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NIU holds workshops to address student retention, other concerns

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 10:10 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 12:15 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Monica Maschak - mmaschak@shawmedia.com)
Ron Walters, a consultant hired by the university to help improve the campus' future, presents some ideas that are already taking shape Monday during a Northern Illinois University Bold Futures Workshop in the Sky Room.

DeKALB – Beatriz Anabell Rodriguez Zelaya feels scared and ill-prepared ahead of her college graduation in May, so she attended a workshop Monday to make sure issues are resolved for future students.

Zelaya, an international graduate student, was one of 84 people who attended Northern Illinois University’s Bold Futures Workshop on Monday. She listed many concerns about using what she has learned at NIU in her homeland of El Salvador and suggested the university enact peer mentoring and faculty mentoring programs for international students.

“The idea of coming here, you’re afraid of being rejected because you feel like you don’t belong,” Zelaya said. “You don’t have skills to interact [with other NIU students] because you’re international.”

Zelaya shared her ideas Monday during the workshop, which also examined student retention rates and NIU’s financial situation. The six-day workshop invited current students, alumni, staff, community and faculty members to come up with ideas to better the university.

Northern Illinois University will hold another six-day session for new participants from Friday through Wednesday. NIU students, faculty, staff and alumni, as well as community members are welcome to participate. They can register at: http://registeruo.niu.edu/iebms/wbe/wbe_p1_main.aspx?oc=40&cc=WBE4013479

The Bold Futures workshops will culminate in the Big Bold Event at 5 p.m. April 24 in the Holmes Student Center’s Duke Ellington Ballroom, 340 Carroll Avenue, DeKalb.

As participants discussed Monday, retention rates at NIU need to improve. Statistics show only 66 percent of freshman students from the 2012-13 school year returned as sophomores this school year.

Financial help from the state is also harder to come by: Direct state support has dropped 15 percent, with most of that decrease coming since 2009, according to a video presentation by Nancy Suttenfield, NIU interim chief financial officer. Money NIU gets from the state also is going toward funding for faculty pensions.

“We’re not going to see this turn around,” said NIU President Doug Baker. “That means our revenue source is going to have to be us.”

The university relies heavily on tuition and fees for its revenue, which makes enrollment a primary concern. NIU’s peak enrollment in recent years was in 2003. A chart shown during the workshop Monday projected enrollment in 2015 would be 81.5 percent what it was in 2003.

Workshop participants offered many solutions to improve student retention, including better

Connecting students and alumni through social media, reaching out to those on academic probation, creating internship opportunities with alumni, and establishing retention scholarships for freshman and sophomores.

The workshop initiative is part of Baker’s effort to improve the university and improve student experience. Another one of those efforts, the master-plan thesis, details multiple ideas such as renovating John and Locust streets and adding an electric bus service to reduce time spent walking to class.

Another plan that has been discussed by NIU and city leaders is about improving the area on Lincoln Highway between downtown DeKalb and the campus. But at least one DeKalb homeowner, Michael Haji-Sheikh, said he felt residents had been left out of the loop.

Haji-Sheikh lives in Ward 5, which includes the homes to the east of the campus. He said the neighborhood has worked for 10 years with the city on an improvement plan. Now, NIU wants to implement their own ideas that could lead to removing as many as half of the homes in the area without talking to homeowners, Haji-Sheikh said.

“We don’t want to throw a new plan on top of us after 10 years of work,” he said. “If they want their idea, they have to sit down with us.”

Baker said the university will reach out to residents in Ward 5 as their plan progresses.

Alberta Solfisburg, who works with the NIU Foundation, came up with the idea to establish scholarships for freshmen and sophomores, saying there are more scholarships available to juniors and seniors.

Solfisburg said the older alumni she regularly works with are excited about Baker’s vision.

“I wanted to learn and participate as much as possible, because I interact with the alumni,” she said. “They want to hear about what’s happening [with the university] and how it has grown.”

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