Laying the Foundation for Increased Student Involvement

By Justin Wier

Courtesy of Youngstown State University.

Eddie Howard, Youngstown State University’s new associate vice president for student experience, realized YSU was the place for him after a night spent watching videos created by students on YouTube.

“I spent probably about an hour or two looking at all the things. You look at one video, then you look at something else, then you look at something else and before you know, it’s an hour and a half you spent watching videos,” Howard said.

He cited “The Story of Pete the Snow Penguin” and YSU President Jim Tressel’s ice bucket challenge video, among others.

“When I got done, I told my wife, ‘that’s a place that I can work,’ because what you have is a foundation of students that are engaged,” Howard said. “That’s all I need. All I need are willing students that are interested and want to be involved in what’s going on.”

He said he was also excited by the ability to build the new Division of Student Experience from the ground up.

“I like positions that are brand new because I like to come in and set the foundation. I have the ability now to determine and decide where we’re going to go as a division, and build the structure,” Howard said. “I’m really excited about doing that.”

He sees the division’s purpose as creating an environment — through housing, the student union, student activities and campus recreation — where students can get involved and become their true selves.

For Howard, the focus on improving a student’s experience is tied to the retention efforts that have been at the center of Tressel’s administrative agenda.

“We hope that we can bring some things to the table that are really going to help a student connect, and get involved and want to stay and graduate,” Howard said. “And also pick up some transferrable skills along the way.”

He said student activities are the heart of involvement, and that is one of the areas that is going to require the most work.

“I think for a school our size, the type of activities that we should be bringing to the table, we have some issues there,” Howard said.  “We spend just enough to make it exciting, but not enough to make it robust. That’s where I’m going to spend a great deal of my time is really expanding what we offer in regards to student activities.”

One of the things that hinders student involvement is the large number of YSU students that commute. Tressel has said this is one of the things he would like to see improved with the creation of this position.

Howard said he has had experience with engaging commuter populations in the past, but it is a challenge.

“We have to create an atmosphere that cultivates people wanting to stay and be involved as opposed to a student [showing up for classes and going home],” Howard said. “We have to create something that makes them want to come back.”

Howard said he sees student involvement as a pyramid. At the bottom level, you have the people who show up to the events. The next level consists of the people involved in organization. The people on the third level are those with leadership roles in organizations. The top level is occupied by the students who participate in numerous organizations and events.

“Not everyone is going to make it all the way to the top,” Howard said. “But our job is to incrementally move people up so they become more involved.”

He said that once the people at the bottom level show up, they might ask questions about the event they’re attending.

“Then we have an opportunity to get them involved at a different level where they can help make decisions for the next event we bring on,” Howard said.

Howard said the focus on improving student activities is aimed at creating more of these opportunities.

“We haven’t created the type of entertainment across the board that will allow students to get involved,” Howard said. “That’s where we really have to work with student activities to provide more opportunities and more outlets for people to connect, and then we’ll move them up.”

He said he’s excited to get started creating something that will hopefully be a benefit to all students.

“I’m hoping that between the skills I have, the staff I have, and the student engagement, that we’ll be able to do something that’s really exciting,” Howard said. “And five years from now, we’ll be sitting around talking about how great some of the things that we’ve accomplished are and how much more students are involved and engaged as a result.”