New first-year cohort program works to increase student retention, success

Students meet with a faculty mentor at cafe.
First-year students meet with their faculty mentor, Judy Liu, professor of structural engineering, at a cafe off campus.

“The mission of the first-year cohort program is to strengthen the school community from the first year through graduation and into professional practice,” said Whitney Korthauer, head academic advisor. “Through regular cohort meetings with faculty mentors, students are learning more about the school, engaging with faculty and staff, and getting to know fellow students.”

Activities include meetings with mentors at coffee shops or other locations outside the traditional academic atmosphere. There is no homework or credit. Rather, the sessions are about conversation and connection. Mentors are encouraged to organize outings based on their own interests, such as hiking, cycling, and attending concerts.

To encourage participation, prizes are awarded to cohorts based on points accrued by attending a meeting, posting selfies with the Oregon State mascot Benny Beaver, and answering quizzes about school news.

“Four-year graduation rates increase dramatically when students are engaged in an extracurricular activity and can work with faculty members who care about their success,” said Jason Weiss, school head and Miles Lowell and Margaret Watt Edwards Distinguished Chair in Engineering, citing a recent Gallup study.

Women sitting and tables and talking in Kearney Hall.
Students have breakfast at a Women in CCE event in Kearney Hall.

While CCE has made great strides in increasing the number of female faculty members, the school continues its work in encouraging women to pursue degrees in civil and construction engineering. Erica Fischer, assistant professor of structural engineering, developed a new program, Women in CCE, to support that effort.

“The goal is to build a community within CCE so we can engage and support all of our students a little bit better,”
Fischer said.

The program kicked off with a dinner in the Kearney Hall atrium, followed by a breakfast and industry panel. The first step in the program was for faculty members to introduce themselves to students in an informal setting – and introduce students to one another.

“I teach seniors,” Fischer said. “In my first term at Oregon State, a student said, ‘You’re the first female faculty member that I’ve had in four years,’ and this made me sad.”

“Students want to see examples of themselves as they go through their career, and having a female faculty member at the front of the classroom gives them that example,” Fischer said. “But if that’s what it’s going to take to retain students, then having my class at the senior level is too late.”

The program events are open to all students – of any gender – and all faculty members, so students have more opportunities to connect and develop mentors. About 50 students participated regularly in the events and the school will conduct a survey on climate and culture annually to identify what’s working well and what isn’t.

“I’m sure we’re already doing a great job building community but we can always do a little bit better,” Fischer said.