Student Success Team coordinator: Immersion program working

Student Success Team coordinator: Immersion program working

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On Iowa! enters fourth cycle this week
portrait of Sarah HansenUI alumna Sarah Hansen is assistant vice president for student life assessment and strategic initiatives at Iowa and coordinator of the Student Success Team. Photo by Ben Lewis.

When the fourth iteration of the university’s immersion program, On Iowa!, gets under way this week, Sarah Hansen will be able to watch the festivities from the sidelines with pride—like a grandparent, she jokes, who gets to enjoy the delights of a young child without shouldering the day-to-day demands of parenting.

Hansen coordinates the Student Success Team, which formed in 2006 as a small, interdisciplinary campus group to talk about how the university could help students be successful. It has grown to include more than 250 faculty, staff, and students committed to undergraduate student achievement, and many projects that originated from early team discussions, such as On Iowa!, have become part of campus culture: the IOWA Challenge, first-year seminars, early intervention programming, the Pick One program that connects students with extracurricular activities, and the expansion of living-learning communities in the residence halls, among others.

Hansen, assistant vice president for student life assessment and strategic initiatives and a UI alumna from Manchester, Iowa, is excited by what she sees as a campus-wide commitment to student success: “We’re moving in the same direction together, and we have a lot of momentum.”

She recently spoke with Iowa Now about the Student Success Team, the development of On Iowa!, and how the college experience has changed.

We’re approaching the fourth cycle of On Iowa! Is the program meeting expectations?

Absolutely. We never expected a three-day program to make our retention rates skyrocket, but we did expect students who participated to report being more connected to campus and more committed to continuing their education here. Indeed, we are finding that the majority of participants report feeling more connected to the institution. That connection piece—feeling socially integrated—is critical to the rest of the retention puzzle. Students’ ability to commit to academic success is helped when they feel this is a place that they’re expected to be, and that someone is going to notice if they’re not doing what they’re expected to be doing.

For years we said we couldn’t possibly do something of this scale on such a decentralized campus. It felt like a huge endeavor. But we did it, and now it is something we do. Our faculty, staff, and students have gotten on board, and I think it’s been a really positive change. Most importantly, we’ve built a sustainable structure with a talented staff and large cadre of volunteers to support a program of this magnitude.

Student Success Team wants you

The Student Success Team is open to any member of the UI community committed to fostering undergraduate success. Some 250 faculty, students, and staff currently participate in meetings, committees, and online discussions.

At its annual retreat Oct. 3, the group will focus on enrollment growth and how the university can best support a larger incoming class.

For more details, see or contact coordinator Sarah Hansen at 319-335-1168 or

How does the Student Success Team identify focus areas?

We have a retreat every fall where we often discuss a specific topic. In the case of On Iowa!, we had decided it was time to bridge the gap between summer orientation and the start of fall classes—to engage first-year students in the community right away, help them build Hawkeye spirit, and let them know what’s expected of them. So we took a very vague idea of what a three- to five-day immersion program might look like and came out of the retreat with really good sketches of what that might entail and then charged committees with specific tasks.

Other times, we’ll take an issue that’s been in the news, or people bring us ideas. It’s been very open-ended, but the process continues to work well. It’s been a great way to collaborate outside the traditional boundaries of ‘who does what’ and come together on issues that we all care about.

What have been your biggest challenges working in student life assessment and strategic initiatives?

Every aspect of my work deals with change, so I’m always asking someone to do something different. That can bring resistance—and rightfully so. I don’t get too discouraged by that, however, since I realize that’s part of the change process. You have to build a sense of urgency for the change and motivate people. I have a great job. So many people dread coming to work on Mondays, but even on a Monday morning I like my job. I’m able to work on things I think are important, and I feel supported in doing that.

You have spent more than 20 years working in higher education. How has the college landscape changed from your perspective?

I think we now have a clearer picture about what matters for student success, and the types of activities that will help students develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to be successful. For example, we have students running Dance Marathon, a multimillion-dollar endeavor, who come out of that experience being able to set budgets, talk to executives, and make really hard decisions. We know that that sort of involvement matters.

Also, we are more explicit in addressing risks to student success, like the work we’ve done on alcohol harm reduction and violence prevention.

What will you be doing during On Iowa! activities this year?

That first year, [senior associate director of admissions] Emil Rinderspacher and I were leading the process, and there were probably several hundred nervous texts sent between us during those five days of the program. We weren’t sure how it would unfold. Now, I’m on the advisory committee, and I get to walk around, talk to students, hand out T-shirts, and thank the organizers. It’s such a neat campus experience that there’s kind of a letdown when it ends. But we quickly move into assessment and debriefing mode, and start planning for next year.


Sarah Hansen, Division of Student Life, 319-335-1168
Sara Epstein Moninger, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0045


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