Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Denise Rode
Denise Rode

Earl 'Gip' Seaver
Earl “Gip” Seaver

To obtain a print-quality JPEG of this photo, contact the Office of Public Affairs at (815) 753-1681 or e-mail

News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

January 28, 2009

Task force works to improve
first-year experiences at NIU

Employees to take survey this spring; students surveyed last fall

DeKalb, Ill. — What does it truly mean to be a member of the Northern Illinois University community?

Members of NIU’s Foundations of Excellence Task Force are working to make sure everyone – freshmen classes included – can answer that question with intelligence and accuracy.

All employees, from professors and deans to residence hall janitors and cafeteria food servers, will receive invitations soon that encourage the completion of an online survey intended to collect and measure their perceptions of the first-year experience for NIU freshmen.

The survey will go online in mid- to late-February to help task force members to determine strengths and weaknesses and opportunities for change and improvement. Twenty random respondents will win $50 each; another will win $1,000.

Part of the university’s comprehensive strategic planning process, the two-year Foundations of Excellence (FoE) assessment process is expected to build a strong base for the best-possible first-year experience at NIU.

More than 300 colleges and universities already have participated in the FoE process, developed by the Policy Center on the First Year of College, and nearly 150 have completed their self-studies.

Committee members also are auditing all NIU programs that impact first-year students, including a search for overlaps, holes and discrepancies. They’re also examining information mailed to freshmen and their families before they begin classes.

“We want to move beyond retaining students to having them engage with and become part of the NIU experience,” said Denise Rode, director of Orientation and First-Year Experience. “Many of our peer institutions use the word ‘transformative.’ This will have a transformative effect on how our campus interacts with first-year students.”

“The first year is a real critical year for college students – it’s a year of transition – and we really want to make sure by way of our self-study and subsequent plans that we provide our students with the best-possible experience,” said Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver.

“We know that as students move through what we call P-20, there are certain areas of transition,” Seaver added. “We’re talking about young people coming out of high school into a setting where they have to rely much more on their own decisions. And, in addition to learning things in the classroom, there are life lessons they have to learn. There are a lot of competing forces.”

Rode and others on the task force attended a Foundations of Excellence conference in North Carolina presented by John N. Gardner, executive director of the policy center.

The process, Gardner told them, is an introspective one that increases institutional responsibility for learning during the first year of college: Retention falls into place when colleges and universities create a vision for excellence beyond retention and strive to reach that peak.

It also believes that all institutions of higher education can achieve excellence, not just the elite.

“This is a transparent process. We want a lot of input,” Rode said. “This is going to steer the first-year experience here for years.”

Surveys were given to students last semester; an impressive 40.2 percent responded, and the data they provided are still being interpreted.

Among the questions:

  • As a first-year student, to what degree has NIU connected you with other new students? With sophomores, juniors and seniors?
  • To what degree has NIU communicated the importance of out-of-class activities?
  • To what degree have faculty/staff advisers discussed what it takes for you to be academically successful?
  • To what degree is NIU exposing you to different world cultures? World religions? Political perspectives? Issues related to social class/economic status?
  • At NIU, to what degree do you feel you can express your beliefs without concern about how others will react?
  • To what degree have faculty/staff helped you examine your personal reasons for getting a college education?
  • To what degree does NIU help you understand how attending college prepares you to contribute to the betterment of society?
  • Which best describes your college enrollment next year? Choices: I will continue at NIU. I will transfer to another institution. I will not enroll in college. I don’t know.

The student survey also asked about how well NIU communicates organizational information such as were to ask questions about registration, financial aid, withdrawal or academic probation and where to find help with coursework, money management or family matters.

Respondents also reported demographic information, including whether they’re enrolled in a UNIV course, the average number of hours per week they spend studying and completing homework and the highest level of education obtained by either of their parents.

Ten short-answer questions specific to NIU also were asked, such as what it means to be a member of the NIU community.

All the data, including results from both surveys, effectiveness audits of NIU programs and benchmark comparisons with six peer institutions, eventually will support a final report with recommendations for the president and the provost.

Task force members can suggest immediate changes in some things that the process might identify, Rode said, because those changes might require just a simple reallocation of resources.

“Our entire campus community will benefit from just looking inside at how we’re approaching new students and how we can make that first year more valuable,” said Bob Burk, director of admissions and co-chair of the task force’s Transitions Dimension committee. “The result is a welcoming, student-centered atmosphere.”

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