When it comes to student success, Karen Violanti has the ingredients to the secret sauce. It starts with the spark that ignites excitement. This often comes from a connection to a peer, an advisor, or instructor. Add to that a nuanced mixture of events, resources, and services, and a personal touch.
Timing is everything.
All the components must come together in the first year to form a positive experience that results in a student who is well prepared to stay the course to graduation.
As UNLV’s new executive director of first-year programs, Violanti operates as the head chef bringing together not only great ingredients but a full complement of experts to ensure a top-tier experience. This includes everything from onboarding and orientation to introducing students to first-year UNLV traditions. It also includes family and parent programming, first-year academic advising, peer mentoring, first-year seminar courses, and the opportunity for students to shape their own experiences aligned with personal interests and academic growth. First-year programs is also for transfer students.
“It is important for students to feel a sense of belonging, community, and confidence as they transition in and through their first year,” said Violanti, who joined UNLV from the CSN earlier this year. “Our role as a university is to build a network of support and intentional, personalized experiences in that first year. As students grow and move forward, their connection to the university will support higher levels of success, retention, and graduation.”
The metrics bear this out.
In fall 2021, for instance, 114 peer mentors across the university helped 2,031 first-year freshmen-mentees. Of the participants, 92 percent stayed enrolled for spring 2022.
Nya Holloway, a computer engineering major who worked with a mentor through the first-year seminar, said, “I don't normally open up to people, but my mentor showed me that he actually cared about my well-being and he helped me realize that needing and getting help is not something to be ashamed of.
“I actually learned that there are people that will support me if I ask for it, and my peer mentor is the one that taught me that. I am eternally grateful,” Holloway said.
Violanti said she encourages students to think of first-year-program staff as “walking alongside you as you enter this journey to college. We’re your shadow to partner with, and to be a comfortable touch point whenever you need us.”
Reaching Top Tier Goals for Retention
First-year seminar courses have proven to help students gain the skills and strategies they need to make a successful transition into college academics. Retention rates from fall 2020 to fall 2021 for new freshmen who participated in first-year seminar courses was 23 percent higher than those who did not.
Similarly, academic advising, which has dedicated advisors for first-year students, is moving the needle on student success. For the 3,961 first-year students in the fall 2021 cohort, 98 percent had an advising appointment. Some 3,458 students who met with their first-year academic advisor, 89 percent, re-enrolled for spring 2022. For the population of students who did not meet with their first-year advisor, only 43 students (61 percent), enrolled in spring 2022 courses.
UNLV's overall first-year retention rate from fall 2021 to spring 2022 is 89.3percent. The fall 2020 to fall 2021 first-year retention rate was 77.4 percent.
UNLV's Top Tier fall-to-fall goal for first-year retention is 85 percent by 2030.
“We are so excited and grateful to have Dr. Violanti join our student success team,” said Laurel Pritchard, vice provost for undergraduate education. “UNLV already had many great elements of a successful first-year program, but we needed someone with the expertise and energy to bring them all together in a way that will create a truly holistic first-year experience that gives students the strongest possible start on their college journey.”