Sailing the Academic Waters with Student Support

The other day I sat on the Maine coast, not too far from the UNE campus, and watched a tall ship come into port. As usual, many other boats greeted the tall ship and escorted it into the harbor. Complete with a lighthouse, this nautical scene made me think about the differences between traditional student support and our online student support at UNE. If that analogy sounds impossible… let me explain.

Many schools only tend to the ports – that is, beginning and end of the journey. Think about it. Schools always offer a robust orientation and a commencement with all the bells and whistles. UNE offers those, too. However, UNE supports the entire student journey. Our online students are never alone.

We consider students the “captain” of the academic journey. Students make the decisions. What electives do they want? When do they want to graduate? How will they schedule their time around courses?

And, just like a tall ship captain our students have a “crew.” UNE assigns a student support specialist to each online student. Support Specialists are life lines for students; problems can arise on the journey.  That’s why student support specialists are present every step of the way. Need a navigator? Need help identifying what resource to use? Don’t know which form to complete? We’re here for you!

Matriculated students meet their student support specialist before starting the first course. During this introduction, accomplished via phone or video chat, students learn the particulars of the program, form their academic plan, and discuss with their support specialist how to balance life as an online graduate student.

Captain of the Academic JourneyEach term, student support specialists check in with students to see how students are faring. After all, school can be an intimidating process. The support team monitors courses to ensure students make progress and stay on track. When students are faced with trials and tribulations, support specialists are there to provide tools, resources, and sometimes a virtual shoulder to cry on. Acting like a life jacket, student support specialists employ safeguards when needed. This attention to detail along the journey can make for smooth waters, and isn’t that the goal for sea-faring captains?

As we near the destination, we help students stay focused. Most of our programs culminate in a capstone project or practical experience; therefore there are many important moving parts. Like maneuvering a ship to avoid submerged rocks in a Maine harbor – sometimes the hardest part is most rewarding.

For the online student, UNE’s student support specialists are like the constant North Star – used by ancient sailors for navigation to reach the destination. We build authentic relationships with our students and help them identify, work toward, and remember their goals. We aim to make the logistics of an educational journey as smooth as possible – after all, the hard part should be the learning.

The academic journey concludes with commencement when our online graduates celebrate with the brick and mortar graduates. This past May, 85 online graduates participated in the hooding ceremony. Obviously, the main event was wonderful. Watching graduates receive their regalia the night before commencement was emotional. However, in the background, something else happened. Students were meeting their support specialists in person for the first time. And, like a tall ship captain reunited with friends and family – our students were thrilled! I overheard graduates tell their support specialist, “I graduated because of you!” That’s why I come to work. That’s my motivation. I want to see our students reach their goals. I want them to be successful.

In a few days I will watch the tall ship leave port. It will leave with fanfare. But I will worry about that ship… will it survive the long journey and make it to the destination? What will happen if it encounters turbulent waters?  Is the crew prepared to support the captain throughout the entire journey?

When I see the new student roster at UNE, I don’t have to worry. I know the student support team will be there for each student. Each individual student is about to embark on a long personal journey – but they won’t be alone. And, when students reach their destination, we’ll celebrate together. That is what makes UNE a special place to be an online graduate student, and I’m proud to be part of the crew.

Elizabeth Benz, Assistant Director of Student Support, ensures success for the online student population by managing the support specialist team and collaborating with university departments to provide support and resources for online students.

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