Jennifer Johnson and Christy Schweitzer want all students in the College of Education to thrive through feeling welcomed, engaged and supported on their academic journeys toward degrees of all levels.
And they have the perfect place to accomplish just that.
The new Office for Student Success has converted the former Student Services into a comprehensive hub of intentional assistance to promote retention and graduation by harnessing resources of the college while also connecting to, and collaborating with, university-level programs.
Located in Gabel 138, it houses CI and SEED academic advisors, graduate assistants, peer academic coaches, clinical field experiences and student-teaching), First Friday events and even a headquarters for student organizations and committees. Many of the Educate and Engage experiential learning programs are also coordinated by the Student Success team.
“We wanted to make the shift from being a transactional space to a really supportive space,” says Johnson, senior director for Student Success. “And what are we supporting? We’re supporting our students’ success, so we wanted our primary focus and goal to be reflected in our name change.”
Visitors will recognize that immediately.
Gabel 138 has been redesigned and refreshed with bold colors, a 6-foot-tall banner of Victor E. Huskie, chairs that allow congregation and conversation and “an amazing piece of art that shows all of our people – who they are and what they look like,” Johnson says.
“Students will see a vibrant space filled with people who are excited to greet them and to make them feel like they belong in the space,” she says. “We know that all of our departments do that as well, but this is as a college. You’re part of the COE from the minute you step on campus, and we want students to feel that.”
For Schweitzer, who is transitioning from her previous role as undergraduate advisor for Elementary Education to serve as the office’s assistant director, that objective includes giving students a home.
“It’s about connection. Students are coming to this university from different and diverse places, and we want them to feel that connection. We want them to feel that sense of belonging,” Schweitzer says.
“In the College of Education, we want everyone to succeed – and that’s what’s going to be most exciting for students. They’re going to realize that they don’t have just one person they can go to. They have a full team, and everyone is here for them.”
Regular office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, but staff are open to accommodating schedules and appointments beyond that time frame; students can call 815-753-8352 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
“Christy and I were both here last night past 6. We will meet our students when they need to meet us,” Johnson says. “Our goal is for students to feel like this is a place that they can come in to have those real, live relationships. It’s not a transaction where you’re required to come check that box: ‘You did it. Go forward.’ It’s so that we can work together to get you toward that goal, whatever it is. Is it licensure? Is it graduation? You let us know, and we’ll help you get there.”
Helping students has driven Johnson and Schweitzer from the beginning of their careers.
“I started out as a deaf-educator,” says Johnson, whose licensure covered Pre-K through age 21 and taught at preschools and high schools. “I came to NIU as a clinical instructor in deaf education – we used to have a deaf ed program here – and then I switched to supervision, I got my elementary and secondary licensure and I fell in love with higher ed.”
Johnson, the daughter and niece of teachers, quickly “fell in love with connecting with the students preparing to become teachers – their passion, their excitement is just motivating. I’m still motivated 29 years later.”
Schweitzer also calls education her “natural” interest, beginning at a young age: “Education has been my whole life,” she says. “It’s all I do.”
Following graduation from the NIU College of Education – she transferred to DeKalb with her associate degree from Kishwaukee College – Schweitzer taught in kindergarten and third-grade classrooms for 15 years. She’s serving her third elected term on a school board in addition to another educational board.
When she returned to NIU for her M.S.Ed. in Literacy Education with a specialization in ESL/bilingual, she realized a desire to make a positive impact beyond the elementary school.
“I had always worked with younger kids. I taught kindergarten. I taught third-grade. I was always those students’ advocates. I cared so much about them, and I wanted them to do well. I would stress about their well-being and success more than they did,” Schweitzer says.
That philosophy accompanied her to Gabel Hall, where working as an academic adviser to Elementary Education majors proved fulfilling.
“I came to the campus thinking, ‘Was I only protective of elementary students because they were kids?’ Oh my gosh, no. I feel the same way. I care about these students. I want them all to graduate, and I am their advocate,” she says.
“I remember the first time in my advising role that I talked to somebody and totally changed their perspective on careers,” she adds. “I thought, ‘I just changed that student’s life in a 30-minute conversation,’ and they said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I want to do.’ It’s that impactful, rewarding piece that’s so intrinsically motivating, and that’s true for both Jenny and me.”