As the University of Alaska Anchorage looks to the future with the launch of the UAA 2025 Strategic Plan, we’re striving to be a university that puts students first in all we do. We know each student we serve is unique, with a distinct learning style, background and set of experiences.
Many are first-generation students, working full- or part-time jobs and raising families. Whenever we can, we want to meet students where they are. We continue to look for ways to close equity gaps, increase retention and graduation rates and make higher education accessible to our community. Above all, we’re committed to giving all our students the same chance to succeed.
As a mostly commuter institution, UAA faces the inherent challenge of keeping students connected to campus. While this challenge was very real before the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become even more important now. With few students regularly coming to campus and distance delivery suddenly the norm, launching two new programs aimed at helping our students connect to UAA and to each other could not have been better timing.
In the spring of 2020, approximately 400 UAA students responded to a survey regarding their UAA experience. The findings clearly indicated that respondents were most comfortable going to peers when they needed academic help. This spoke to the importance of increasing peer-to-peer connection and support, a best practice present in successful UAA programs like the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), the Multicultural Center’s Seawolf Success Program, and TRIO Programs. UAA needed to look for ways to scale such efforts to narrow equity gaps among our larger student body.
In response, we brought peer-to-peer mentorship to campus with Seawolf Mentor last May, allowing us to pair students together virtually. Data show campuses that implement these types of initiatives have improved retention and an improved sense of connection and belonging. Since the program first launched in May we have matched more than 560 undergraduate mentees with a more experienced peer mentor.
Although our original intent was to focus on mentorship of first-time students and freshmen, the pandemic soon crystallized the benefit of further expanding the program for graduate students, who can be paired with UAA alumni. This mentoring extension, Seawolves Offer Support, has yielded matches with engaged alumni mentors in the field who can help inspire graduate program completion and gain valuable job advice as students enter or expand their career paths.
CircleIn is another peer-to-peer program recently launched at UAA. The app allows students to easily connect with other classmates to study, ask questions, make flashcards and share notes all in one place. The gamification of CircleIn has made it even more appealing for our undergraduate students. Each time they engage with the app, students earn points that can result in gift cards and even scholarships.
The app is newly available this semester, but a survey conducted after our pilot program last fall found that 61% of respondents felt CircleIn helped their productivity, and 63% reported that they felt more comfortable asking classmates questions via the app than their professors. Nearly 80% said they would use the app in all of their classes when it became available. More than 2,000 students are currently using CircleIn this semester.
In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, our professors and advisers have shared that COVID has revealed inequities in our students’ experience and helped us better understand their needs. This will help inform and improve our programming in the future, and that’s a real win for our students.
Claudia Lampman, Ph.D., is the vice provost for student success and dean of the honors college at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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