When Julie David considers how to help students in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, she thinks about her 16-year-old-daughter and 25-year-old son.
“I try to see each student as I would want my child to be treated if they’re coming to an advising appointment or they’re coming to a college fair or they’re asking the same question that you’ve heard 100 times that week, remembering it’s the first time they’ve asked it,” she explained.
Thinking about students — their needs, their fears, their feelings, their goals — is critical to David in her new job as director for Student Success in the college. Brand-new in a brand-new position, David is molding the program into something that helps students maneuver through the typical problems that crop up during four years of college.
“It’s not just handing them a sheet of paper and telling them, ‘These are the classes you need to take,’” she said.
Success extends beyond the classroom, giving students the confidence to know where to go and how to ask for help when they need it, to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to make connections that help lay the course for them both at UTC and off-campus, David said.
And, yes, to land a job, she adds.
“When students feel supported and that they have a voice, they have that confidence,” she said.
Although she’s only been at UTC for a little over a month, she said it’s “inspiring” to see the “passion for students’ success in this college.”
David brings more than 20 years of experience in higher education, including a stint about 12 years ago in financial aid, recruitment, and other offices at Chattanooga State Community College. She came to UTC from the Columbus campus of Indiana University Purdue University, where she worked with traditional students as well as adults returning to school to learn new skills or hone the ones they already had.
Dr. Daniel Pack, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, said he was impressed by David’s “leadership and student-advising experiences at institutions of higher learning, her strong communication skills, and her genuine care for students that came through during the interview process.”
More than studying
To some, it might seem unnecessary for the College of Engineering and Computer Science to even need a Student Success director. Aren’t employers simply standing outside the college’s doors, waiting to snag any graduate who walks out and give them a high-paying job?
No doubt, David said, engineering and computer science are desirable diplomas these days, but reaching them isn’t always a casual, hands-in-pockets stroll through the park. There can be tutoring needs, problems with time management or study skills, teamwork issues, even the simple fear of coming to college and not knowing what to expect.
“It can be intimidating. They might not know the channels to navigate or what are those tools for success,” David said. “The goal here is to have a safe haven for our students to come to whenever they have questions.”
Nisarg Hansaliya, who graduated this past weekend with degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering, acknowledged that college can be especially scary for freshmen, but there are issues that may come up throughout a student’s years at UTC, including scheduling the right classes, dealing with personal problems, and not knowing about internships can all crop up, he said.
Through the Success Center, students can pair with other, older students and get help with everything from “homework to personal problems,” he said.
The idea for the Success Center began in January 2016 and, along with bringing more students to the college and improving graduation rates, one of its specific goals was to increase the number of internships and other hands-on opportunities available to its students, Pack said. Such experiences can be vital when it comes to charting a student’s path to a fulfilling career.
But those skills can’t wait to be addressed until the last semester before graduation, David said. By that time, it’s probably too late, she said.
“We don’t wait until they graduate to have those connections,” she said. “Networking begins early on. Our goal is to infuse professional development throughout the curriculum as well. They’re building their resume.”
All along the four-year path, advisers push CECS students not only to apply for internships but to get out of the classrooms and the labs. They need to involve themselves in activities both on-campus and off, David said, and the Success Center encourages them to join clubs or organizations, to work on outside projects with others, and to compete in academic tournaments.
While that may seem like an extra load of work on an already-packed schedule, such activities not only broaden a student’s horizons, they can lead to important relationships, she explained.
“The best way to make that sound appealing is to describe it in a way just like any other activity or sport or club or something they’re passionate about,” she said. “You’re going to put in practice time so, when it comes game time, you’re at your best.”
To help students massage their skills, the College of Engineering and Computer Science created a “Living and Learning” community last year, housing its freshmen students in the same place. Not only does it put them more at ease in the confusing first year of college, it can help them learn to share ideas and to work with others, David said.
“Each has their own strengths so they can utilize the strengths of the group and help each other out,” she said.
In the end, even with all the juggling that students must handle during their stay at college, David has a pretty clear goal of what success looks like to her.
“Success is they’ve earned their degree and they’re moving on to graduate school or employment, not a job, but a career that they love.”
“For them to say, ‘I’m proud to be a UTC graduate.’”