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NIU holds workshops to address student retention, other concerns

DeKALB – Beatriz Anabell Rodriguez Zelaya feels scared and ill-prepared ahead of her college graduation in May, so she attended a workshop this week to make sure issues are resolved for future students.

Zelaya, an international graduate student, was one of 84 people who attended Northern Illinois University’s Bold Futures Workshop on Monday. She listed many concerns about using what she has learned at NIU in her homeland of El Salvador and suggested the university enact peer mentoring and faculty mentoring programs for international students.

“The idea of coming here, you’re afraid of being rejected because you feel like you don’t belong,” Zelaya said. “You don’t have skills to interact [with other NIU students] because you’re international.”

Zelaya shared her ideas during the workshop, which also examined student retention rates and NIU’s financial situation. The six-day workshop invited current students, alumni, staff, community and faculty members to come up with ideas to better the university.

Northern Illinois University will hold another six-day session for new participants from Friday through Wednesday. NIU students, faculty, staff and alumni are welcome to participate by registering at

The Bold Futures workshops will culminate in the Big Bold Event at 5 p.m. April 24 in the Holmes Student Center’s Duke Ellington Ballroom, 340 Carroll Ave., DeKalb.

As participants discussed Monday, retention rates at NIU need to improve. Statistics show only 66 percent of freshman students from the 2012-13 school year returned as sophomores this school year.

Financial help from the state also is harder to come by. Direct state support has dropped 15 percent, with most of that decrease coming since 2009, according to a video presentation by Nancy Suttenfield, NIU interim chief financial officer. The money that NIU gets from the state also is going toward funding for faculty pensions.

“We’re not going to see this turn around,” NIU President Doug Baker said. “That means our revenue source is going to have to be us.”

The university relies heavily on tuition and fees for its revenue, which makes enrollment a primary concern. NIU’s peak enrollment in recent years was in 2003. A chart shown during the workshop Monday projected enrollment in 2015 would be 81.5 percent of what it was in 2003.

Workshop participants offered many solutions to improve student retention, including better connecting students and alumni through social media, reaching out to those on academic probation, creating internship opportunities with alumni, and establishing retention scholarships for freshman and sophomores.

The workshop initiative is part of Baker’s effort to improve the university and improve student experience. Another one of those efforts, the master-plan thesis, details multiple ideas, such as renovating John and Locust Streets and adding an electric bus service to reduce time spent walking to class.

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