Georgia State University has received national accolades for its undergraduate student retention model. But keeping students at the college level is critical, too—so much so that the success of Dion Webb-Figueroa’s job is based on it. As director of undergraduate student engagement at Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business, Webb-Figueroa focuses on converting freshmen and sophomores from pre- to full-blown business majors.
During their first two years of college, students are at the highest risk of flunking or transferring to another school–often because they lack a sense of belonging.
“Students who stick around typically make friends, feel like their instructors and the staff care about them, and ultimately feel more comfortable,” Webb-Figueroa said. “For students fresh out of high school, first impressions are important. We want to foster a positive experience as opposed to saying, ‘Go to class, and if you don’t meet the GPA requirements, you’re out.’”
Webb-Figueroa joined Robinson in May and spent the summer building the Robinson Ambassador Program (RAP), an initiative centered on connecting freshmen and sophomores with opportunities outside of the classroom, such as student organizations and Signature Programs like the Honors Experience in Business, PACE, RISE, and WomenLead. The cornerstone of RAP is a cohort of juniors and seniors who have “been there and done that” and serve as ambassadors. The one-year commitment includes meeting one-on-one with underclassmen to map out an engagement plan, conducting tours of Robinson’s Delta Student Success Center, and manning tables at campus events.
Out of 60 applicants, Webb-Figueroa selected 13 students for RAP’s inaugural cohort. He intentionally chose a mix of straight-A, textbook “rock stars” and students with imperfect academic records for two reasons. For starters, students who have struggled are relatable and can help others overcome obstacles. Also, through the program, ambassadors get a chance to grow as leaders. For example, they have the option to speak at events like Robinson’s State of the College Address and in the required freshman course GSU 1010. Other perks include Robinson swag and access to an exclusive student lounge.
RAP not only connects students with opportunities but also hosts gatherings of its own. In September, RAP held a game night with food, music, and giant versions of Connect 4, Jenga, and Twister. Attendance totaled 116.
“There was no dressing up in a suit, bringing a resume, or meeting an employer,” Webb-Figueroa said. “The sole purpose was for students to feel like they have a place here.”
Future events include an evening for finals prep and a to-be-determined spring activity.
RAP is Webb-Figueroa’s “baby,” and it shows. He conducts biweekly check-ins with each ambassador and puts together a monthly group breakfast or lunch, not only to promote camaraderie but also to share feedback and make the program better. He already acted on one of the team’s ideas: encouraging people to approach RAP’s table at events with a prize wheel.
RAP is new, and its impact on student retention can’t be fully measured for a couple of years. But one semester in, Webb-Figueroa feels good about it.
“The ambassadors are so passionate about Robinson, their academic major, and what they want to do in their careers,” he said. “I really get a kick out of the program and think we’ll make a difference with student engagement.”