Perspectives on retention at UNC Asheville

Erin Cunningham standing in her residence, Founders Hall.

Cody Ferguson

Erin Cunningham standing in her residence, Founders Hall.

Cody Ferguson, Contributor, [email protected]

Data shows retention at UNC Asheville reached record lows, while students and faculty speak on possible reasons why.

“Students, to stay in college, have to live on campus and immerse themselves within their classes and campus life. Staying on campus all four years, making friends and joining clubs will keep students in college until graduation,” said Erin Cunningham, a double major and super-senior at UNCA.

Cunningham said she always wanted to go to school somewhere in the UNC system, but Asheville is where she eventually settled. UNCA reflected the values she wanted and the mechatronics program was high quality in her eyes.

“I’ve only had good experiences with advising, but I also picked up really fast on how to use grad plan. I think most advisors are pretty shocked when you come in with a plan,” Cunningham said. “Generally, professors have been very knowledgeable. I think there have been a few professors, specifically those in liberal arts core, that haven’t been as helpful because they’re not as knowledgeable or relatively new to UNC Asheville.”

The Director of Housing and Residence Life, Vollie Barnwell, said that not all students have a positive memory of home. People come from all sorts of places in life, and that is something Barnwell’s department tries to navigate the best they can, but it starts with students staying on campus.

Vollie Barnwell sitting in his office in Governors Hall. (Cody Ferguson)

“Living on campus is different from any other experience in college. It’s literally your home. We want all students to have a positive outlook on their home at UNC Asheville,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell said the research he has seen shows students who live on campus generally do better both academically and socially and are often retained at a higher rate. His department is constantly looking at why students leave, why students stay, but he said the ‘why’ is the important part of the narrative.

Freshman Gabrielle Mason said she has wanted to transfer since the second week of the semester and has gone back and forth on the thought multiple times, but she’s certain now. When talking to teachers about her lack of a sense of belonging, she felt her pleas were brushed to the side and given a poor response.

“I don’t really feel like I fit in here, and I’m not sure what it is, but something doesn’t vibe with me. I initially thought that I was maybe being dramatic and overreacting to being in a new environment and too used to living in my own space with my own routine,” Mason said.

Another freshman, Karoline Carl, said she has also planned on transferring since early this semester. She feels like a lot of services here are too long of a wait, like counseling, and her teachers don’t seem to be as interactive as she would like, even with persistent effort from her.

“Teachers have told me that once I get into the classes for my major I’ll start making friends, but I won’t take those classes for another year. How am I supposed to fix my situation and feel like I’m fitting in now? Why wait another year and hope that it works out,” Mason said.

Both freshmen have active friend groups, some that plan to stay, some that plan to leave. The friends who are staying said they’re really fitting in, finding a culture here and haven’t had any trouble with the staff. Those who are leaving along with Mason and Carl said they’re not feeling like they belong, or their interactions with staff have been underwhelming at best.

“One of the common themes from speaking with students and resident assistants was the ‘sense of belonging’. That has been our large focus in the current changes to Housing and Residence Life,” Barnwell said.

Cunningham, now in her fifth year at UNCA said. A lot of her complaints over the years are being addressed under the leadership of Meghan Harte Weyant, vice chancellor of student affairs.

“When she came in, she saw the same issues I was seeing and she is working very diligently to get those things addressed. She also has heavy communication channels with all head resident assistants about event planning, resident comments, complaints and feedback.” Cunningham said.

With the university changing over the years, and the student body developing and changing with it, the department of Housing and Residential Education merged into one department. This is the implementation of a two year plan to prioritize building community and giving students a sense of belonging within UNCA, Barnwell said.

“I have two teenagers, a high school senior and a high school junior of my own, and I know what they’re longing for. They both want places to connect, but they’re both vastly different people. One is very extroverted, while the other is very introverted,” Barnwell said.

With these sorts of student differences in mind, the focus of Housing and Residence Life is to build places where students can just ‘be’, Barnwell said. It’s supposed to be their home, and if a student wants to go back to their room to play video games or hang out with friends at the Botanicals, that’s okay, he said. He wants students to feel they have a sense of belonging at UNCA.

“We haven’t removed the collaborative spaces within residence halls, and we don’t want to. We want to find all the ways students want to spend their time outside of class so we can provide spaces and opportunities to do so,” Barnwell said.