Sharing Strategies for Student Success Across CSU Campuses: An Interview with James Drnek

By Thad Nodine, Senior Fellow, EdInsights

September 2017

James Drnek, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at CSU Bakersfield, is a member of the Interim Advisory Board of the CSU Student Success Network. Thad Nodine caught up with Jim after a recent board meeting to ask him about his participation in the Network and its impacts on his campus. Jim participated in a Network convening focused on college readiness in March 2017, along with a team of faculty and staff from CSU Bakersfield. Teams from five other campuses also joined the meeting. Participation in the Network is open to all CSU faculty, staff, and administrators who are interested in sharing ideas across campuses about and working to improve student learning and success.

Thad Nodine: As the Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at Bakersfield, what do you see as the value of the CSU Student Success Network? 

Jim Drnek: The Network offers opportunities for us to share our effective practices with other campuses, and to learn what other campuses are doing. With the increased emphasis in the CSU on student success and graduation within four years, this is a perfect opportunity for administrators, faculty, and staff to share practices with each other, in order to reach the targets that each of the campuses has set. That’s one very important thing.

Secondly, I also think that this is the right thing to do—working together, across campuses, to help our students achieve success at the university level. We have a moral obligation to support our students. The Network allows us to share practices and programs across a really large system to achieve that aim.

TN: But faculty or staff are already tremendously busy with their day-to-day work. What’s the value of the Network for them? 

JD: The Network is an important resource that helps busy faculty and staff discover practices and programs that help their students. How many times have I taken time to fly to conferences all over the country and hoped that there would be a session or two that would be pertinent to students at my campus? I’ve spent a lot of time listening to presentations by people in other states whose institutions have different funding sources and student populations than ours. It’s valuable information to have, but their strategies are not always pertinent for our campus, and it’s often difficult to figure out, “How can I make this work for our students?” The Network is different, because it’s all CSU campuses that are participating, and they’re facing some of the same challenges that we’re facing. If a program works at one CSU campus, then the potential of it working at another is strong. Network convenings are affordable and they provide a comfortable space to share information that meets our needs. It actually saves time to share and learn from each other in that kind of environment.

TN: What are some of the key challenges facing CSU campuses in improving student learning and success? 

JD: The challenges vary across the campuses, but one of the most important involves the preparedness and readiness of incoming students to be successful in college generally and in their academic studies. Even just here in the Bakersfield service area, our student readiness varies widely. We’ve established partnerships with school districts to make sure students are taking the courses that prepare them to be successful.

Secondly, our students live complex lives. They’re juggling multiple interests and responsibilities, including work, family, and providing care for their families. When unexpected events happen, on top of their existing responsibilities, that has a huge impact on their ability to do well in college. We’ve been implementing some new programs that provide care to students and we’d like to use the CSU Student Success Network to share what we’re doing with other CSU campuses, and to learn what’s working at other campuses, so we can consider replicating those here.

For example, in working to provide resources to students, we’re trying to help address their food and housing insecurities, which affects their ability to learn. This year we started to provide, on a monthly basis and working with the local food bank, free food distribution for students in need. We’ve been organizing this for students, but we’re finding that it’s not just one person who’s getting fed; the students are helping to feed family members. This is helping a whole household that the student is partially or fully responsible for.

We’ve found that working on the housing situation is more difficult. Students tell us they’re getting kicked out of their houses or they can’t pay their rent, but we don’t have housing to provide and we cannot pay their rent. We’re still working on these issues; we want to share what we’re doing with other campuses and see what they’re doing. That’s the benefit of the Network.

TN: This past spring, you and a team from Bakersfield participated in a Network convening on college preparedness and readiness. What was the value of that meeting for your campus? 

JD: Some of our key faculty who are teaching developmental math were able to attend that meeting, and they got a lot out of the experience. After returning to Bakersfield, they had some meaningful conversations about their developmental math program and they’ve already created opportunities for students to prepare themselves better in developmental math. For example, they created a math boot camp during spring break, which was an idea they got at the meeting. We worked with the faculty to identify students who were having difficulty during the spring semester. We invited those students to five intensive, half-day sessions, led by an instructor and focused on helping them catch up on math concepts that they were struggling with.

After the college readiness meeting, we also started to make changes to our online developmental math courses. For the first time, we began embedding instructors in those courses to provide supplemental resources to students. If a student has a question, there’s now a resource person assigned to that course to help them. That was another modification.

In addition, our math instructors beefed up their supplemental instruction provided for all developmental math courses, and they partnered with Student Affairs to make the supplemental instruction available in student-friendly locations. We set up daily tutoring sessions in the conference room of the multicultural center. We were able to do that as a result of our experience in San Francisco.

TN: It occurs to me that you don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet with other campuses across the CSU. How does it feel to be with a roomful of other CSU faculty and staff? 

JD: It’s affirming to know that some of the work that you’re doing is on target and it’s good to meet other people who share your struggles and successes. It’s wonderful to know that others are going through some of the same emotions, celebrations, and challenges that you are. And it’s tremendous to make contacts with colleagues at other campuses. Sometimes you think later about something that you want to use or share, so making those contacts through the Network allows you to follow up with those people. It’s great to have those resources.

Thad Nodine is a senior fellow at the Education Insights Center (EdInsights) at Sacramento State. The CSU Student Success Network is an independent network developed by CSU faculty, staff, and administrators to build on their collective work to support student success and close opportunity gaps. The Network is facilitated by EdInsights. Email to receive information about Network activities.