It was creative, a little messy and more than a little fun — taking white T-shirts and tie-dying them into rainbow-wear.
But the activity was also a designed effort to give the new students at Wright State University’s College of Liberal Arts a chance to meet and bond with the college’s faculty and staff outside the classroom, even before fall semester classes began.
It’s all part of the new Center for Liberal Arts Student Success (CLASS), an innovative program that combines advising, faculty/student relationship-building, peer mentoring and career counseling. The center is located on the first floor of Millett Hall.
The center’s two directors are knowledgeable, seasoned and have real-world experience that stretches from Virginia to Arizona. Becca Salay is director of student retention; Wayne Stark is director of workforce development.
Salay is creating initiatives at Wright State designed to ensure that students are academically successful and go on to graduate. One way to do that is to give students more opportunity to rub elbows with faculty in a social setting — such as tie-dying T-shirts together.
“The faculty was able to interact with students and show that they have lives outside of the classroom and are genuinely interested in getting to know the students,” she said.
Salay says research shows that strong faculty-student relationships can be the biggest reason students are satisfied with their academic experience and persist in getting their degrees.
Salay ran a successful program at Arizona State University called Feasting With Faculty, in which she paid for campus meals so that groups of eight to 10 students would dine with one or two faculty members.
“It often turned into candid conversations about what the faculty did in college or like to do in their free time,” she said. “Providing students with those opportunities to interact is very important.”
Salay grew up in Toledo, got her bachelor’s degree in communication from The Ohio State University and her master’s degree in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University.
At Arizona State, she helped the 17,000-student engineering college with retention and developed student leadership programs.
Stark, the center’s workforce development director, grew up in Elyria, Ohio, and Tempe, Arizona. He got his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Arizona and his master’s degree in history from George Mason University in Virginia.
While working on his doctorate in history at the University of Kansas, he discovered he enjoyed working at the school’s career center. That led to a job at Indiana University, where he was associate director of the Career Development Center Arts and Sciences Placement Office.
In 2001, he was hired by Sweet Briar College in Virginia to construct its career-development program. The program was ranked among the Top 10 and Top 20 best career services programs in the nation by the Princeton Review between 2008 and 2015.
“I decided to come to Wright State because it was a chance to build something new and exciting,” Stark said. “I’m not here to replace Career Services at Wright State, but I’m here to augment what they do and focus on the liberal arts students. The idea is to give more attention to the liberal arts students when it comes to their career development. It’s a mini-career services center but more.”
Stark is creating career-development workshops for all COLA students; his Liberal Arts Student Success Series features programs at least twice a week in the Millett Hall Atrium.
There will also be evening programs every other week and workshops and career events custom-designed — often in partnership with faculty — for students in specific departments. There are plans, for example, to partner with the Department of Political Science to host a State Department representative in late September to meet with students, enabling them to interact with a diplomat and learn about State Department opportunities.
In addition to doing one-on-one career advising with students, Stark has been in consultation with faculty on collaborative projects and has visited classrooms to help students learn how to market their liberal arts degrees. That effort will soon be expanded, with Stark speaking on resumes, cover letters, interviewing and other important topics.
He is also working in partnership with COLA administrators and faculty to expand the college’s internship program and bring more experiential opportunities to the students.
Stark says liberal arts can provide the analytical and communication skills employers are looking for in new employees as well as interns and graduates who are motivated, have a strong work ethic and know how to work in teams.
Salay plans to develop a peer-mentoring program for students not only to boost their academics, but to give them an edge in the job market.
“There are students who are really interested in helping their peers and are really interested in developing their own leadership skills, honing their communication skills,” she said. “I want to create opportunities for students to put those into practice. That will give them leadership skills that can lead to jobs.”
New students often turn to each other for insights and advice on how to navigate through the college experience. CLASS will be able to provide well-equipped peers who can answer questions about things like picking classes or what kinds of activities in which to get involved, dispel myths about Wright State and the College of Liberal Arts and serve as mentors and friends.
Salay says new students can be confident that they are going to get good information and assistance from CLASS, whether it comes from an academic adviser or a peer mentor.
Stark is looking to identify Wright State alumni willing to mentor students and to share their success stories. For example, there are likely history graduates with government careers, philosophy graduates who excelled in law school and English graduates working as news reporters.
“The opportunities are there. The key is to help students understand how to get there, how to talk about their skills, how to market themselves,” Stark said. “Persistence, determination and energy are still very important, particularly for liberal arts majors.”
“The future is bright for the students here,” he added. “I’m a firm believer in the liberal arts.”