Empowering Students: An Inside Look at the Student Experiences Team
How do you make students want to go to college or pursue other educational opportunities after high school? To find out, we sat down with Amber Stokes, Sheridan Kautzmann, and Brittley Base, who spearhead the Student Experiences team here at the K20 Center, to learn more about college visits, college- and career-readiness, and the challenges of helping students meet their postsecondary goals.
Tell us about a recent campus visit.
I had one earlier this week at SWOSU, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. It’s in Weatherford, Oklahoma, and it was for Santa Fe South High School there. They were juniors and really awesome. You could tell they really wanted to be there.
We divided them into two groups. One group went to listen to a presentation from SWOSU. The other went outside on the tour. They had a good, long walk, and on the tour, they saw the dorms at Weatherford, the bookstore, and other buildings.
The other group listened to the presentation from the SWOSU folks. They hear about what SWOSU is, what programs they offer, what it takes to get into SWOSU, some of those admission factors, and some of the cool things that you can do while you’re at school. They have a lake with fun activities free for students.
They had time for students to ask questions. I’ve never seen so many kids raise their hands to ask questions, but these kids are in spring of their junior year, so they’re starting to think about what they want to do and where they might want to go. It was more real for them. They took the time to ask about their esports program and what it’s like to go to college. One student asked what diversity at SWOSU was like. That gave them a chance to talk about what the student body looks like. It was great.
Then the groups flipped. The ones who heard the presentation went on tour and vice versa. Then they had lunch, we gathered feedback, and the kids went home.
That’s a standard campus visit for my grant. We take so many students out at a time that we usually split them into two groups. For Sharon and Amber, it might look a little different.
My schools, since they are smaller, get more individualized activities. Smaller tours have more conversations with the ambassadors who give the tours of the schools. But overall, campus visits are set up in similar ways with, ideally, some type of presentation from the college. Something to explain who they are, what they offer, how to get accepted, and how to apply, especially because students are getting closer to actually applying for these places. Then a tour of some kind within the school grounds with, ideally, a chance for students to experience eating in the cafeteria to highlight for the students what it’s like.
I had a group of students at ECU, East Central University in Ada, yesterday. One of the smaller groups had an ambassador who really got to know the students and talk. Our students open up with the college students a lot better than the recruiters, sometimes, just because students are the ones who they can more than likely identify with, be more open to asking questions, figure out what this place is really about, and hear somebody’s real experience of being a student here.
I think one of my favorite things about what we do is help students experience different types of schools. I was just at Wichita State, which is not as big as OU, but similar on a smaller scale. The next two days, I was at Redlands Community College, which is a rural community college, and then I was at Rose State, which is in the metro. One of my favorite parts of Student Experiences is opening students’ eyes to the different colleges that are out there
We work in the summer with these schools to figure out where they want to go so they get a wide variety of different types of schools. Giving these students these experiences is a way of telling them, “Hey, these are your options now. You go choose.”
So you believe that exposing students to a variety of schools and programs is one of the most valuable parts of these visits?
Yes, that and helping students understand that they may have a specific career path in mind, but it’s important to research and find out which schools offer that program. For example, a student may want to become a veterinarian and think that they want to attend the University of Oklahoma (OU), but they may not realize that OU doesn’t have a veterinary program. They visit OU thinking, “My mom went here and I love the football team,” and then they realize there’s no vet school. So where are they going to go? Starting those conversations is valuable because they open students up to seeing that college is very specific to what you want to study and what skill you want to hone in on.
You all seem to talk a lot about having individual conversations with students and specific groups. Do you have any particular students or groups that you remember fondly, or that were particularly successful in their college searches?
It really depends on the location we visit. Some places we’re more involved and have activities to help students prepare for college and explore what comes after high school. Other places, we’re more behind the scenes, assisting with the transition and collecting feedback. So, it varies depending on the school and the students we work with.
It definitely depends on how many students we have going to a particular visit. If it’s a large group of 250 students, for example, I’ll do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make sure everything is covered. We also like to have as many K20 folks with us as possible to help chaperone and talk to the students about what they’re seeing and experiencing. If there’s not someone in a group, I’ll jump in and do that if I’m not leading an activity. Like Amber said, it depends on where we are.
To give you an idea of what we do, I like to compare it to a wedding coordinator. We’re responsible for everything from planning the food to arranging transportation and facilitating the visit itself. It’s like we’re the bridesmaids, guests, and catering company all in one. And just like a wedding coordinator, we ensure that everything runs smoothly and according to plan.
That is a beautiful picture. I have never thought about it that way.
If a parent or a student was interested in this opportunity but unsure if it was worth their time, what would you say to them?
I would encourage them to give it a try. It’s important to have that experience of being on a campus, interacting with people, and seeing what they have to offer. For example, I was just at ECU yesterday, and some students came up to me afterwards saying they hadn’t even known about the school before, but now they’re considering it. Our goal isn’t for everyone to attend the schools we visit, but rather to expose them to different options and encourage them to look into them further. For parents, especially those who didn’t attend post-secondary education themselves, it’s important to highlight the many supports and resources available to students. These schools want their students to succeed, and they provide many resources to help them get there.
There are tutoring options, individual check-ins–one location, Murray State, has academic coaching to help students with time management. They help students who need resources for their English classes or things like that. Having those individual supports for classes and just having people check in with students to see how they’re doing, to support them in academic life, student life, fun activities, mental health–there are so many resources.
First-generation students can seek out specific help for FAFSA, scholarships, and enrollment. There are so many resources designed to help students get on and stay on the right track throughout college.
I would say that, if a parent was unsure about looking at a particular school, we help by facilitating conversations about how to pay. We talk about things like Oklahoma’s Promise and other programs that schools offer to help students pay for college. It’s not just about visiting a campus and learning about what that particular school has to offer. Even if a student thinks a certain school may not be the right fit for them, they will still gain something valuable from the experience of visiting the campus and learning more about what they do and don’t want in a college. You’re going to experience something, whether it’s school-related, social, emotional–you’re going to experience something before you walk away from the visit.
I would add to that: even if a student walks away thinking, “I don’t want to go here,” they still walk away with something–insights about what they do and don’t want in a college. Just getting students to visit a college can be incredibly valuable. If they come away from that experience with a clearer sense of what they want and need in a college, if they can better utilize resources to find a school they want to go to, they walk away with something.
Are there any particular visits or students who come to mind when thinking about the fulfilling or impactful parts of the job?
There was one visit I went on when I was filling in for Amber, who had a few visits that day. It was my first year in this position, and we were at OU. During this visit, there was a group of boys who were very passionate about math and science. They were talking to me about what they liked to do, and I was telling them about the engineering program at OSU and my experience there. It was a really good conversation, and at the end, one of the boys came up to me and asked how he could have an individualized tour and talk to the coach of the racing team. He had never considered going to OU before, thinking it was too big and unattainable, but we were able to talk about how he could pay for it and different things he could do, as he was just a freshman. I felt like I was making an impact for this kid, and I had knowledge that I could share. It was a moment for me where I realized why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I could see the impact with students.
I have two brief moments to share. One is taking all the Oklahoma City public school kids to Metrotech. It was a big visit, but it was the most fruitful in terms of diversified programs that the students were able to experience hands-on. They got to look underneath the car and touch the guns for the cadet school. That was one of the most fulfilling moments for me. The second moment was working with OU. I included their diversity, inclusion, and inclusion office on the tour. They brought in some interns, the students got to see students who looked and talked like them talk about their experience of getting into OU and coming from Oklahoma City Public Schools. It was empowering for them to see people who looked like them at school.
For me, it’s about connecting with the students and hearing about it from parents as well. Last night, I went to a high school for Stratford’s parent night to support family engagement, even though it wasn’t my job role. I had done a campus visit to UCO the week before for Stratford, and the students were there for parent-teacher conferences. As I was talking to them about Oklahoma’s promise, some students sais, “Oh, you came with us last week. I had so much fun. I hadn’t thought about this and now I’m considering this.” It was great to see parents listen and hear about what their students might be interested in exploring after high school. It was a great time to see that connection, as we don’t usually get to see the parents’ involvement. I think it’s a holistic approach involving the families and the schools as well.