Behrend’s ‘Six Weeks’ Initiative focuses on first-year student success

Penn State Behrend student Lauren Cass walks along the creek in Wintergreen Gorge.

Lauren Cass, a sophomore at Penn State Behrend, used the "Six Weeks Initiative" at the college to steady her academic progress during her transition to college. "There is this whole web of support," she said.

Credit: Photo provided

ERIE, Pa. — Students who leave college before completing their first academic year often decide to do so during the first six weeks of the semester, according to research by the Strategic Plan Group for Student Success and Retention at Penn State Behrend. To better support those students, the group has developed the “Six Weeks Initiative” — a coordinated network of faculty members, support staff and campus resource offices that can provide additional support as students adjust to campus life.

The program, which was first implemented in 2021, supports Behrend’s strategic plan, which will guide directions and decisions for the college through 2025. It will be used again this fall, said Ken Miller, senior director of administration and student affairs at Behrend.

“The first six to eight weeks of a student’s college experience are critical to the student’s success, both academically and socially,” Miller said. “Our best opportunity to smooth their transition to campus life is during that period.”

To identify students who are underperforming in class — and who may be at risk of leaving the college — the Six Weeks Initiative encourages faculty members to “flag” students who are not attending or participating in class. The flags are recorded in Starfish, the online system where faculty communicate with students outside of class sessions.

Students whose performance is flagged are referred to members of the new support team.

“We reach out to them by phone, or by text,” Miller said, “or we have residence hall staff go to their rooms. It’s more than an email.”

Megan O’Polka, a residence life coordinator in Ohio and Senat halls, and in a cluster of suite-style apartments at Behrend, was a liaison to students during the inaugural Six Weeks Initiative. She saw a benefit in being able to talk with them face-to-face.

“We could go and knock on their door,” she said. “It was a way to show that we cared.”

The conversations that stemmed from that outreach often revealed other stressors in students’ lives, said Emily Artello, associate director of exploratory and pre-major advising at Behrend and a member of the Six Weeks Initiative team.

“There are all sorts of different things that could be going on,” Artello said. “It could be a situation with their family. It could be a health issue, or an organizational issue. Just having that conversation early on, letting them know, ‘Hey, there are resources here for you,’ is important.”

One student Artello worked with was Lauren Cass, a first-year student in the communication program. Cass had fallen behind in several classes.

“I was going to class, but I wasn’t really there,” Cass said. “I wasn’t fully engaged. I was working through some issues, but I didn’t tell anybody about it. I didn’t know what to do.”

She began to meet weekly with Artello, and she used other resources in the Six Weeks Initiative.

“When I was failing, I felt so alone,” Cass said. “I didn’t know there were people out there who could help me. Once I connected with Emily, I saw that there is this whole web of support. They showed me that if I put in the work, I’d be OK.”

Miller and others in the Six Weeks Initiative hope to collect data that can predictively model student success. “There’s a lot we can still learn,” he said. “For example, what characteristics do we see in first-year students that can indicate when there is a need for more support?”

The initiative also supports the college’s commitment to individual students, said Kelly Shrout, associate director of student affairs.

“It’s not just about numbers,” she said. “It’s about each individual student – how they are treated while they are with us, and what they carry through. Our first-year students are not ‘vulnerable’ students. They are students who are experiencing new things. We need to make sure they are aware of the resources, the options, and the support that is available to them.”

This story was written by Davis Yoshitani, a sophomore in the advertising program at Penn State’s University Park campus.