Wright State kicks off new initiative to boost retention of undergrads

As coordinator for student advocacy and wellness, Destinee Biesemeyer is focused on providing a safety net and connections for Wright State students.

Wright State University launched a sweeping new initiative to increase the retention of undergraduate students with a team that can quickly identify and remove barriers to success and connect students with resources.

The Undergraduate Retention team will include four new retention managers and two new student advocates. It is an inter-divisional effort between Student Success, Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, with anchor points in the new Office of Undergraduate Retention, Student Advocacy and Wellness (formerly the Office of Student Support), and Community Standards and Student Conduct.

The team is co-led by Seth Gordon, director of undergraduate retention and the Veteran and Military Center (VMC); Amanda Watkins, associate director of undergraduate retention and the VMC; Destinee Biesemeyer, coordinator for student advocacy and wellness; and Chris Taylor, director of community standards and student conduct.

“I see my role as getting a team together that can advocate for students,” said Gordon. “We need to make sure students can perform their best in the classroom and have all of the resources they need to make them successful in college.”

Gordon said the retention initiative is all about getting more people involved without sacrificing the quality of education.

“We are not advocating that faculty in their engagement lower their standards or change the rigor of their courses at all,” he said. “It’s just the opposite.”

Gordon grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. After a two-year stint in AmeriCorps, he enrolled in 1996 at Antioch College, where he was elected to be community manager, the equivalent of student body president.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, he worked at Antioch College for three years as an admissions counselor and assistant director of admissions. In 2004, Gordon moved to what is now Antioch University Midwest and worked with adult and nontraditional students.

In 2013 he earned his doctorate in education policy and leadership at The Ohio State University, where he did his dissertation on student debt. That same year he was hired as the inaugural director of the Veteran and Military Center at Wright State.

Gordon says retention only happens as the result of other measures such as making sure a student completes courses, has the necessary resources and has a sense of belonging.

Seth Gordon, director of undergraduate retention and the Veteran and Military Center.

“I think identity and belonging is at the core of how you retain students,” he said.

Biesemeyer is managing the two new student advocates, who will handle housing, wellness, counseling and related issues.

“We problem-solve and troubleshoot with campus and community partners to make sure the students who want to be here can still be here and those who need to take a break can return easily when they are ready,” said Biesemeyer. “In each interaction we are trying to teach the students self-advocacy skills along the way.”

The four retention managers under Gordon and Watkins will handle academic issues. They will help students who stop attending classes, miss assignment deadlines or have financial or other issues.

The whole team is expected to be in place by early November.

Biesemeyer earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and psychology from Northwest Missouri State University and master’s degrees in social work and disaster resiliency leadership from Tulane University.

Biesemeyer said a big part of her job at Wright State is providing a safety net and connections for students.

“I went through some stuff when I was in college that would have made it very difficult for me to stay in school,” she said. “Being able to connect with the right people to help me stay on track even when things were not going well kept me moving toward those goals. So I know that these processes work.”

Biesemeyer said retention is a byproduct of what her office does, but the primary goal is to see students through personal crises. Issue areas include housing and food insecurity, medical emergency, mental health, alcohol and other drug use or abuse, chronic illness and family emergencies.

Biesemeyer ran a free clinic in New Orleans and later worked as a private contractor for a disaster-management group that took her around the country responding to disasters. She joined the staff at Wright State in 2015 as coordinator for health promotion.

Biesemeyer said there is not a lot of consistency in the problems that a diverse student body experiences.

“You have to respond differently to different people in different situations,” she said. “It requires a lot of creative problem-solving. It requires a lot of sensitive conversations, a lot of compassion and patience, a lot of understanding.”

Students in need of help are encouraged to call the 24/7 on-call phone number for Student Advocacy and Wellness at 937-260-0167.

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