Supporting Student Retention at Millersville University: An Interview with Javita Thompson

Posted on January 16, 2015

Interview by Liz Shriver

Javita Thompson is the Community Service Coordinator for the Office for Experiential Learning and Career Management at Millersville University. Ms. Thompson has also taken the lead on coordinating the PHENND Next Steps program at Millersville and has been truly instrumental in helping recruitment, training and implementation.  Next Steps is a new initiative at PHENND that addresses the need for college retention for Philadelphia public school graduates. She is passionate about helping college students from Philadelphia to engage in service and obtain the support needed to thrive and graduate from college.

Q: How did you first become involved in this field?

A: I conducted my graduate assistantship in the Office, and although I hadn’t initially considered higher education as a career, I realized that I love supporting students. My undergraduate degree is in Speech Communication and my Master’s degree is in Emergency Management. After this assistantship I totally changed my mind as far as my path was concerned. It’s amazing to see students I’ve worked with blossom and walk across that stage. Students are looking for direction; they need as much support as we can provide for them to get there.

Q: What are you most passionate about in your job?

A: I am most passionate about supporting our low-income students and creating systems to serve them better. Every year I attend our Students of Color Graduation, which is open to all underrepresented students. Every year I see students graduate who have struggled for 6.5 years, students without parents, single parents and they’ve made it through. They succeeded partially because they found resources and utilized the people who work here. I unofficially started mentoring students before Next Steps started.

I share with students who are struggling to adapt to college that I was a non-traditional student. I stress that they have the ability to do it right the first time. They see the passion that I have about obtaining academic support, talking to their professors and using campus resources. They know that I am invested in seeing their lives improve and that I believe they can choose the path they take. Students who are first generation or face other barriers to college completion need to be able to talk to a person who has gone through similar challenges.

Q: What do you think colleges could do more of to support students?

A: Colleges need to evaluate their programs to understand if the approach is working. We have great ideas and start these programs and sometimes we wait years before looking at outcomes. We need to know on a yearly basis if there is something else that we could do differently. We need to use this evaluation to identify needs and address them.

We also need to create more professional connections to the world beyond high school and college. In this era, you have to have a degree to succeed and students need to know how important it is to finish and start a career.

For example, I love events like the Young Women’s Symposium. Young women from all over the state are invited from colleges, public schools, charter schools and parochial schools. Though it is only a one day event, it is packed with information on career building. Students can meet professionals in various careers and really ask someone who has lived that lifestyle what it takes to get there.

Q: What made you excited about Next Steps?

A: When Hillary [Kane] called me I was so excited. It had always been in the back of my mind to really analyze and address the issues of our students who do not graduate. After I got that call, I pulled the data on graduation rates for our Philadelphia students and seeing the numbers of students who didn’t graduate was heartbreaking. They are coming in for an opportunity and if they don’t finish what they start, they are worse off than not coming. They cannot survive on that hourly job and pay back loans. Failure to graduate should not be an option. Students have to work hard, take ownership over their education and utilize the supports that are available. If we don’t teach them this, they don’t stay.

The service component of Next Steps helps build relationships with the community. Millersville students should get to know the people who support young people similar to themselves but in their college community. Our Next Steps members also have an opportunity to mentor college students who comes from a similar background. They help their mentee see that they are making through college and are motivated.

Q: What is unique about the Office of Experiential Learning and Career Management (ELCM)?

A: ELCM offers opportunities for volunteering, internships and career services as students move through their college career.

Through experiential learning we bring in 100 employers for an internship fair every year, which is for sophomores, juniors and seniors. For seniors, we offer a wide range of careers services such as programming about presenting as professional, creating a resume etc. For all years we offer a wide range of volunteer opportunities. We believe that volunteering is an opportunity to show future employers you are serious about your craft. It is great to have all of these opportunities under this roof. Service is not separate from building your career.

As a freshman you cannot do an internship but you can volunteer and build yourself in to that opportunity. Once you get 24 credit hours then you can do that internship and you have a great reference from your service. Networking is huge and students don’t always see that till they graduate. We provide unique methods for students to develop and grow through the ELCM. We work to ensure that all students and particularly those who are most at-risk of not graduating utilize these opportunities.

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