HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) — Hastings College is hoping to fight a retention issue by creating new and innovative ways to make the school truly feel like home for its students.

With the start of the 2018-19 school year, the new Department of Student Engagement has already been hard at work finding and creating ways to engage students both in and out of the academic world.

"Students come to class pretty much between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. and then what," questioned new dean of student engagement Lisa Smith. "If we're a learning institution shouldn't we always be learning and that happens 24-7 in all our experiences."

During the spring 2018 semester, the college was going through a major discovery phase after seeing the results of a campus climate survey in which many students expressed fears about safety and issues with inclusiveness on campus.

"We started realizing all the things that were missing and keeping people away from feeling connected were things we could address," Smith said.

It was with that in mind that Smith and others on the staff at the college started looking at how to engage students not just during their class time but all the time.

The Hastings Tribune reports that part of that stemmed from the college's issues with student retention and the students who choose to leave when they no longer feel that connection or for other reasons.

"We would like to retain higher numbers. We would like them to stay here," Smith said.

She said oftentimes the reason a student leaves a college is because of what is or isn't happening between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. when they're not in class.

"It's relationship, connection, empowerment," she said.

So as the dean of student engagement, Smith has brought a team under her umbrella to start addressing those student engagement issues.

The first is the hiring of Kimberly Milovac as the new director of first-year experience.

"Kimberly is in charge of knowing everything and anything about the almost 300 first year and transfer and international students," Smith said.

Milovac started by creating a digital magazine for those students that answers all the first-year student questions like "How do I use the washing machine" and "Where is the closest ATM."

The biggest part of her job, Smith said, is to build relationships with students to address everything from homesickness to struggles in the classroom.

The INT class, which is the introductory class all incoming students must take, previously had an academic focus only on things like how to write a paper.

Smith said that was jumping too far ahead and she said it was important to also address building relationships, building community and even simple things like living with a roommate.

"We learn through relationships with roommates because for most of our students this is the first time they have had a roommate or had to share a bedroom," she said. "Our culture doesn't do that as much anymore."

One major focus of the new student engagement department is Studio 200, the revised and updated learning center program.

Previously there was The Learning Center, a center in the lower level of the Hurley McDonald building where students would go for remediation, and help with specific student plans that came from their high schools or special accommodations in the classroom.

The new version, which is an old painting studio in Kiewit, is known as Studio 200 and features big open windows and what Smith describes as a Zen feeling.

"Students can come in and work on projects, they can come in and get help at any time on anything and it's fully staffed," Smith said.

The new Studio 200 will be open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday which is a huge change from the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours previously.

The studio was open just during the day on Friday but will be open Sunday afternoon and evening for students to get that homework done before classes on Monday.

"You've got that assignment due first thing Monday morning and you probably don't want to message your professor if you need help on it because they're going to know you just started to work on it," Smith said. "We're not going to judge you. Come on over."

There will be several staff and faculty members filling the facility slate in Studio 200 along with a number of graduate students.

And Smith was quick to point out that these staff members won't be doing the students' homework for them.

"Our underlying objective is we'll teach you how to grow yourself through this," she said. "We're not going to do it for them. The idea is we're going to teach them how to do it for themselves."

The third piece of the student engagement program is the expanded Vocation and Career Development office. In the past, the career development office focused primarily on internships and careers as Kim Graviette only had some much time in her small office to help the students.

With the addition of Valerie Bren, the team will now be able to focus on a student's interests and vocations to help a student find his or her passion before choosing a career.

"You don't have to know what you're going to do with your life as a freshman," Smith said. "We'd rather you didn't think you already knew. Stay open."

The idea is to start focusing on students' strengths as freshmen and then really look at vocational discernment sophomore year especially after students start taking the global experience trips that will be offered to all sophomores starting in the 2019-20 school year.

With that world view, students can then really delve into internships and career choices as they move into their junior and senior years, Smith continued.

"Instead of putting it in a funnel and narrowing it, we're flipping it over and broadening their perspective of who they are (because) the world doesn't need one-track-mind people," she said. "We need people who are good at a range of things."

Smith said her job with the department is to keep the focus steady on the intention of ensuring all students find their home at Hastings College.

Smith said she's proud to see college administrators have put such a focus on student retention and actually doing something about it.

"We could have spent the next three years looking at it or five years or 10 years and by then how many hundreds of students would we have lost the opportunity to engage with," she said. "How many members of our community would no longer be here? That's awful.

"Our focus isn't retention but our measurement is retention so we know if we're doing what we need to be doing we'll know because students will feel this is home."

Smith comes into the new dean of student engagement position after previously serving in the Teacher Education Department where she's worked since 2013.

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Information from: Hastings Tribune, http://www.hastingstribune.com