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Students Discuss Overcoming Challenges at University’s Second Annual Social Mobility Symposium

By Harry Minium and Noell Saunders

Dozens of experts from around the country gathered at Old Dominion University last week for the second annual Social Mobility Symposium.

For three days, they gave speeches, showed reams of data and exchanged ideas on how to encourage more low-income, first-generation and other students to attend - and finish - college.

But this year, the experts got a little schooling from ODU students.

At two roundtable discussions, seven students or former students said they would not have succeeded without a number of programs ODU began to help people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The $20 million Student Success Center and Learning Commons, established at the behest of Old Dominion President John R. Broderick, employs 50 counselors, mentors and others to help students. For Tina Santee, a first-generation student from Flint, Mich., who expects to graduate in May with a psychology degree, the Success Center was "paramount in my success.

"It gave me access to tutoring, counseling and scholarships," said Santee, who works full-time and suffers from hereditary angioedema, which has resulted in 18 surgeries. "And every time I got discouraged, they were there to encourage me to keep going."

Neal Turner, a rising senior majoring in communications and minoring in child psychology from Northern Virginia, said the Brother 2 Brother organization made him feel welcome at ODU.

"The group advocates for black and brown men, and it's changed my life in incredible ways," Turner said. "The people I've met, they look like me and sometimes act like me.

"The bond that created, that brotherhood, is what I needed."

Old Dominion's rich diversity and welcoming atmosphere also helped, he said.

"I know we've got 24,000 students here, but it feels like family. Everyone here has a smile on their face. Everyone says hi."

Zachary Smith, a rising senior from Richmond double majoring in business analytics and business management, said he spent so much time in ODU's writing and math centers that people thought he lived there.

Smith said ODU's Student Success and Career Development centers have helped him succeed.

"If you ever have an issue with a professor or financial aid, you're able to talk to a case manager," he said. "It helps so much for someone to hold your hand and guide you through the process."

That guidance was precisely what Old Dominion and other higher education leaders focused on during the symposium.

"Collectively, we must ensure that more low-income, first-generation, veteran, returning and other students make it to the finish line," President Broderick said.

Broderick highlighted Old Dominion University's multi-pronged strategy to educate students from all backgrounds, covering areas from financial aid to academics. The results, he said, have been significant, including:

  • CollegeNet ranked ODU among the top 15 percent of colleges nationwide in terms of social mobility.
  • More than 8,200 of students receive Pell Grants, more than at any other Virginia institution.
  • ODU is among the 14 colleges nationwide with the highest number of African-American graduates every year, according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
  • Education Trust ranked Old Dominion among the top 15 in the country in terms of African-American student success.

Ellen Neufeldt, vice president of Old Dominion's Student Eengagement and Enrollment Services (SEES), noted the importance of social mobility from the perspective of Virginia's workforce demands and college enrollment trends. The increase in enrollment in higher education across the state has been slight over the past five years, she said.

"We need to make sure people have degrees that will help the economy and the future of Virginia," Neufeldt said. "We also need to make sure they have access and to create pathways from the community colleges to the four-year institutions."

Donald Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs, and professor of education at the University of San Francisco, gave a powerful presentation on the metrics of social mobility and ways that institutions can achieve optimal results.

Heller, the first keynote speaker at the symposium, highlighted challenges of measuring social mobility, including the use of online metric tools that don't always analyze the big picture. He emphasized that social mobility is complex and affected by many factors - institutional and individual.

"Education is only one part of it," Heller said. "Whether a student is able to rise in social class is dependent as much on what he or she does, as what the institution does."

Another speaker, Wil Del Pilar, vice president of education policy and practice for the Education Trust, said, "We should be making sure that students have an opportunity to thrive in their educational setting, not survive their educational setting."

Participants brainstormed a variety of strategies including increasing student support structures, examining student performance more closely and greater investments in pre-K through secondary schools.

Other speakers included Robert Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News & World Report; Carrie Lockhert, associate vice president for partner success at InsideTrack; Katherine Wheatle, strategy officer for finance and federal policy at Lumina Foundation; Jim Wolfston, president and CEO of CollegeNET; and Robert Kelchen, assistant professor at Seton Hall University.

The ODU students who spoke have lofty ambitions. Linda Waters, a rising senior majoring in criminal justice from Chesapeake, hopes to be a judge.

She obtained an internship in the Portsmouth Commonwealth's Attorney's office through ODU, which she said yielded invaluable contacts in the legal profession.

She wondered whether her dream would continue when her mother died last year. But the Office of Student Services was particularly helpful when she had to take off a week for personal reasons.

"I documented why I couldn't be here, and they actually reached out to my professors," she said. "My professors told me they'd look out for me. They actually cared about me.

"Having faculty who actually care about you has made all the difference for me."

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