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LEAP Work-Study Program Shows 98 Percent Overall Retention Rate

By Betsy Hnath

A University work-study program has shown an added benefit: high retention rates.

The Learn and Earn Advantage Program (LEAP) is an on-campus work program created by Old Dominion University President John R. Broderick in 2011 for freshmen and sophomores. It has recorded an overall retention rate of 98 percent this year.

That statistic measures the percentage of students who enroll in the fall and return the following fall.

About 175 students participate in LEAP annually. Courtney Barrett, who earned her bachelor's degree in engineering in May, sees the program as a key contributor to her success.

"As a freshman coming to college, it was a big change," she said. "LEAP made me feel like I had a family. Having that little piece of home made me feel like I could do this. I felt welcomed."

Students who qualify for LEAP can apply for jobs across campus. They work 8 to 15 hours a week during the fall and spring semesters.

The program dovetails with the recommendations of a speaker at Old Dominion's Social Mobility Symposium in June. Kevin Kruger, president and CEO of NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said jobs can increase the odds of academic success if students work on campus and for no more than 15 hours a week. On-campus employment contributes to learning, skills development, engagement and a sense of belonging.

In LEAP, freshmen also attend a weekly one-hour class for 10 weeks on workplace readiness and professionalism, focusing on skills that employers expect in the workplace. Lessons learned in the class, which students can take for credit, are often incorporated into the work experience on campus.

"If you have a supervisor who expects good customer service through excellent communication, then that aligns with what we're teaching in the classroom," said Ebonie Robinson, student employment program coordinator.

Robinson said entrepreneurship will be added to the curriculum in the fall.

About half of the freshman participants are admitted to the sophomore LEAP program. They are selected based on supervisor recommendations and class performance. There is an intentional progression for students in LEAP. The first year involves an on-campus job and the LEAP class, and in the second year, job placement is related to the students' major, which leads to third and fourth-year internships, ultimately contributing to strong career outcomes for students.

Broderick started LEAP to help students who didn't qualify for federal work-study programs but needed jobs to help pay for their education, according to Beverly Forbes, interim director of Career Development Services.

"Because of President Broderick's commitment to student success, he made it a priority to get the LEAP program off the ground," Forbes said.

So what is it about the LEAP students that keep them coming back?

The close connection between students and supervisors is a key component, said Robinson.

"Everybody needs a person, someone who sees you, who hears you," she said. "Having a person who's checking in on you regularly helps. When you're working, you have someone who sees you 8 to 15 hours a week."

Robinson said the reduction in financial worries is also an important factor.

"It's just the basic hierarchy of needs," Robinson said. "If you don't have money for the basics, it puts extra stress on you, and you can't focus on your academics. A job can help alleviate that."

According to student testimonials, LEAP helps with time-management skills, leading to better grades.

"Before I had my job, I always procrastinated," said one LEAP participant. "Now I do not have time to procrastinate and have to stay on top of my work in order to be successful. I believe that if I did not have my job, I would not have gotten a 3.59 GPA last semester."

Barrett, now a civil engineer at Clark Nexsen in Virginia Beach, still stays in regular contact with Forbes.

"She's a lifesaver, like a second mom," Barrett said. "She's the person I can always go to. She's an amazing woman."

Forbes is glad the LEAP program is successful but views it as part of a larger picture.

In the Division of Student Engagement and Enrollment Services, "It's our mission to help every student," she said. "We want all of them to have that personal connection to campus."

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