Relationship-Rich Education: Unlocking Student Success

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The significance of relationships in higher education cannot be overstated. President Emeritus Leo Lambert and Professor Peter Felten, renowned educators, have delved into this subject not once, but twice, emphasizing the pivotal role of human connections in student success. Their latest book, “Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College,” presents a fresh perspective by sharing the personal stories of countless students, faculty, and staff, combined with survey responses from thousands of U.S. college graduates. This groundbreaking work not only stresses the importance of personal connections on campuses but also provides practical guidance on fostering these relationships.

A Renewed Focus

Lambert explains that their motivation behind writing this book was to explore how relationships are evolving in the new century, particularly with the influx of a diverse student population. While the idea that relationships matter in higher education is widely accepted, the authors question why many colleges and universities fail to prioritize relationships in their courses, curricula, and programs. Their aim was to showcase programs and institutions that have successfully centered their work on relationships, proving that this approach is feasible across all types of educational settings, not just selective and well-resourced ones.

Insights from the Field

At the heart of “Relationship-Rich Education” are nearly 400 interviews with students, faculty, and staff from 29 higher education institutions across the country, each with its own distinct profile. These qualitative interviews, supplemented by research data collected through a survey of 1,600 college and university graduates, offer invaluable insights into the role of mentorship in student satisfaction.

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The survey findings highlight that the number of mentors a student has directly correlates with their satisfaction and perception of the college experience. Students with seven to ten mentors tend to be more satisfied and view their college experience as worthwhile. However, even having just one mentor can make a substantial difference. Lambert emphasizes the importance of securing that first mentor as a crucial step towards a successful journey through college.

Seeding Relationships

The survey also revealed that relationships established during the first year of college, primarily in classrooms, have the most significant impact on student success. While faculty members play a crucial role in the classroom, the study emphasizes the significance of relationships with various staff members. Lambert stresses the essentiality of staff relationships, highlighting the value of dining hall workers, resident hall staff, gardeners, office assistants, and more. These individuals often know students by name, identify when they need support, and can profoundly influence their lives.

Cultivating an Institutional Culture

Felten and Lambert underscore the importance of cultivating an institutional culture that supports individual efforts by students, faculty, and staff to connect and support one another. They argue that creating such a culture does not necessarily require extensive resources or specially qualified personnel. Instead, it hinges on intentionality, high expectations, and unwavering support from the institution.

Felten emphasizes that institutions need to commit to this work and align their policies and structures with relationship-rich education. Faculty and staff should not have to choose between mentoring students and advancing professionally. The authors call for a shift in mindset that prioritizes relationships as a fundamental aspect of education.

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Understanding Student Needs

The authors shed light on the experiences of first-generation students and students of color, who often face unique challenges when navigating higher education. These students may possess immense potential, but feelings of shame or impostor syndrome can impede their progress. Faculty, staff, and peer relationships are crucial for these students to unlock their full potential. Programs such as Elon University’s Odyssey Program exemplify the intentional approach to forming relationships and providing the necessary support and challenges for these students to thrive.

Navigating the Pandemic Era

Publishing “Relationship-Rich Education” during the global pandemic brings a unique set of circumstances to the forefront. Lambert and Felten acknowledge the challenges that the pandemic has posed to personal connections and relationship development. The shift to online learning and remote interactions has transformed the traditional college experience. However, they emphasize that many educational institutions have risen to the challenge, creating innovative ways to support relationship development. The authors express their belief that the lessons learned during the pandemic will shape future pedagogies and technologies, enriching online and hybrid classroom experiences.

The Road Ahead

Felten acknowledges that the road to fully realizing relationship-rich education will not be easy, especially in the wake of the pandemic. The crisis has not only exposed societal inequities but has also reaffirmed the importance of human connections in our lives. As we look forward to a post-pandemic future, individuals, communities, and institutions must engage in the hard, long-term work of building and nurturing relationships. These relationships are not obstacles or byproducts of college but are integral components of a student’s education.

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In conclusion, “Relationship-Rich Education” is a game-changing book that emphasizes the profound role of relationships in higher education. By sharing personal stories and research insights, Lambert and Felten make a compelling case for prioritizing human connections on college and university campuses. They provide practical guidance on how to cultivate relationship-rich environments that foster student success. As we navigate the evolving landscape of higher education, let us not forget that relationships matter, now more than ever.

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