No Wallflowers in this Garden: Making Authentic Outreach Connections
About two years ago, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Managing yourself: turn the job you have into the job you want.” After taking the steps outlined in the article, I made some changes in my job duties and description to focus directly on outreach. Outreach is something I had been doing, and enjoyed, but had not been a formal component of my position. Now that it was a formal part of my job, I had to decide how to proceed.
Connecting with students is a challenge for any college employee, but as librarians, we lack the semester-long classroom environment to make those real, lasting connections. Frankly, I struggle with learning students’ names, as the reference interaction doesn’t naturally lend itself to exchanging personal information unless there is follow-up. After all, requests for printer assistance don’t come with introductions. It wasn’t until I began teaching as an adjunct professor that I realized how disconnected I was with our students--recognizing faces and saying hello in the cafeteria made me feel like I was connected.
After the first semester I taught, I realized just how little connection we are able to make through one-shot library instruction sessions and reference interviews. As studies have shown, students who make a personal connection with someone at their institution are more likely persist in their degree programs. I wanted to make sure that I was one of those people who made connections with students. So, without the benefit of classroom teaching, what are ways to authentically connect with our students?
I had the benefit and pleasure of being invited to teach as an adjunct professor in our First Year Experience program, and I know other librarians who have done so as well. While my first semester was daunting, that experience has provided me with lasting personal connections with students, many of whom still come to see me on a regular basis. Teaching also completely changed my ability and confidence level as a one-shot library instructor. I was also able to support the program by helping organize brown bag lunches, an email distribution group for faculty to share ideas and best practices, and serving on the committee for the program.
Putting myself out there
Attending student events, buying coffee in the cafeteria instead of an off-campus coffee shop, chit-chatting with students in the hallways--all of this helps to lay the foundation for great connections. However, you can’t just leave it at that; students need to know that you are there to help them. A student recently complained to me about an experience she had elsewhere, saying “You spend all that time working up the courage to go ask for help, and if the person doesn’t help you, it’s really frustrating.” It had never really occurred to me that some students have to muster up the courage to ask me for help; so that when they do, I had better be my best, most helpful, most approachable self. Not only that, but I need to give them a way to connect with me again, and I do so by giving out my business card. I had business cards for years but never gave them to students; instead I handed them out to colleagues and dropped them in raffle fishbowls, mostly because I felt shy about handing them out to students. Taking that extra step to give them my name and contact information says to the student, “I WANT you to ask me for help.”
Targeting my efforts
Naugatuck Valley Community College has about 7000 students, and since we are a commuter campus they are here at all hours of the day and night--or not at all, e.g., if they attend classes at one of our offsite locations or online. In order to maximize my time, I decided to focus on groups of students I thought could most readily benefit from library services: those who are enrolled in special programs. I chose to initially focus on special programs because it was easier for me to ascertain the students’ specific needs, and it was easier for me to contact them and make that personal, authentic connection I was seeking. I started out by contacting the coordinators for the programs and asking how I could help support their students. In some cases, such as with nursing students, I created a “Research Boot Camp” session that fit into their validation schedule and was tailored to the information I knew they would need. In other cases, like with WAVE, an intensive achievement program, I created a library tour/hybrid instruction session focusing on library skills and management of online personas; basically, teaching them how to Google themselves and change privacy settings on social networking sites.
My latest project involves a new Honors Institute initiative on our campus, which is a program in which students complete a research assignment related to the course materials. I immediately thought this was an excellent opportunity to better connect with our high achieving students as well as support a new campus initiative. I offered three complementary services for the honors students: one-on-one research consultations (i.e., reference help by appointment provided by myself and my colleagues), a “study hall” time for honors students in our group study area, and a workshop on creating and presenting poster sessions, co-taught by one of the Honors Institute faculty. I feel like this project highlights our skills (research assistance, poster session presentations) and our space (study hall, poster session displays). Ideally, our Honors Institute students will feel supported and encouraged by our outreach, while other students will potentially see the benefit in being an honors student after viewing the poster session work on display and will be encouraged to participate.
Assessing and strategizing
Assessment is the buzzword in higher education these days, so no good project is complete without an assessment component. In order to ensure that my efforts are effective, I need to ask myself the following questions before I begin a project:
- Who am I reaching out to?
- What are their greatest needs?
- How can I help support those needs?
- How will I measure my impact on the students I’ve worked with?
- How can I use the information I’ve gathered to adjust my outreach to better support students in the future?
These questions are standard for assessment, but I also add one more:
- Have I improved the educational experience of the students I have worked with?
While this question is much more difficult to quantify, I know that it is essential for the meaningful connections that aid in retention and foster my own job satisfaction. As I move forward in my outreach activities, I know that my time is focused on authentic improvement of student experience.
Jaime Corris Hammond is the Reference/Outreach Librarian at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, CT. She, along with Nicole Pagowsky, co-convened the ACRL Student Retention Discussion Group. You can find her on Twitter at @jaimebc.