JMU Shines In Student Engagement

By Janet Smith, JMU Public Affairs

Hilary Jacobson at work in ambulanceFor the first two years of her James Madison University undergraduate experience, Hilary Jacobson attended classes, studied diligently, completed assignments and generally focused on academics. Then, halfway through her junior year, the self-described shy Jacobson, seized opportunities related to her studies in biotechnology and the pre-physician assistant concentration that dramatically altered her Madison experience.

Jacobson, confident in her expanding healthcare skills, applied to go on a medical service-learning trip to Mexico and to become a peer adviser in the university's orientation office and joined the Harrisonburg Rescue Squad. Jacobson's engagement outside of the classroom, she says, has transformed her classroom experience.

"At JMU, the professors really like to hear what you're getting involved in, what you're doing outside of their classrooms and how those classroom experiences are enriching your outside world and your outside world is enriching your classroom experience," she said.

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Jacobson is just one of JMU's students who work hard, play hard and develop strong and meaningful relationships with each other and their professors during their years on campus. That engagement, which is recognized as a key factor in a successful college experience, is the focus of an important national survey.

The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement revealed that JMU students rise far and above their college peers in student engagement. What's more, JMU students report they are very satisfied with their time spent and education earned at the university.

"NSSE looks at engagement, how much time and effort is put into certain types of activities," said Dr. Randy L. Mitchell, associate vice president for student success. "The rationale behind that being the students who put time and effort into educationally purposeful activity are more likely to do well than those who spend less time doing those things. It's not measuring learning, it's measuring our students doing the kinds of things that result in learning?'"

The NSSE findings are an important gauge for JMU in its mission to prepare students to be educated and enlightened citizens who lead productive and meaningful lives.

"Our students are doing very well across the board," Mitchell said. A total of 92 percent of freshmen that responded to the survey said they had a favorable image of JMU, while 91 percent of the seniors surveyed said they would choose to enroll at JMU again. "For any institution to have over 90 percent of your students say that, that's a very wonderful thing," said Mitchell.

Mitchell outlined several important findings from the NSSE survey results:

"Our students do a lot of group work. Employers tell us that's what they want students to be able to do. They're able to take information from different sources, from different classes and integrate it. That's certainly what our General Education curriculum is about.

"They're involved in a well-rounded experience. They work, they play, they're involved in organizations, they're involved in their coursework and in their relationships across the board with the faculty, with each other and with staff.

"They say they have good quality relationships with people. That describes why people say this institution is so friendly, as we hear all the time. Relationships are key in the work world as well as in college."

"They're involved in the life of the campus, and again, that's the kind of campus we try to create."

Jacobson's JMU undergraduate journey epitomizes the university experience faculty and staff strive to foster.

A student in the pre-physician assistant concentration, Jacobson is doing research on Lacritin, a tear protein found in the eye, in the laboratory of Dr. Ronald Raab, a professor of integrated science and technology.

"I enjoyed the classes that Dr. Raab taught and working with him, so I asked him if I could be part of his project," Jacobson said. "I recently sat in on a seminar that had the U.Va. partners (in the Lacritin research) in attendance. A lot of the U.Va. students were graduate students, while all the JMU students were undergraduate students. When I came here, I heard 'Oh, yeah. JMU is a great research institution. It allows undergrads to get hands-on experience.' I didn't really understand what they meant by that until I was sitting in that classroom and saw all graduate students and all undergraduate students."

While maintaining a full course schedule and doing undergraduate research, Jacobson is also volunteering with the rescue squad as an EMT and serving as the JMU representative of International Service Learning, an organization that coordinates service-learning medical trips for college and university students. She volunteers with SafeRides and UREC as well.

"The experiences have enriched my experience at JMU so much," Jacobson said. "It never felt like I was missing something, but now I know that medicine, emergency medicine to be exact, is something that I would completely love to do for the rest of my life."

Jacobson believes an involved student is a more productive student. "It's the best way to meet people," she said. "I have found people that are involved tend to be the motivated ones. They are the people who see something and they go for it."

"JMU provides you a hands-on learning opportunity to see what you're interested in, and more importantly, see what you're not interest in," she said. "It enhances your classroom experiences by over a hundredfold. You can't put a price on it."

Jacobson, who will graduate in August 2009, values her JMU undergraduate years so much that she plans to enroll in the university's graduate program for physician assistants after completing a one-year internship with International Service Learning.

About NSSE:
The survey compares JMU students to students throughout the nation and those at Carnegie peer institutions-schools with many similarities to JMU. A total of 714 colleges and universities participated in the 2008 survey, including 22 of JMU's 44 Carnegie peers.

University freshmen and seniors participating in the spring 2008 survey answered three types of questions about institutional requirements, student behavior and student reactions to college.

NSSE is administered by Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. Of the 2,500 JMU freshmen contacted to take the survey, 825 or 33 percent responded. Of the 2,500 JMU seniors contacted, 1,075 or 43 percent responded. Overall, 38 percent of the JMU students contacted responded to the survey. The response rate for Carnegie peers was 40 percent, while the rate for national peers was 33 percent.
Published February 2009