Students are Equipped for Success at WPU

June 15, 2020

As William Peace University’s director of Retention and the First-Year Experience (FYE), Dawn Dillon ensures that all Pacers are equipped to succeed, starting their first day on campus. Part of the Center for Student Success  (CSS), FYE helps students acclimate successfully to the college experience, engaging them in the University’s academic and social communities during their first year. 

Dillon has supported Pacers as a staff member since 1999 and is one of the first people incoming students will meet when they step foot on campus. She compares the First Year Experience to a scrapbook. 

“That is all the snapshots of everything that happens to a student during their first year at Peace. So I follow them from the very beginning — admitted student days to orientation to the first-year seminar course. When you look back at the end of your first year, there should be pictures of all those kinds of things in your scrapbook.”

Dillon works closely with campus partners including Residential Life, the Wellness Center, Athletics, and Clubs, Activities and Recreation to ensure that the needs and concerns of first-year students are factored into campus activities, events and services. 

The First-Year Experience kicks into gear shortly before freshmen begin their first semester at WPU. Prior to moving on campus, they are assigned a peer mentor who is a student leader at WPU. Peer Mentors are selected for their unique experiences and passion for helping other students. It’s important that they are able to empathize with the ups and downs of transitioning to college life. They act as academic and community role models for freshmen, introducing them to new opportunities and resources as well as social activities. Peer mentors also accompany freshman to FYS 100: First Year Seminar. 

FYS 100 is a required course that meets once a week during a student’s first semester at WPU. Its goal is to orient first-semester freshmen to the college learning experience, showing them what it is like to take a college course and providing best practices that can help along the way. Faculty who teach FYS 100 act as first-year mentors to their students and often become their academic advisors. The first-year mentor is there to guide students so that they can feel confident on campus, even if that means taking a walk together or seeking out resources.

Before classes start, freshmen meet their peer and first-year mentors at Pathways to Peace, a four-day introduction to life at WPU. The program promotes community building with activities such as  outdoor movies, flash dance parties, tours of the neighborhood and more. Peer mentors lead their mentees through different activities. 

“They get to know them. On their first day of class, they already know each other. They’re ready to go. It’s all about giving them the information they need to know in order to hit the ground running as a college student.”

Dawn Dillion, William Peace University Director of Retention and First Year Experience

Pathways at Peace also introduces students to Experiential and Immersive Learning, the process of learning through experience and applying this knowledge in an active environment. Each student completes two immersive learning experiences. The first is completed with their First-Year Seminar class and first-year mentor. The goal is to understand what immersive learning means and how it will be applied at WPU by sampling the different services available on campus and meeting the people who provide them. The second allows students to choose from several disciplinary experiences and reflect on what they learned. Past sessions have featured ropes courses, museum tours, film screenings and escape rooms. 

“It’s very rare that an institution goes to this level to provide services. They’re not just a number,” Dillon says. 

The First Year Experience meets students where they are, including their residence halls. In partnership with Residential Life, Dillon helped launch the First Year Success Series, an opportunity for students to meet campus partners through fun and approachable events. For example, Costs, Scholarships and Financial Aid hosted drop-in hours with donuts on Belk Courtyard to give students a chance to ask financial questions in a less intimidating fashion. The Office of Public Safety has also hosted talks about how to be safe on and off-campus. 

Dillon seeks out opportunities to help first-year students in need of support. The College Student Inventory (CSI) is a survey that helps Dillon and other administrators identify where students are struggling and connect them to the resources they need most. Freshmen review the results of the inventory with their first-year mentor to find solutions and move forward. 

Data like this is important to retention, in which the First-Year Experience plays a major role.

“I think the ultimate goal of it is for the student to fall in love with Peace and make that decision — this is where I want to graduate from,” Dillon explains. 

The program has paid off — retention numbers have steadily risen in recent years. Dillon is the campus advocate for WPU’s retention goals, which she calls the #70Percent initiative. In addition to other campus resources, Dillon feels that the First-Year Experience is contributing to the recent upward trend. 

Retention is a community effort that revolves around relationships. Every student knows they are valued at WPU, even if they choose to leave. Dillon and her colleagues reach out to every student who expresses an interest in leaving WPU before they graduate, focusing on three key areas. First, a student’s advisor will contact them to talk about their path to graduation. If it is a student-athlete, Dillon will get their coach involved. If the student lives on campus, their residence area coordinator will come to their door to reach out. These touchpoints ensure that the student feels supported at WPU.  

Close bonds between WPU students, staff and faculty make the First-Year Experience and student retention successful. Dillon makes these connections a priority. 

“It is a rarity when students walk across the stage [at graduation] and I don’t know who they are. I can often tell a story.”