-demand world.”

“Any industry, any enterprise, has to realize that consumers are looking for things on their own time, in their own way,” he said. The Office of Alumni Engagement is expanding the types of opportunities alumni will have to connect with their school, from Homecoming events to mentoring programs to even recruiting alumni volunteers to distribute oak saplings at Commencement.

Feeley asked that faculty and staff assist his team by letting it know about alumni success stories. “Help us celebrate them by sharing their stories with us. And let us know when they’re back to visit you, or if you’ve invited them to speak to students or mentor through various programs you’re putting on,” he  said. “We want to have a dialogue with them and help them feel welcome when they return.”

A Commitment to Diversity and Global Engagement

Lambert next introduced Randy Williams, Elon’s new presidential fellow and special assistant to the president / dean of Multicultural Affairs. Lambert praised Williams for his insights into teaching intercultural competence, which helps students appreciate, respect and interact in a diverse world of ethnicities, races, faiths, sexual orientations and physical abilities.

Williams shared a story about a young alumus who visited campus with prospective students. That alum told Williams that in her current position, she communicated daily with people outside the United States and that the mission of the Multicultural Center is imperative in today’s global environment.

“It’s important to apply the attitudes and knowledge you gain here by practically infusing them into your profession,” Williams said.

He lauded efforts that have been under way for years prior to his arrival on campus this summer. Williams pointed to the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, the Center for Access and Success, and the Gender and LGBTQIA Center as positive examples.

“What I think is an opportunity for us is to create a system for how these parts interact with one another and how they support one another,” he said.

The Center for Access & Success

Lambert continued the hour-long dialogue with Associate Professor Jean Rattigan-Rohr, director of the university’s Center for Access and Success, which encompasses Elon’s Watson & Odyssey Scholars Program, the Elon Academy, the “It Takes a Village” Project for children in the community struggling to read, and the Collegiate Start at Elon program for local high school students.

The university is organizing its programs in a more strategic way, Lambert said, to “create a ladder from kindergarten through graduate school.” Rohr spoke about the opportunities to do just that.

“My goal is to create synergy among the various initiatives we are currently undertaking to be more intentional about creating opportunities, particularly for traditionally underrepresented students and for our surrounding communities,” she said. “As we think about looking across the continuum to provide opportunities for students, we know that students in wealthier households are not genetically smarter than student from lower income families. However, those students from wealthier households have more opportunities to reach their potential.

“As a result, I see the creation of the center as giving us an opportunity to stand in that gap, and to see what we can do to lend our voices to this discussion.”

The Elon Academy college access and success program recently graduated its first group of students from college, while the “It Takes A Village” Project has expanded to university campuses elsewhere in North Carolina and Oregon. Rohr believes the future for the center lies in new partnerships both on and off campus where resources are shared between organizations with similar values and missions.

“When we think of those pieces and where we as an institution are situated right in this county, it behooves us to pay close attention to these things, to try very hard to think about how we can make efforts and join forces with colleagues across campus, and partner with folks in the community, to see how we can make it possible for many students to have access to higher education,” Rohr said.

Rolling Out the Residential Campus Initiative

The conversation turned from there to the Residential Campus Initiative, a multiyear project that bridges what all Elon University students learn in the classroom with what they discuss and debate in their campus homes. Lambert introduced Jon Dooley, assistant vice president for Student Life and dean of campus life, to speak about that comprehensive plan.

“This initiative is about finding ways to create opportunities for students and faculty to interact with one another outside the classroom,” Dooley said. “When we get questions in admissions visits, we want them to be about the academic experience, and we want the housing questions to be about the academic experience as well.”

The Residential Campus Initiative incorporates thematic programming across campus, with the Global Neighborhood, the Colonnades, Danieley Center and the Historic Neighborhood focused on events that acclimate students to campus life and academic opportunities, and neighborhoods for upperclassmen – namely, the Oaks and the Station at Mill Point – offering resources and programs with a focus on career and graduate school planning.

First-year students will also benefit from “linked” classes where they share some of the same course sections with neighbors in their residential neighborhoods. Dooley pointed out that students with strong residential experiences have higher GPAs, and they are more committed to campus life both as students and alumni.

“When you think about the best private liberal arts universities in the United States,” he said, “one common element you’ll find is that they’re all residential.”

Fully Opening the New Global Neighborhood

Lambert ended the dialogue with Assistant Professor Amy Allocco, the university’s distinguished emerging scholar of religious studies and the lead faculty-in-residence at the Global Neighborhood.

Since the first two residence halls in the Global Neighborhood opened last fall, Allocco has led programs that fit with the mission of the Residential Campus Initiative. Monthly dinners, an ongoing film series and informal coffee hours give students recurring opportunities to interact with faculty. It’s faculty involvement that makes what she does in the Global Neighborhood a success.

“We have  a wide variety of faculty and staff partners cycling through the neighborhood,” Allocco said. “It’s those faculty and staff partnerships that really make this rich.”

Allocco said her goal is to create powerful experiences that allow students to “connect the dots” from their classroom experiences to their living spaces. “The goal is to contribute to contribute to a climate of intellectual challenge,” she said.

Monday’s program was preceded by the awarding of the Elon Medallions, the university’s highest honor for meritorious service to the institution, and the public recognition of Professor Tina Das being named the Lincoln Financial Professor in the Love School of Business.

It was followed by a community picnic in the new Global Commons building of the Global Neighborhood.