Staff Perspective: First Year Experience at Olive-Harvey College Offers Students Support and a Sense of Belonging

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When I was a young undergraduate student, I didn’t feel like I belonged at a higher education institution. That’s why, in my role as the inaugural Director of First Year Experience at Olive-Harvey College, I am grateful for the chance to make sure every first-year student knows they are capable of success.

First-year students at Olive-Harvey College arrive here with varied educational backgrounds, interests, and life experiences. Some students are fresh out of high school. Others enroll as transfer students after trying college elsewhere. Some are older adults who have always wanted to get their degree. It’s my responsibility to help every first-year student feel welcome and ready to achieve their goals.

Here at Olive-Harvey, we acknowledge that each student needs something different as they navigate their first year. Our menu of services goes beyond helping students complete their coursework. It includes one-on-one coaching, goal-setting workshops, virtual support communities on our learning management system Brightspace, and other opportunities like Panther Tracks Study Hall, which is offered at several locations on campus as a place to study and receive on-the-spot help.

We also know how important it is for students to come together as a community. I am looking forward to our second annual Panther Tracks Convocation on August 26, 2022, from 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm, and it’s my sincere hope that every first-year student attends so they can receive an official welcome to the Olive-Harvey family. We want the convocation to inspire students to strive for academic success, encourage them to unite as an entering class, and help them feel connected to the academic community. Every first-year and transfer student attendee will be pinned by a faculty or staff symbolizing their transition to becoming an Olive-Harvey College student.

Olive-Harvey College is an historically and predominantly Black community college. Now more than ever, we are supporting students of color by offering them a seat at the table. It isn’t enough to talk about closing achievement gaps. Here, we offer resources like tutoring and networking opportunities that intentionally support our Black and Brown students. In our work toward equity and inclusion, we provide the resources to help students persist and reach critical educational milestones, and we help them build momentum along their degree pathways.

Every student wants to feel connected and supported. I know this firsthand based on my own experience. But despite the doubts I felt early on in my college journey, I was inspired to continue. Today, I’m completing an EdD program in educational leadership. I tell students every time I go into a classroom, “Hey, I was you. I was sitting in a chair just like yours a few years ago, and now I’m about to be Dr. Cook.”

Mentors and programs that offered me holistic supports are the reason I am here today. My goal is to pay it forward to Olive-Harvey students by offering that kind of support in the First Year Experience, and I work alongside the fantastic team here in Academic Support Services to do so. Fostering student success and community is ongoing work that I am glad I can do.  Students need to know that their success is within reach.

Chicago native Christopher Cook has served over ten years in higher education student affairs. Currently, Cook serves as the inaugural Director of First-Year Experience at Olive-Harvey College. Outside of this work, Cook has served in his community as chairman of the 2019 College and Scholarship Fair for the 100 Black Men of Chicago Inc., where he raised scholarship dollars for the program’s mentees, as vice president of the Chicago Teachers College/Chicago State University Alumni Association, and as a proud member of the Chicago Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.  Cook is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Chicago State University.

“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.” Armed with his faith and these words from the poet George E. Woodberry, Cook stands firm in his beliefs, passion, and unwavering efforts to enact positive and meaningful change.