Student focuses on increasing first-year involvement

Dustin VandeHoef, College of Education intern

Evelyn-Martinez-80PULLMAN, Wash. – You can lead a student to academic resources, but you can’t make them use them.

Evelyn Martinez, who recently received her master’s degree in educational psychology from Washington State University, has researched first-year students’ participation in academic resources. While resources like the Writing Center and free tutoring are available to students year round, she said students must use them to see any benefit.

“Right now, 20 percent of students are disengaged and don’t think it’s important to use these services,”
she said. Lack of interest in available resources can lead to students dropping out or being unprepared for the workforce once they graduate.

“It’s important that students not only take part in these programs, but that they participate in them in a meaningful way,” she said.

Students’ expectations differ

Martinez approached her research from a qualitative perspective, interviewing several first-year students as well as attending freshman-level courses.

“One of the things I learned from this study was that the definition of academic success is subjective,” she said. “It doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. Each participant had a different goal in mind.”

For example, a legacy student may need a 4.0 GPA in the Honors College to meet personal goals, while a first-generation student may find fulfillment in just graduating, regardless of GPA. Understanding what individual students hope to achieve in their time on campus is important to getting them involved, Martinez said.

Motivation affects use of resources

One of the jobs of an advisor is to help students discover what their goals are, said Veronica Mendez-Liaina, an advisor for the College of Education.

“I always start with a conversation and basic questions,” she said. “What do they want to be when they grow up? What excites them? And we explore from there.”

Students’ motivations for attending college also influence their actions once they’re enrolled. Many enroll because degrees are increasingly seen as the only way to ensure a healthy future for themselves and their family. Others may enroll because it is “the obvious next step” after high school.

“Whatever the student’s views are, they affect how they use the resources available once they’re on campus,” Martinez said.

Engaging with community, resources

“Having a sense of community is incredibly important to a student’s success,” said Matthew Jeffries, an advisor for the College of Education. To help foster that, he encourages students to join the Center for Civic Engagement as a way of getting involved. Other suggestions by Office of Undergraduate Education staff include using the Access Center and tutoring.

“Many students suffer from test anxiety, and the Access Center can help them with that by giving them extra time or a more clear space to work,” said Angie Hammond, director of the Office of Undergraduate Education. “Tutoring is also incredibly valuable but underused. We’ve all needed it at some point or another.”

Students must balance work, school and personal lives; finding the right mix of all three can be a challenge to navigate, Martinez said. After students graduate, they may find themselves asking if the hours spent tucked away in the library away from friends was worth the 4.0 GPA.

“I have a newfound respect for many of our first-year students,” she said. “Many of them are being smart with their choices. They’re being well-rounded. They’re thinking about their future. The focus will be trying to get those other ones more engaged with the resources offered.”