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Dr. Patrick Turner, New Mexico State University - Steppingblocks

Season 1  |  Episode 9  |  Dr. Patrick Turner, New Mexico State University

Dr. Patrick Turner, Associate Provost for Student Success at New Mexico State University, shares how their student success initiatives support traditional students with nontraditional responsibilities. He explains the danger of mistaking a sense of welcoming for a sense of belonging and why Hispanic-Serving Institutions need to be held more accountable.

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[0:06] ERIN KING

More people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We're here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong and which institutions are rising to the challenge. I'm here with our Analytics Consultant, Dr. Jacob Bonne and Dr. Patrick Turner, who is the Associate Provost for Student Success at New Mexico State University. Happy to have you! So excited for today's conversation.

Just to start us out, Dr. Turner, tell us about yourself and what drove your passion for student success.


As you said, I am the Associate Provost for Student Success, and as the Associate Provost in that particular role, my job is to really bring together the Academic Affairs unit, as well as the Student Affairs unit. We often talk about bringing those silos together, but very few institutions actually do that; so my role is really to serve as that liaison and to make sure those two units are communicating. As well as, my role is to work with the faculty, the faculty role in student success. Our students spend about 90 percent of their lives in the classroom, so it only make sense to really incorporate [faculty] into that particular conversation.

But my background and what drives me for student success is because I was one of those students, those students who struggle, who come from impoverished neighborhoods and needed that type of support, needed that type of direction. And oftentimes what we see is that students are left out of this equation of access and support and success. And my philosophy, my rule, is that no matter who you are, no matter what your background is, your race, ethnicity, your zip code, that you should be provided the opportunity to not just success.

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Because many years ago we just focused on success. So we said, we stated: Hey, come on in, into the institution. But we didn't provide the support that our students needed to help them get to the finish line. So my role and what drives me is to ensure that all of these brilliant minds that come through the institution and need this type of support and have maybe some gaps in their background, whether it's learning, whether it's financial or family support, to ensure that they have equal access to be able to be that brilliant mind that we know that they're capable of being.

So that's what really drives me around this time of the year where everyone's having their graduations and celebrations. This is the best time for me because I get to see students come in as freshmen with their families. They're wide-eyed. They don't know what's happening, but then also see this growth and this maturity of them walking across the stage into their success, into their careers. So that's what constantly drives me. Just being able to see this, these transitions of these students and how it transitions their communities and their family lives.


Thank you. One of the questions, well, the question I was going to ask is what are some of the barriers to student success in higher education? But one of the things you touched on there in particular, is your work to build bridges and tear down silos. And so if you don't mind, I'd like to change my question a little bit and get some more information about what you all are doing to address what is often one of the biggest barriers.

[3:17] TURNER

Yeah, definitely. This is an ongoing conversation because again, higher education has this model that we've been using for hundreds of years. So it's always difficult. Though higher education, we are the most resistant to change, so that's a constant conversation that we're having because we make several assumptions about our students.

We think that they come in prepared. We think that they know what the word curriculum means. We think they know what the words financial aid mean or how to create a schedule, how to drop a class or even simple things, students not knowing what office hours means.

So having these conversations with our faculty, having these conversations with our student affairs of how can we better accommodate the needs of our students that oftentimes we are trying to educate those students that we want to come in instead of educating those students that are actually in front of us.

This is an ongoing conversation at the institutional level, because we have different departments like TRIO or financial aid or academic advising or the tutoring center, who are having these conversations about, how can we tailor our services to our students?

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But it needs to be a conversation at the institutional level, especially when we talk about equity and looking at everything through an equity lens. We are here at New Mexico State University. We're a Hispanic-Serving Institution. We're a minority-serving institution. We're right here at the border we have a lot of students who come in. They may be DACA students. They may be the only person in a household that speaks English, so they have to take care of their family members.

They have to take care of all of the family responsibilities from talking to the doctors from going to grocery shop, all those different things. Understanding the student population that you serve is an ongoing conversation, and we're pushing that dial on how can we better tailor our services to our students; because institutions around the U.S. are still servicing students that we had 100 years ago.

As we know, our student population has drastically changed. What we call traditional students, I call them traditional students with nontraditional responsibilities that take care of their families. They're working. They have jobs and responsibilities in addition to going to school, so having these conversations and including everyone into these conversations (faculty, staff and sometimes a voice that is absent: the student) that we talk about student success and what we think students success is, what is retention, persistence, graduation and going into the workforce.

But most of the time, students don't know what retention means. They don't really care about retention. They don't care about persistence. They care about graduating and getting a job. What I do find though is students care about creating a sense of belonging, creating a community. Then being able to bring all of their intersecting identities to the table and the institution recognizing those intersecting identities, incorporating that in their pedagogy, in their curricula, design, in the support services.

Having that type of conversation on both the academic affairs side and the student affairs side is an ongoing process, because again, all of our responsibilities over the last ten years, especially over the last two years, have changed. We have to really understand that, and it's not a one-time conversation. It's an ongoing conversation.

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[6:53] KING

I want to come back to the student voice and building community, but first, let's talk a little bit about your designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

On LinkedIn, just a few days ago, you shared an article by the Chronicle that was titled, "Everyone Wants to be a Hispanic-Serving Institution." And in your post, your comment was that student success is more than collecting a check because of your designation or classification. So can you talk about this and explain in little more detail for us?

[7:22] TURNER

I hate to say this is an ongoing debate, that oftentimes we see ourselves as Hispanic-Serving Institutions, but those of us who actually work within Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) see it as enrolling or counting the number of students, but we're not really tailoring our services to that particular population of students. Of course, when institutions reach that particular 25 percent, they have gotten this designation, and they get some additional benefit, some additional moneys. But that money doesn't necessarily go to serving the population of students (Hispanic students) that it was designated for.

A lot of institutions, as you see, are growing and becoming Hispanic-Serving institutions, but they're not changing their teaching practices. They're not changing their policies, their procedures. They're not understanding and collecting data on that population to realize, how can we better serve you, especially if we're talking about DACA students, we're talking about students in immigration, especially being here the borderland.

What does that mean? How are the students' lives affected by the border, being right there, where we see patrol cars going up and down the highway? How does that affect their families and their finances? Even with the HEERF money, they weren't able to have access. Students, international students, definitely from Mexico, didn't have access to that particular funding.

So we need to understand that if we're going to have that designation of being an HSI, that you need to understand what that means. That when you take that money, there is a certain level of accountability that goes along with it. I think a lot of institutions haven't really thought that far. In that article they talked about getting the money and maybe building new facilities and providing new services and even some institutions admitted that they hadn't really thought that far.

But now that you've gotten the money, now that you've gotten that designation, that title, you need to be very intentional and thoughtful on how you use it to serve that population of students.

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[9:32] KING

Intentionality, going back to the student voice, obviously, that is something that's important. I think you're right that a lot of universities don't tap into the student voice, and they're not really listening to their students. So in what ways do you think that New Mexico State University is doing that differently?

[9:48] TURNER

We are constantly reaching out to our students. We have a great student organization, which is ASNMSU, which is kind of the SGA and other institutions, are the students that represent all the students on campus. But definitely our Hispanic students since we are a Hispanic-Serving Institution. We have Chicano programs, which serve all students, but that's...their target population of students.

But we ensure that any time we are discussing policies, procedures, curricula, any types of activities that really require having that student voice, that we ensure that we have representation there, because we know that representation matters. Or if there are any policy changes that are really going to impact all of our students, we send that out for our students to view first to see if there are any corrections or updates that need to be made or if we're leaving anyone out of this conversation, because our students...we have no problem with them having input.

Our students are very vocal and it's just listening to what they have to say, because I always make a distinction between creating a sense of welcome and creating a sense of belonging. Oftentimes, institutions say: Hey, come on in. Take a feel of our classes, pay your tuition, but we're not going to include your voice. We're not going to include your representation. We're not going to include your background and experiences. But a sense of belonging requires that, so I think a lot of us are mistaking creating a sense of welcome and calling it a sense of belonging.

At New Mexico State University, we really hold tight to the idea of creating a sense of belonging. How can we better and intentionally include our students' voices from every level? From our undergrad students to our grad students, which at one point they felt that they were being left out of the conversation and that oftentimes we were tapping into the undergrad students. Then our graduate students were like, hey, we have a voice as well. So we are very intentional about going out and talking to our students and saying, hey, we want your voice in this.

And sometimes you get feedback, sometimes you don't. But that means you need to go back to the student and say, we really need your voice in this to ensure that our policies are effective and efficient and that they are benefiting not only the institution but our students who we serve as well.

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[12:09] BONNE

Speaking of that sense of belonging, I know you've written several papers on first-year student transitions. That was the focus of my dissertation, as well. Can you share a little bit about your efforts or thoughts around that first-year student transition and really what metrics and processes you're looking at to ensure that those students are being successful in their first year?

[12:32] TURNER

Oh, definitely I'm happy to hear that was your dissertation.

But no, that is a passion of mine, that first year. Because again, my background, being a younger student, I didn't have that type of guidance. We weren't even talking about the first-year experience at that time. So really, you just went to college and you hung on for dear life, so it really does my heart good to know that we are intentional about focusing on the first-year experience just in general at a national level.

At New Mexico State University we had first-year courses, but they didn't actually have a first-year experience department. So over the last two years, I was able, with the Provost, help to create a first-year experience department where we are really working with faculty, we're working with staff, we're working with the community to really understand what that means. Though we're focusing on the first-year experience, that experience is threaded throughout their sophomore year, their junior year and their senior year, because we know entering is a big transition for a lot of students. But at those different junctions, our students need a certain type of support and certain type of care.

As a sophomore, you need something a little bit different from a freshman. As a junior, you need something a little bit different from a sophomore. So we really have to pay attention to those types of junctures and what the students need at that time. So like I said, we have different freshman courses, support courses. We also, for this semester, we're creating the first learning community. They've never had a true learning community where students are linked together by courses.

Then the hope is to progress, to having those themed, where you start addressing those departments or those areas like chemistry or engineering, those different majors that we see a great deal of attrition or DFW rates. So the goal is to really move the ball forward, so we can function and really support students from the first year all the way to their senior year.

Then also this past semester, we partnered with Apple for all of our freshman students to get an iPad, so that was great. A lot of institutions give students iPads, but what we did was also to ensure that they understood how to use it effectively. Because we can call students digital natives, but there's a difference between being a digital native and digital education. Our students are very fluent with social media and all those different things, but when we talk about integrating that into your academics, integrating into writing a paper, doing some type of research paper or something like that we want to make sure that our freshmen really understood how they could use this Apple iPad.

All of our freshmen, they were required to take this eight-week course to teach them how to effectively use this iPad for their academic career, and the great thing about it is those students taking the class, they actually get to keep the iPad once they graduate. They get to use it throughout their entire matriculation, but they also get to keep it once they graduate.

So we have many initiatives that we're really pushing that can really support our students at every juncture of their academic career.

[15:54] KING

Creating a sense of belonging is really starting to be a theme of this conversation, so I wanted to ask about this: Men of Color, which is a New Mexico State University initiative, hosted a Home for the Holidays event for those who couldn't make it home during the holiday break. So I'm going to shift gears a little bit here to talk about the fact that this is obviously a fun and a feel-good event. But can you talk about the responsibility that universities have to pay attention to the mental health and the sense of belonging to students, and how this impacts overall student success?

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[16:30] TURNER

I'm glad that you noticed that. That was the first event that they've ever had of that nature. Because again, I'm always reminiscing about my time in college, and when the holidays rolled around, if you couldn't go home, you were kind of just trapped there at the institution, and you were there really alone. Unless you have some friends, the cafeteria closed down early, so it wasn't really a good time for you. While your colleagues were away at home and enjoying their families, you were really just stuck on campus trying to find food to eat.

But what is great about what you just mentioned is our last meeting last week, we invited one of the health professionals from our Aggie Health Center to talk to our males about mental health. As we're going into finals, I wanted them to understand that as males, we don't really pay attention to our mental health as much as we should.

And over the last couple of years, it has really become very important that we tap into our identities, because even doing our group discussions, some of our males admit that they have contemplated suicide, that they've been stressed throughout their lives. They've had family problems and other issues, so I thought that it should be required as an institution to bring in and have this type of conversation. And that is the main reason, one of the reasons, that I started that group about two years ago, to really start looking at the data.

First of all, I'm always data-driven, and in the data it shows that our males just don't do as well with their matriculation. The first year, their first year experience, we may retain about 70 percent. But then we start drilling the data down by race and lose about 50 percent the second year and then 25 percent thereafter, so this is a serious issue where you have all of these male, brilliant male students leaving the institution and the institution not knowing why they're leaving, that this brilliant intellect is leaving; and we're not exploring why they're leaving.

Oftentimes, it was because either of financial reasons or mental health reasons that they were just under so much stress, and unfortunately, with a lot of males, our masculinity or our idea of masculinity kicks in where we don't want to reach out for help. We don't want to reach out for assistance, because we see that as a sign of weakness, so we oftentimes suffer in silence.

We're constantly through our meetings, having conversations, building these relationships, not only having fun activities, which really builds the relationships piece, but like today, we're having study sessions. We have study sessions on a weekly basis to build that support system, and I think institutions have a responsibility to start looking at all those student populations that are not doing well and finding out.

I think we're often misled by the broader number, our retention numbers, the broader persistence number, the broader graduation number. But when you start drilling those numbers down, definitely for communities of color, that our efforts need to be a little bit more tailored. We need to have more conversations, definitely about mental health, because oftentimes in communities of color, we don't discuss those types of topics. You just suffer in silence or you push through it, because historically, that's what we've had to do.

But it doesn't do us any good when you start pushing those down, because you're not hiding them. They're going to surface in some kind of way, so having these conversations, having open conversations in a safe environment has been important in general, but also with my males of color.

I think every institution should start having a closer look, because we're at a point where students are really open to having these types of conversations. Now we need to start putting those services and support systems in place.

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[20:45] KING

So what other community organizations do you collaborate with as it relates to mental health for your students or any other needs or initiatives that New Mexico State University has that maybe some of the institutions in our audience might benefit from learning about?

[21:00] TURNER

We are part of the APLU, the Association of Public Land Grant Universities. We are land-grant institution, and we are in the western cluster where you have about 16 institutions. But we're in a cohort of 11 institutions where we meet on a monthly basis. We talk about best practices for your institution. We talk about the struggles and opportunities that are happening at each institution, which was very important over the last two years, because there wasn't a blueprint on how to navigate COVID.

There wasn't a blueprint on how to have discussions about social justice and free speech, or there wasn't a platform, a blueprint, on how do you address this conversation about the toxic political environment that we've had over the last couple of years.

Having these groups that are in the APLU was essential, and I think every institution should be a part of a cohort like that; so you can have these conversations about curricular analytics. Now we're pushing that idea of curricular analytics, which is similar to data analytics, but you're looking at the curriculum in a deeper dive on how you can better update and create pathways in your curriculum.

So working with this cohort, the western group, has been essential, because, again, I don't think we could have navigated this on our own these last two years. Getting feedback from these various Provosts and Associate Provosts and Presidents who sit on these committees has been essential for us.

We mentioned before EAB. I think a lot of institutions are using EAB, which has been great, EAB Navigate, and we use the student success component, which is essential. We've used that in the past when I was at Georgia State University, and it has been essential here, because I think one of the key pieces is that early alert. Oftentimes, all of our students will run into some challenges. But partnering with academic affairs and student affairs really helps us address those needs of our students sooner rather than later. Early intervention is key.

When you have this idea of what we call wraparound service or educating the whole student, what does that mean? One department cannot educate all students. One department cannot create a wraparound service. But building these partnerships and collaborations where you can create this early intervention for our students has been great.

And then also, I think a lot of institutions now, which we are part of, is the PDP, the Post-Secondary Data Partnership, which again is another opportunity for you to really access data to start looking at other institutions and looking at the national data and looking at your data to see how you can better serve your students or also to see those populations of students that are not making it to the finish line.

At this time, we're using several different platforms and collaborating with several different institutions to really get an idea on how we can tailor our services, take some of these practices, and tailor to our student population.

[24:21] BONNE

You touched on this a little bit, but I'd love some additional thoughts here about how you're really tracking the effectiveness in that post-graduation window. You talked about those curricular analytics. I'd love to hear a little bit more about that work and how you're ensuring that students are moving their careers in the right direction.

[24:41] TURNER

With the curricular analytics, which is fairly new with Neil Heisman, over the last two years Arkansas State University as well Georgia Tech University have really built this platform, Curricular Analytics, which looks at the instructional complexity and the structure complexity of your curriculum. Because again, on the student affairs side, they create all these support services, but if barriers are baked into your curricular, then it makes it difficult to create and keep your support services in place.

Right now, institutions really need to start drilling down and looking at the pathways. Curricular analytics takes all this data of your curricula, it generates this complexity runs this algorithm, and it tells you how complex your curricular is and then also starts running numbers as far as: Where are potential barriers in that curriculum? What courses are hanging up your students? Why is there a high DFW rate in these particular areas?

You can have a better conversation with the deans and the chairs and the faculty to say, hey, this particular pathway has a high curriculum, high complexity score. Can we simplify this? Or in some cases, complexity is good, but how is there a better way to do this? Or it allows you to compare the complexity of your curriculum with other institutions, especially if we're looking at engineering majors or biology majors. You may want to look at other institutions to see what the curricular complexity is of their particular degree at that school.

So what it does: It really starts drilling down, giving you data on what your curricula looks like, and what we found out so far in this cohort of institutions who are actually playing around with it is that oftentimes, we have pathways that have just kind of been built along the way, but no one really looked at the sequential seamlessness of the curricula. Or that some courses are on the books that students are taking that no longer are relevant for that particular major. What you start finding is that we have barriers baked into this curricula because we just do that add-on method throughout the years and never really look at the entire curricula holistically.

So that's the intent of the curricular complexity, and as you mentioned, as we're looking at our students and where they're being a place, I think that's an area that we are really trying to ramp up our efforts.

Of course, you have our alumni association, we track students. You have our career services and experiential departments that are tracking the data on their population of students. And then you also have various departments that track their graduates and where they are placed and their starting salaries and how long it took for their students to be placed.

But I think as an institution, we are moving to doing a better job at: How can we bring all of this information together to really look at our students, all of our students. Where are they being placed? Are they being successful? Are they being placed in jobs or are they getting jobs in the degree field that they were looking at? Because oftentimes, you find out that students have a degree in one area, but they end up getting a job in a different area. Or are your students staying within New Mexico or are they finding jobs somewhere else?

All of this is important information. And again, in different departments and units, we are tracking this. But I think as an institution, we're really pushing the dial to see: How can we bring all of this knowledge and information together as an institution?

I am very encouraged about moving from 21 to 2022, because I think over the last two years, the pandemic has really pushed the envelope of what institutions are required to do and what we need to do. Because the landscape of higher education has been changing for many years, at least over the last 10-15 years, the ground has been shifting under higher education. But we haven't really paid much attention to it.

Over the last two years with the pandemic, with the toxic political environment, with the social unrest, it has really pushed the institutions to say, hey, we can do these things. We can put classes online. We had to pivot when we had to. So how can we create a more robust environment for our students? How can we be more inclusive in our classroom and include our voices? How can we provide more training for our instructors on how to update their teaching methods? And how can we build a collaborative environment for our students to partner with their instructors and other community members on creating student success?

Because again, over the last two years we have really had to pivot. We've had to do some things that institutions said we could never do, so it's taking those items and innovative ideas that we built on and not just putting them on the shelf but really building on those things that we've done.

I'm very encouraged. I think we have a bright future if we keep moving in the direction that we're going in, because again, our student population is changing. Their needs change. And we talked about mental health.

We have an increase of diversity, especially our Hispanic student population is really increasing, and we need to understand that higher education is that place where all of our students feel that there is access to social mobility.

As you started off in the beginning, now that they are wondering: Should I be here or should I not be here, because I'm not being included in conversations, that the institution doesn't recognize me for who I am or recognize my background, my experiences?

We have a great opportunity here to really reimagine ourselves by tailoring our services to our student population and who we serve and collaborate with our community, our community partners, the different business organizations.

I am very encouraged and excited about the future, and this momentum that we generated over the last two years. It's just that we have to keep it going and understand where we are at this point of time, but we have a great opportunity in front of us.

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