West Virginia University

05/30/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 05/30/2024 06:33

WVU undergraduate research program boosts retention, especially for marginalized populations

A faculty-mentored undergraduate research program at West Virginia University has led to higher student retention rates than institutional averages, according to a new study. Additionally, data revealed higher retention rates for participants from historically marginalized populations.

The Research Apprenticeship Program, under the WVU Office of Undergraduate Research, was first implemented in 2017 to provide first- and second-year students with mentored research and creative activities.

Study authors Cinthia Pacheco, director of RAP, and Amy Hessl, director of Undergraduate Research, analyzed data from the program over a five-year period from 2017 to 2022.

A total of 868 students participated in the program in that timeframe. Ninety-two percent of first-year students returned to WVU for their second year.

"Statistics from the five-year period comparing RAP participants to the general student population indicate that RAP has achieved success in recruiting underrepresented students to the program," Pacheco said. "The percentages of first-generation students, minority students, Black students and low-income students that participated in RAP all exceeded the percentages of these demographic groups attending the University."

Pacheco and Hessl said their study is the first to evaluate the impact of cohort-based undergraduate research engagement on Appalachian students.

Vice President for Research Fred Kingsaid programs such as RAP are unique to WVU and the student research experience.

"Our undergraduate students are afforded hands-on experiences and opportunities that cannot be found at most universities in the country," he said. "The student research experience is truly one of our unique selling points, and that investment has yielded noticeable returns on developing experts and problem solvers that better the world. The Office of Undergraduate Research has helped drive that."

RAP is a two-semester program that allows any WVU undergraduate to gain course credit and/or earn federal work-study funds. RAP students often get to carry out investigations alongside faculty mentors and make scholarly or artistic contributions to their field of study.

Appalachian students have been shown to face different obstacles to degree completion than students from other regions, according to Pacheco and Hessl.

One student who benefited from the program is Cassidy Kidwell, of Shady Spring, with a population of around 3,000. As an incoming freshman, Kidwell received an email with information on the program.

"I was a music education major and the email specifically mentioned conducting paid research in any field, including music," Kidwell said. "This really intrigued me. I had also been looking for a job to work in college, so this was the perfect opportunity."

Kidwell, who just graduated from the WVU College of Creative Arts,conducted research with the aid of faculty on areas ranging from archival work to zine-making to WVU history.

Her involvement in RAP didn't end after her freshman year. She continued research through her sophomore and junior years as a "RAP graduate," someone who completed the program but continued to do paid research.

"I was just one of the many lives that they've touched at WVU," Kidwell said of the program. "It was not only my first job in college that helped me financially, but it also provided me with the opportunity to make an amazing connection with a faculty member who encouraged and supported me through my entire college experience, even after I was no longer one of their students. This support also helped me get other jobs on campus, such as being an orientation leader for New Student Orientationthrough the WVU Office of Admissions."

Hessl said that dedicated faculty members help make RAP an enriching experience for students in the program.

"Having a connection with a caring adult during their transition to college is a key element of the program," Hessl said. "In some cases, faculty serve as mentors for life."

The study found that university connectedness, which is an important variable influencing student retention, plays a key role for Appalachian students, who are reported to have a stronger sense of connection and obligation to their families and communities than their peers from other regions.

Hessl said that several strategies used by RAP can be implemented at other institutions interested in supporting marginalized student groups. Drawing upon available institutional and external resources, such as federal work study and National Science Foundation funding, universities can make undergraduate research more accessible and equitable, she said.

Kidwell is graduating with a bachelor's of multidisciplinary studies in music, leadership studies, and women's and gender studies. She will spend the summer as a program assistant for New Student Orientation before heading to The Ohio State University in the fall to pursue her master's degree in higher education and student affairs.

"I can confidently say I would not be the same person I am today without having been in the RAP Program, not just because of the opportunities I received or the people I met, but because of the enrichment it provided for me as a student and as a future professional.

RAP is currently recruiting mentors for Fall 2024 and interested faculty are asked to complete this form.



WVU Research Communications
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