june 2, 2022

The Future of Student Success

Steven Smith
Co-founder, Trees.app

About 25 years ago, Dr. John Gardner co-authored a monograph which asked universities and colleges in Canada to talk about their new student orientation or “first-year experience” programs (if they had them) and how they ran them. John has been a leader in student success for decades and is the Co-Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Board of Directors Chair of the more than 20-year-old US non-profit organization, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Part of the monograph focused on how far programs had come by the mid-90’s and where they needed to go next. For me, re-reading that monograph a quarter of a century later, it was amazing to see how the seeds of how we support post-secondary student success now were already blooming that long ago. Almost all the institutions that responded had some programs in place, and many had them running for years. These programs varied across a wide range of student needs, including how to be a successful student, support for diverse students, support for indigenous students, support for women, support for students with families, first year seminar courses, and many other programs. 

What was interesting to me was to see how so much had evolved in the time since that first monograph was written. Although many institutions had limited programs for indigenous students, this has become a much larger issue in the last decade, due in large part (in Canada) to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought to light in great detail the generational trauma that centuries of the French, British, and Canadian Governments’ policies caused. What was not apparent in the monograph were programs for LGBTQ2S+ youth. Importantly, the needs of equity-deserving groups, and support for mental health and financial issues faced by students today, if a much larger issue than it was 25 years ago.  

It is not surprising that over the last 25 years, the needs of students have changed. Undoubtedly, if we were to redo this monograph today (and a team including myself, John Gardner, Tom Brophy, Adam Daniels, Amy McEvoy, and several others are doing just that) the responses would be very different – and they should be. People change, populations change, needs change, and the institutional responsibility to more formally support a wide range of diverse student needs has also changed. 

Perhaps what is more surprising is that the way we reach out to students and deliver those services has changed very little. Although institutions capitalize on student use of email, social media, and websites, students still typically are told about programs and services via direct contact from student services professionals in the form of group events during welcome weeks, flyers, emails, or announcements on social media. These programs often break the information out across several sessions, but fundamentally, there is a “firehose” of information coming at students, and they all receive essentially the same information.

This is why when Jonny White, the founder of Trees and a former student of mine, came to me with the idea for an platform that got the right information to the right person at the right time, I knew that student success was a field in dire need of such an app. With the ability to provide customized information for students, matching their personal needs, at the time they need it, Trees can help student success professionals support their students better than they have ever been able to before. That’s why I got on board then. And that’s why I’m still here. With Trees, we have the opportunity to support students in ways we never thought possible, engaging them in their own success. 

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