The University of Oklahoma’s Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange (CSRDE), a program of OU Outreach, has grown from humble beginnings 21 years ago into an award-winning department this year. CSRDE was recently awarded the Exceptional Program Award from the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE), Great Plains Region, for its work on the National Symposium on Student Retention.
“Watching the symposium grow has been so exciting,” said Sandra Whalen, CSRDE’s director who has been with the program since 2000. “The symposium really is the premiere event for presenting and learning about the most current research on student retention and graduation at four-year and two-year institutions.” When the symposium was first held in 2005, about 200 attendees participated. Now, over 500 people attend annually, and in 2013 registration was forced to close weeks before the symposium began due to the high number of registrants.
CSRDE has earned the respect of leaders in the retention field. “It’s been exciting to see how a ‘big name’ person in retention research now responds to an invitation to speak at our event and how honored he or she is to have been asked to present. It’s a reminder that we really are doing something important,” Whalen said.
ACHE’s Exceptional Program Award honors conferences and credit and noncredit programs for their originality, innovation, long-term success and adaptability. Award winners must promote programs that can be adapted by other institutions, stay within budget and entice attendees with diverse and original topics, materials and programming.
Whalen believes that the symposium’s varying locations, outings, proposals and people set it aside from other symposia. The symposium is typically hosted in a mid-sized city, and special outings are coordinated to engage attendees with an experience exclusive to the area, like visiting Churchill Downs when the symposium was in Louisville, Kentucky in 2014.
The quality of the presentations keeps attendees engaged and thoughtful while at the symposium. Presentations are derived from submitted research proposals. Each January, the call for research proposal abstracts begins and proposals are submitted to CSRDE from across the country. The symposium organizers read each proposal and, should the proposal be accepted, the applicant is then asked to write a ten-page paper about his or her topic. Papers are then reviewed by peers in higher education and the finalized papers are included in the Proceedings of the symposium. The paper authors then have the opportunity to present their work at the event.
Whalen believes the inclusive nature of the symposium also sets it aside from other conferences.
“You may be an institutional researcher, and you’re sitting at a table with a president of a college or university. We have presidents, vice presidents, provosts, directors and faculty all coming together in one place, which is a unique thing,” said Whalen. “Most conferences are so specialized to job-specific topics, but ours is totally focused on what can we do to help students succeed on their campuses.” First-year programs, bridge programs, data-driven decision making, orientation programs and developmental education programs have all been popular topics in the past.
“We’re an award-winning event now. The recognition makes us feel that our work is worth it, and we love the work that we do for the symposium,” Whalen said. “It validates everything we are doing.”
Whalen points out that she does not do everything alone. She calls her small staff “incredible,” insisting that the work of Brittnee Morton, Miaomiao Rimmer and Jennifer Robertson make the symposium all that it is. In addition, Whalen also credits several Outreach departments as vital contributors, citing Conference Pros, Registration and Records, IT, Duplicating and Printing Services and E-Team for CSRDE’s continued success. Whalen says that it takes all of Outreach’s efforts to continue to uphold the symposium’s high standards.
“The main thing we hope for is that participants have something valuable to take back to their campuses,” she said. If their recent award is any indication, they have done just that.
The 2015 National Symposium on Student Retention will be held in November in Orlando, Florida. Updates may be found on the Symposium page at https://csrde.ou.edu/symposium. To find out more about the Association for Continuing Higher Education, Great Plains Region, go tohttp://acheinc.org/Great-Plains. Learn more about CSRDE at http://csrde.ou.edu/web/index.html.