Q & A: Rachelle Germana
Associate Provost for Academic Success Rachelle Germana, Division of Undergraduate Education, shares with us how Stony Brook’s holistic, multidimensional approach fuels student success.
WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AT SBU? WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?
I lead a variety of divisional and University efforts around student success, including initiatives that support student transition, retention and graduation. My training is as a sociologist, and through that I came to understand the importance of noncognitive factors in students’ lives. This requires a holistic approach to student experiences and frames my work. I can’t imagine being involved in anything else, because for me, education has been largely about social justice. It has the potential to transform people, cultures and even social systems. I’m lucky to work at a public institution such as Stony Brook University where this is a core mission. I also get to collaborate across different campus groups toward that mission, including Student Affairs partners, faculty and student leaders. I’ve been particularly proud of SBU’s outcomes around social mobility.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE “STUDENT SUCCESS?”
I always tell students there is no one-size-fits-all for what student success looks like. Universities often measure success by students remaining in school through graduation, and for students who start as first-time, full-time students, graduating in four years. We know that time-to-graduation is important and has a significant economic and social benefit for students. But student success is much more than this. It’s also the personal, intellectual and emotional growth that students experience and how that carries them into their futures and our world. I also always tell students that failure is part of success — they should leave the University transformed in some way, and failure is an important part of that. Learning how to manage failure and work through it is what allows people to have lifelong successes.
HOW DID SBU INCREASE FIRST-YEAR GRADUATION RATES BY 18 PERCENTAGE POINTS OVER THE PAST SEVEN YEARS
We look at everything from the lens of student success, and we always put the student at the center. My philosophy has been “one student at a time,” but we also have to do this at scale for all undergraduates. So, our approach has been multidimensional, data-informed and evidence-based. Data drive all our decisions, and we have the technological tools to put this data in front of the people providing direct support to students. Of course, even with technology, our people are still our most important assets for students. You can be high-tech, but you also have to be “high-touch.” Our faculty and staff are critical in this. Students need to interact with people who care about them and their success.
HOW DID SBU ADAPT TO SUPPORTING STUDENTS IN LIGHT OF THE UNEXPECTED MOVE TO DISTANCE LEARNING?
As the initial impact of COVID-19 began, institutions across the country immediately mapped academic support services into the virtual environment. This made sense because there was some uncertainty about the timeframe and it was important to maintain support for students in the middle of an active term. But as we know now, the entire landscape of higher education has shifted, and we have needed to rethink not just delivery of services, but also new methods of engagement — across students’ academic, social and emotional needs. One academic advisor, for example, experimented with a virtual study cafe with guided breaks. It was designed to replicate a community study setting you might find in other spaces and motivate students to “be present” together. There is an important social and psychological component to these kinds of shared experiences that is even more critical in a distance model.
HOW IS SBU PLANNING TO HELP STUDENTS BE SUCCESSFUL AS THEY NAVIGATE THE RAPIDLY EVOLVING WORLD OF HIGHER EDUCATION UNDER COVID-19?
Students returned for fall with varying degrees of readiness and different experiences of wellness. For new students, we have redesigned some of our traditional transition support structures to be more attentive to this and help them build a positive college identity in this different environment. For continuing students, too, this is a time of transition because their own understanding of being a student in this moment will be different. They are also building a new sense of identity. We’ve been focused on getting creative with engaging students, not being afraid to experiment and listening to student needs. This means optimizing our collaborative relationships across campus, increasing our check-ins with students, tailoring our outreach to this new context and providing a variety of modalities for students to engage with our services and each other. High-touch is even more important in this “no-touch” reality.
HOW WILL THE GROWTH OF DISTANCE LEARNING IMPACT THE FUTURE SUCCESS OF HIGHER EDUCATION?
Distance learning has obviously been a model for quite some time. But this is not like typical distance learning. This is very specifically distance learning in a pandemic where the “distance environment” is in more areas of life than just learning. We know that emotional health, finances and equity gaps (among others) are already significant challenges in higher education. The pandemic has intensified these and created additional barriers for students. As a result, higher education needs to reimagine risk and support in this current landscape. We need to be intentional about creating new connection points to address the social and psychological distance that students may be experiencing. In some ways this means throwing the old playbook out the window, but this also gives us an opportunity to push higher education to be more flexible, more agile, more innovative — and really attentive to students’ needs in the moment.
Photography by Juliana Thomas