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Conversation #102: Tiera Coston on CARE for First-Generation Students

A conversation between Jay Todd and Tiera Coston on teaching, learning, and CARE for first-generation students.

headshot of Tiera Coston

Tiera S. Coston was the Assistant Director for Mentoring and Pre-Law Advising in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana. She is now the Assistant Dean for Student Engagement and Outreach in our College of Arts and Sciences. She is also director of Xavier's new Quality Enhancement Plan. That's what this episode is all about!

Jay Todd studied writing with Frederick and Steven Barthelme and Mary Robison at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Southern California Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Fiction Weekly, and 971 Magazine. Since 2007, he has been a member of Department of English at Xavier, where he teaches American Literature, Freshman Composition, Modern English Grammars, and The Graphic Novel and Social Justice. From 2007 to 2010, Dr. Todd served as Xavier's Writing Center Director. From 2010 until 2015, he served as QEP Director, managing Xavier's Read Today, Lead Tomorrow initiative. In 2015, he became the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development's first Associate Director for Programming. As Associate Director for Programming, Dr. Todd assists in providing high-quality, relevant, evidence-based programming in support of CAT+FD's mission to serve faculty across all career stages and areas of professional responsibility.

Dr. Todd is a member of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, the Popular Culture Association, and the Louisiana Association for College Composition.

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Jay Todd: Hi there. This is Jay Todd, Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana. Welcome back to Teaching, Learning, And Everything Else. If you're from a college or university accredited by SACSCOC, you probably know something about QEPs or Quality Enhancement Plans. As a part of our school's decennial re-accreditation process, we have to develop a five year plan to address some academic challenge. Xavier is in the process of finalizing its second QEP, and today we're speaking with Dr. Tiera Coston, who will be overseeing that ambitious plan. Tiera's appointment as QEP director is bittersweet for those of us in CAT, as she has been a valued colleague for a number of years. We're excited to see her take on this new challenge, but we will miss having her down the hall. Before we get to my discussion with Tiera Coston, though, let me say thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, please remember to give this podcast a five-star rating and leave a comment on your preferred podcast platform. So I'm here today with Dr. Tiera Coston, who is among other things, Xavier's newly appointed QEP director, and I'm going to go ahead and let her actually introduce herself with her full and official title.

Tiera Coston: Hi Jay. I appreciate you having me and I'm really excited to be here talking about the QEP. So I am the new QEP director, and I am also now the Assistant Dean for Student Engagement and Outreach. And so that title really goes hand in hand with all of the efforts of the QEP, so I'm really excited to be in this space.

JT: Yep, that's great. And we're excited to have you there, although we will be missing you in CAT.

TC: Oh, I love my CAT family and that will always be my family.

JT: So I guess we should kind of do the required thing for our non-SACS accredited listeners and maybe explain for them really quickly what a QEP is.

TC: Sure. So a QEP is a Quality Education Plan and it is associated with our accreditation with SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the seven regional accrediting bodies out there. And what this plan is intended to do is to really promote student success. You can think of it as an academic plan to get students from the time they come in to get them to graduation and off to whatever they're going to do afterwards. So it's all about how you engage them, how you support them, you know, in earning their bachelor degree.

JT: Great, excellent. So how did you become involved in this process? Because this has been an ongoing process for I guess, fairly a couple years now at Xavier. When did you get involved and how did you get involved in the process to begin with?

TC: So yes, I'm trying to remember what month it was and I have to — with this pandemic, time is all running together. But I would have to say, maybe sometime in the summer of 2020. I received an invitation from Provost McCall, asking if I would be willing to serve on the QEP committee and I was extremely excited about that so that wasn't even anything I had to think about. I said yes and not long after that, we began to convene and really get into the nuts and bolts of what our QEP was going to look like.

JT: Alright, and so what is the QEP going to look like? 

TC: So this is an extremely unique QEP from my perspective. As I said before, this is an academic entity. It's all about student success and getting students through college. But we have really taken what is called a non-academic approach. And that is, first of all, we went through a very lengthy process, some of which I was not a part of. It was done before I was brought on board to participate in the QEP committee. We decided that this QEP would focus on first-generation students. And I think it's important to talk about that process because that decision was not haphazard. It was a well-informed decision that started with a different committee. The QEP topic committee actually convened, and they used the university strategic plan, as a starting place, particularly in the area of student success, the student success portion of the strategic plan. And so they begin asking for institutional data about different aspects of that plan. Everything from DFW rates to retention rates, retention from first year to second year, from this course to that course, and as they narrowed it, as they looked at the data, they narrowed it to first-year experiences, as themes. So they had the theme of First-Year Experience, Student Engagement, Learning Support, and then First-Generation Students. So after that whole process, they had those four themes. They then went to the Xavier community, and got their input, so they actually sent out a survey to the community, that's faculty, staff, students, as well as the Board of Trustees and they presented those four things and said, what do you think our QEP should focus on here? And I think it was something like about a third of the respondents actually chose first-year experiences and so that's how that came out of the process. And when we stepped in as the QEP Committee, we then took first-year experiences and said, okay, what are we going to do with this? And we understood that this was a great undertaking. And if you look at the size of a particular incoming freshman class, it's a large group of students to focus on. And so we began to go through the process of narrowing that group of students, so that we wouldn't exclude, but also so we would catch as — you know, across the gamut of the class, but also be able to get a number of students that we could reasonably support and have a successful program. And as we continued to look at data, certain things stuck out to us, for example, if you look at first-generation students and non-first-generation students, there was an 11% retention gap between those two groups of students. And so we began to see sort of disparities like that and we said, you know what, this is a good group to focus on. Roughly 28% of any given incoming freshmen class, first identify as first-generation students. And so we thought this was a great subgroup to focus on and the nice thing that also came out of the data, that, you know, we have academic groups. You know, students who may need more support in particular groups. So there are five groups and we found that the first-generation students really pretty much stayed in the same proportion across those five groups. So between 28% and 32% of the students across the five groups were first-generation and so it just turned out to be, you know, an excellent group of students to focus on. Not to mention, what the literature is telling us about the enhanced support that those particular students need to be successful.

JT: Absolutely and I guess, you know, we should say, because I think my understanding is that different schools kind of define “first-generation” differently, that it's not a clear cut term across academia. So how are we, Xavier defining first-generation in general?

TC: That is an excellent question, because it's extremely important. We at Xavier have a broad definition. It is if the student has no parent or guardian who has completed a bachelor's degree and so that student, well, even if they had college or something like that, if they didn't get that bachelor's degree, they are considered a first-generation student. 

JT: Great. Yeah, because I think I've seen some schools that if even one parent has a little bit of college, some college credits, they'll [inaudible] that it’s not okay. For sure.

TC: And also I have seen at other schools, if a sibling, so let's do it, it won't count as first-generation if a sibling in their household has either been to college or earned a college degree. So yeah, you're right. The definition can definitely vary.

JT: Great. And again, I think that's a great focus, in terms of yeah, we do have this first year experience. But again, that's, you know, our freshmen classes, the last few years have been, I think, pushing 800 and that's a lot to work with. Do we have a sense of what percentage of more specifically the first-generation students are going to be? Maybe, probably not,  next year, obviously, but have been recently of the freshmen class.

TC: So yeah, across the past three academic years, we're looking at an average of 28%, you know, somewhere from the range of 32% to 26%, or something, and you get that average of about 28% of the students coming in. And we don't really have an idea right now, with the pandemic, what that's going to look like. You would imagine that this whole situation has had an effect on college attendance across the board, let alone students who are first-generation. But right now, we are going to go on the assumption that we'll be supporting a similar proportion of students as it's been in the past. 

JT: I think it's great that again, the process that's kind of come through this, which is it's, you know, it's data driven, right. It's connected to the strategic plan, right? It's grown out of that. But then it's also kind of coming from this consensus from the community as well, which is, you know, this is important to us, as well. So I think that sounds like a great process in a way to kind of focus this down and I like what you said about the fact that this is, you know, kind of differentiating between, it's an academic, and yet it's not necessarily an academic program. And some people, for folks not familiar, Xavier's first QEP, which I'm a little bit familiar with, was focused solely on what we ultimately said was active and engaged reading, which is really a purely academic focus, even though we tried to push it out into the co-curricular realm. But it was a highly, highly academic exercise that we were focusing on. So can you talk a little bit about what this probe, this non academic academic support is going to look like?

TC: Absolutely. So the program is called CARE. The C is for career readiness, the A is for academic efficacy, the R is for resilience and then the E is for engagement. And so you can see sort of these non- cognitive areas, not necessarily academic efficacy, but the efficacy part of academics. How about that? You can see these non-cognitive areas that are the focus and if you look at the literature, there is a ton of first-generation literature. And you really see, yes, academic preparedness is absolutely according to the literature, the highest burden that first-generation students face. But once you get past that, you are also looking at a number of other barriers that these particular students face, for example, just that belongingness, that sense of fitting in feeling as a part of a community to something that is unfamiliar to you. And so, because we understand that academic preparedness is absolutely something we need to address, we do have that component of academic efficacy here in the program. But you'll see that the other components: resilience, engagement, again, those non-cognitive things that for us are just as important as supporting them academically, supporting them in terms of career readiness. So it's really a balanced program in that way.

JT: And so, again, going back to kind of our original QEP, which was really laid out to be a five year plan. Are we looking at a similar structure or is this gonna be more of a we'll start it and kind of see where it goes, kind of process?

TC: So I think you know, Jay, anything you start, you kind of see how it goes and how you have to adjust. But in all seriousness, one of the reasons I am so thrilled to be on board with this, is that we are looking for this to live long beyond the QEP, the five years of the QEP. So we absolutely do have the five year plan, which we both know is going to adjust as we move year to year as we learn things and figure things out and a better way to do things. But the fact that I'm an indication of that, the fact that the QEP director came with the move to the Dean's office because the idea is that after the QEP is over those five years, that this work will continue in support of our student populations, particularly the first-generation students. So that's one of the things, I thoroughly appreciate how the university has indicated it's going to be behind this for the long haul. 

JT: That's great, because I think again for folks who are not too familiar with QEPs, which has now been around for, I think, probably almost 20 years in terms as a requirement for SACS. You know, they've really evolved in terms of how schools understand them. Right. And I think for a good long time, they were seen as this: we'll do this for five years and that'll kind of be the end of it. Right, we'll do our report and we'll kind of hopefully, we'll have some changes, and then we'll move on. So it's great to see this plan now that already kind of laying the groundwork for the fact that yeah, we've got a five year plan. But that's just the beginning it sounds like. 

TC: Absolutely. And also, as you said, it has evolved on the SACS side, not just for the time. But SACS has made it very clear your QEP should not be about retention. That if you create that environment where students can be successful, retention will take care of itself. So don't focus on retention, focus on the students and the things that they need to be successful. And that's exactly what CARE does and I love that about it.

JT: And again, I realize even though we've got this plan, right? And like you said, it's a living thing, it's an evolving thing that you're going to respond to, to the data and everything else in the adaptation as you need to. But do you have a sense yet, how faculty in particular can, are going to be involved, are going to be able to choose to be in or help out with this process?

TC: Thank you so much for that question. Because this is a different looking QEP. But faculty are an integral part. And it requires a little bit of explanation. So what the actual care plan looks like, is, we consider it a network. So it's this network of support that the students will be engulfed in. And it's meant to do just what it says, to surround them to support them and give them what they need. And making up that network are the students, we call them our CARE students, what we call CARE coaches, and these are staff who are trained. They will work with the students. They will be that source of information, they will be that sense of accountability, they will be right at that point, they will be everything to the students. So their coach is there, again, to hold them accountable to provide them, okay, you have this need, you have this issue, let's figure this out together. So the student never feels alone. Also a part of that network of CARE colleagues and these are other Xavier students, who will act as peer mentors to these students. And so these particular students are, you know, high achieving students, they figured it out academically, they're engaged in university life. And so they really will be sort of ambassadors and guides for our students as they get on this path to their academic success. And also we have CARE spaces. So these are actual spaces that we want to create, for our students to have that community. That's a really important part of this whole process, that they have the space to you know, form these lifelong and lasting relationships with other students, with faculty, with staff, administrators, and really have that safe space to operate and really become a part of the community. And that brings me back to your original question of faculty. We understand that in the literature, I was very interested in one when this came up, that although faculty teach students, typically when students have an academic issue, they go to someone other than faculty. So they will go outside of that faculty circle to try and figure out what's wrong and what the opportunity I see for us here is to bring all of us together. The staff of care faculty, bring us all into that network to help to support the students. So, you know, faculty are in that classroom, delivering that information, supporting the students academically, and honestly we want to be there to support the faculty in that effort and then understanding that on the outside of the classroom, they also have us supporting the students. It really just creates, again, that robust network that really will be good for the students. So everybody has a role in the CARE plan.

JT: I really like the net metaphor of, you know, kind of wherever they go, there's kind of a system in place to help kind of catch and support them right and help them out. I'm really interested in the CARE spaces just because just as soon as you said that, and the idea of community, just the timeliness of that, since, you know, the thrust of this program is going to be starting next fall, right. And we're all now kind of talking about rebuilding community. And so I think it's really great to just kind of hear that that's already kind of built into this, which is this attempt to help these students really, really get a sense of the community to which they belong, as Xavierites. 

TC: Absolutely, once again, the literature has been so helpful in terms of what we talked about. You know, academic preparedness being a barrier. But the literature has told us that if a student feels isolated, the chances of retaining them and keeping them is very low and so we really want to address that barrier by giving them both the people in the spaces to make the connections they need to make to feel included to feel a part of.

JT: Can you tell us kind of going forward now? Because we're kind of on the eve of our SACS visit, our SACS review, right? The QEP is kind of in the final processes of approval and those sorts of things. What are going to be really, and I hate to kind of ask about first steps, because I'm sure you're taking about 1000 different first steps, but what are things going to look like in the fall, especially as we start to come back?

TC: So you're right. We are beginning just to assemble the structure of this thing. And so right now, we are in the process of hiring those CARE coaches, recruiting those CARE colleagues, who are so pivotal to that network. And also you talk about the fall, a part of this program is to have that bridge over the summer and so we are recruiting. It's not mandatory, but we are giving our first-generation students the option of participating in the Summer Star Institute and that allows them to take math to get acclimated to, you know, taking a course, and also all the other things that go with that in terms of introducing them to the campus environment, how to get things done, you know, so, yeah, things are going to, I guess, officially kickoff in the fall, but the process is underway, and we will begin to see our students actually in the summer.

JT: All right, that is good to know. And I think that's, especially as someone who teaches, you know, our college experience class or Expo 1000 class, with those those first semester, freshmen students, who often are, they come out of, you know, a week or so of orientation, and are just still so kind of befogged by this new reality that you're living in. So it's great to hear that we're going to have this opportunity for students to kind of acclimate to themselves a little more slowly, a little more carefully over the summer. I would imagine that would make a huge difference, because I see so many students in that freshmen class, they're just, they're just kind of overwhelmed, not with academics so much is just everything, right?

TC: Everything. Then again, the literature tells us bridge programs work. They work and you have to, you know, like you said, teaching college experience.Both you and I teach that course. And you see them 2,3,4 weeks in and you check in and you're asking them, you know, how are you doing? And it's just like, this is a lot and I'm feeling overwhelmed. You know what the issues are and in my mind, I am so thrilled because I'm like I get how you're feeling and now we're going to have this network around you that's going to help you deal with those. Not going to put it into it, that doesn't happen. Then welcome to college. But it's going to help you deal with those feelings and understand what it is you need to do to get past that, that's that resilience part of our program. In terms of obstacles, they are going to come, please don't think they won't. But we're going to help you develop those skills to, you know, to confront them and get over them and keep moving. So yeah. 

JT: We're coming up to the end of our time. So do you have any final thoughts on kind of what you want to see, where you want to go, the message you want to get across, especially to faculty who are interested in more about this program?

TC: Thanks a lot. Yeah, you know, the biggest message I want to get across is, this is a university wide effort. We have certain groups of people who may be more intimately involved in the program than others but at the end of the day, it's going to take every single member of the Xavier right community to pull this off, and to give our students what they need. So, you know, I just want faculty to know that this program is there to support them too, by supporting the student and I hope they see that. I hope they, you know, feel that contribution and if they need anything else from us, you know, just let us know. But I just really want to send the message to the entire community, faculty, staff, students, every yielded academic, non-academic, this is a university wide effort, and we're going to need everybody.

JT: Absolutely. Well, Tiera, thank you so much for your time today. I know you've got a lot on your plate as you're getting these things moving and prepared. So thanks for speaking with us today.

TC: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.

Transcribed by Darrielle Robertson

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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