How GCU keeps students pointed in right direction
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the May issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Rick Vacek
In his frequent talks to Grand Canyon University students, Phoenix business icon Jerry Colangelo likes to remind them that you can’t stand on the shore and wait for the ship to pick you up — you’ve got to be willing to swim out to the ship.
But the students sure have a lot of ships to choose from as the
y navigate the GCU academic experience. With Learning Lounges, Explore More workshops, Purpose Plans, Fall and Spring Kickoffs, Early Alerts, Living and Learning Communities, and individualized programs in each college, including clubs and projects built around the discipline, GCU provides safe harbor from the roughest of waters.
“What we do is vastly different from any other university,” said Dr. Joe Veres, executive director of Student Development and Outreach and manager of the Learning Lounge, where students can get peer-to-peer assistance with their academic challenges every day.
Part of the rite of passage for incoming freshmen and their parents is wondering how this transition is going to go.
“How much harder will it be than high school?” the student wonders.
“What about all that independence?” the parents ask.
But they share one very important question:
Will anyone be there to help?
The answer at GCU is a resounding yes.
Mary Mkrtchyan, who since has become one of the Learning Advocates (LEADs), the students who help their peers in the widely acclaimed Learning Lounge, started going there as a freshman, “and it seriously impacted my life.”
University officials are eager to facilitate that transformation.
Dr. Hank Radda, the University’s provost: “You have a passion, you have a dream, you’re willing to do the work, we will find ways to support you.”
Maria Quimba, assistant dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions (CONHCP): “Our president (Brian Mueller) and our provost come into classrooms, they go into the labs, they know our faculty by name. It’s not like that in most institutions. When I went to school, I don’t even recall who my president was – I wouldn’t have been able to pick that person out of a lineup. We are very high touch, and that does matter.”
Dr. Sherman Elliott, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS): “Our faculty are not primarily researchers, so they come here with the understanding that they’re going to dedicate their lives to their learners. That’s not just some kind of a slogan. It’s really true.”
Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, dean of the College of Education: “Some may argue that we help them too much, but can you really help a kid too much?”
But you can coddle a kid too much, and that’s not what’s happening here. Dr. Randy Gibb, dean of the Colangelo College of Business (CCOB), echoed Colangelo’s analogy with this:
“It’s a culture of accessibility. We’re raising the bar, but we’re going to help you get there — and you have to own some of it. Students have to take the initiative. We don’t just enable them and spoon-feed them. They need to meet us halfway.”
The most well-known centers of academic assistance at GCU are the eight Learning Lounge sites, all within a three-minute walk from anywhere on campus. Much of the publicity for the Learning Lounge has focused on the help it offers to students from nearby elementary and high schools, but it’s an important resource for GCU students as well.
And they’re certainly using it. Not only did 70 percent of all freshmen visit a Learning Lounge during the 2016-17 academic year — an almost 100 percent increase from the previous year — statistics have shown that Lounge attendees have earned significantly better grades.
“I think that this is the fabric of GCU,” Veres said. “You know that you’re going to need additional assistance, so who better to learn from than a peer who has taken the course and has done very well and really has the social responsibility of giving back and helping? It’s a very positive, peer-mentoring, academic-support type of environment. It’s inspirational.”
The 80 learning advocates (LEADs) on campus have an average GPA of nearly 4.0 and need to have received an “A” for the course in which they’re offering assistance. They work 20 hours a week and increase those hours during midterms or finals. Veres said he doesn’t need to look for new LEADs often — he has more than enough candidates to choose from.
Part of Veres’ role is to regularly study analytics for every course, every student group and every department to anticipate learning challenges. If students tend to have issues during week 4 of a class, for example, the Learning Lounge will send LEADs to the classroom during weeks 2 and 3 to work alongside the faculty.
“It’s not tutoring — that’s negative,” he said. “It’s, ‘Hey, this is really going to help with your classes.’ By coming to the Learning Lounge, you’re probably going to graduate early and save money on tuition. Why wouldn’t you want to get involved in that?”
A STUDENT’S VIEW: Mkrtchyan credits Kayla Draper for getting her on the right path when she was a freshman: “She taught me how to schedule and balance my education. She helped me build my character and confidence in my writing skills. It was because of her and many other LEADs that gave me the courage to become a learning advocate. MAT-144 was my weakness when I was assisting other students, but now I am helping others to overcome their challenges.”
Not only do many students have a big hand in helping their peers, academic assistance is a huge focus for GCU faculty members. It starts during regular classroom hours, and their office hours are simply a continuation of that initiative.
“Our faculty are always evaluated on three things: teaching, service and scholarship,” Radda said. “That’s the order — teaching first. They are a teaching faculty, and that’s the most important.
“All of the full-time faculty that are hired are interviewed by teams and have to do a demo of how they teach because that’s really important. Yes, they have to have the content knowledge, but can they pass the content on?”
The Explore More workshops, focused study groups that give students a thorough review of their most challenging coursework, are particularly important in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET), which offers the most such workshops – and not just because the sciences tend to require hours of repetition to master. It’s also important for the student to find out if this is for them.
“It’s really important in the sciences to make sure the student is on a path that really gets who they are. If they don’t, they’re not going to be successful,” said Dr. Mark Wooden, the CSET dean.
“A lot of kids just can’t grasp concepts. OK, you want to be a doctor, but the sciences are just too challenging for you and you’re not going to be competitive. How can we take your passion to serve others in the health care profession and find a different career that might work well for you, a different pathway through GCU?”
Wooden has experienced that challenge first-hand: His son Jason started out as a nursing student at another university, found that working in a regular hospital wasn’t the right fit, and became an occupational therapist.
What’s the best way to find out? Practice, practice, practice plus interaction with an instructor who can point you in the right direction.
“The fact that we do this at all and that we do it to this extent is a differentiator for GCU,” Wooden said. “Parents see that. They see that our faculty are committed to knowing where the students are, are offering these types of sessions and don’t have anything else that they’re focusing on.”
A STUDENT’S VIEW: Not long ago, Brian Fong started doing extra time in the cadaver lab to get help. Now he’s one of the student leaders. “It really helped me because it reinforced what I was learning in class,” he said. “I wasn’t just looking at a cadaver or looking at models, I was coming here and actively dissecting – I was looking for the muscles myself. I think that helps with learning because it’s a form of interaction with whatever you’re trying to accomplish.”
What’s right for a CSET student might not work for someone in another college, so they all have a different spin on how best to serve the student with these vital extras. The best example might be the College of Theology (COT), where professors tend to be particularly busy during office hours because of the nature of the subject matter.
“If you stir up spiritual issues, you’re going to have to be there to answer some deep questions and interact and shepherd a little.”
Dr. Jason Hiles, College of Theology dean, on providing assistance to students in theology classes
“If you stir up spiritual issues, you’re going to have to be there to answer some deep questions and interact and shepherd a little,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, the COT dean. “A lot of what happens is hidden from the public eye. It happens in offices with the doors closed, in private conversations after class, or when an instructional assistant is paying attention to a student who’s struggling in some way – they approach that student intentionally.”
The same holds true for CHSS, for the simple reason that not every student is going to have, say, the same writing issue, and the instructional assistant model also is important there. The instructional assistant, who can be a student who got an A or B in the course or maybe even a retired teacher, is right there in the classroom and knows exactly what’s going on.
And when it comes to mathematics, an area of serious concern across U.S. education, the college has found an innovative way to help students with its Math Center, which opened last August for students unable to pass the incoming math placement test. Rather than have to retake the class for a full semester, they simply keep reviewing the material in the Math Center, with the help of professors, until they can pass the test in a separate room that’s right next door.
“You just walk in anytime between 7 in the morning and 6 at night and say, ‘Hey, I need help with this,’ and we guarantee you that a math professor will be there to teach any level of math that we have to offer,” Elliott said.
Whose idea was it to have math professors there? The math professors, of course. That happened organically after the center opened. They wanted to be there.
A STUDENT’S VIEW: The Math Center was such a big help to junior Alexander Reyes Almonte, he wrote this email to instructor Ben VanDerLinden: “You really care about your students. I think one of the best things about this course is that students can take the exam as many times as they want. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I wanted to because I made you a promise to go to the Math Center and take the exam twice a week. For me, GCU is one of the best universities because it provides students all the resources they need to be successful.”
The initiation of freshmen begins as soon as they set foot on campus in Welcome Week. They aren’t inundated immediately – Radda said the first goal is simply to make sure they know where they’ll be eating, sleeping and going to class – but then they have assignments for each succeeding week.
“Every freshman has a Purpose Plan,” Veres said. “We look at every milestone that that student needs to participate in – everything from making a trip to the Learning Lounge to introducing yourself to the faculty, looking at internship hours that you may have and when you can start doing that, joining a Learning Community and setting a GPA goal. It’s immediate. That ties in everything.”
Early in the semester, each college does a kickoff event that brings together its students to hear from the dean and find out more about what’s offered. Many students live in special Living Communities that put them in the same residence hall – a great way to create bonds with like-minded people.
And if they don’t get off to a good start, an Early Alert is sent out to anyone who can help or needs to know, including their Residence Life supervisors and, if they’re an athlete, their coach.
“Instead of it being forced into only one group or department’s responsibility to respond to students who are academically struggling, we’re becoming partners in that,” said Dr. Tim Griffin, GCU’s pastor and dean of students.
The help is not just for students who live on campus. Griffin’s doctoral dissertation, which he completed last year, was about helping commuter students succeed.
“I wanted to know what it was that engaged our commuter students, not what might engage them but what already was working,” he said. “So I talked only to engaged commuters.”
He found that they value three main things: a space dedicated to them, such as the commuter lounge GCU provides; events tailored to them, such as commuter luncheons; and getting invitations to events from other students.
The student-to-student piece is extremely important, as the College of Education learned last August when it started its Big Lopes/Little Lopes program – which has morphed into one of the nearly 100 clubs on campus.
It pairs a junior with a freshman for a variety of activities, everything from bowling to brown-bag lunches. It’s entirely student driven, and what makes it critical is that students don’t take COE classes until the end of their sophomore year.
“I’m really proud of our students’ leadership. They’ve taken this idea and just run with it,” LaPrade said. “We have Best Buddies, Educators Rising, an Honor Society, and they all do lots of different activities, as all our clubs do. But how do we get our freshmen and sophomores connected to those events and those clubs if they haven’t had the professors promoting them and haven’t been in classes with other education students?”
A STUDENT’S VIEW: Big Lopes/Little Lopes was a huge benefit for freshman Tea Kauhaa-Po, who describes herself as “a really shy and soft-spoken person” who was unsure how she would connect with other COE students: “Being surrounded by such sweet and welcoming people made me realize the simplicity of making friends and creating long-lasting friendships. I remember during our first gathering we played an icebreaker game where we were given a subject/question and we had to walk around and find someone we didn’t know and talk about it. I’d never met or spoken to these people before, but the fact that we could easily bond over movies or candies was really eye-opening. I made a lot of friends who support and love me for who I am.”
Another important way to spark learning is the use of projects, both in classes and in clubs. Radda estimates that engineering and computer science students will have done 10-15 projects by the time they graduate.
“Yes, they’re learning the theoretical information, but they’re actually working on things. That reinforces it,” he said.
“We can guarantee that we will work as hard as they do to help them succeed.”
Claude Pensis, dean, College of Fine Arts and Production
Even better, they learn to work together through interdisciplinary projects. For example, an engineering class features a project that engineering students do with business students from the ground up.
“It makes it much more real,” Radda said. “We think this kind of education is really vital, and it’s also much more meaningful for students to develop so that when they hit industry, they have the content but they understand, ‘How does this apply in the world?’ ”
Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about – how that real-world application helps students get good jobs. The University has 11 advisory boards that include representatives from more than 200 companies, and it also has spent considerable time studying what it already was doing well and what’s happening in K-12 education. The focus is on what industries need and, especially, what’s happening in technology.
But, again, every field is different. The requirements for students in the College of Fine Arts and Production (COFAP) are vastly different from those for budding engineers, but take note of how similar the message is for COFAP students:
“They’re going to need to work,” said Claude Pensis, the COFAP dean. “Nobody gives you anything. You want them to realize if they want to make it as an actor, it is going to require a great deal of work and perseverance because, ultimately, in the arts you can’t have everything be smooth – it just doesn’t work. One day you’re great, the next day you don’t even get a callback for an audition.
“It is a cooperative effort. We can guarantee that we will work as hard as they do to help them succeed.”
The ships are out there for students. They just need to do more than get their feet wet.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.