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UWA administrators ramping up students' on-campus experience

Two UWA students moving into Gilbert Hall.

A’Kia Lowery, left, a graduate hall director, and Caleb Robbins, a resident assistant for Gilbert Hall, were among the nearly 200 people, including students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni groups and community members who helped new students and their families with the heavy lifting of Move In Day.

'Welcome Back Week' will feature a multitude of events

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photos: Betsy Compton 

Amid Sumter County’s stultifying August humidity and the sight of University of West Alabama freshmen moving into Gilbert Hall dorms, Dr. Melissa Haab’s vision of students re-engaging with campus life is coming into view. 

The “post-Covid experience,” as UWA’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management describes it, isn’t unique to Livingston’s campus. For two-plus years, safety- and health-related responses to the pandemic covered most U.S. campuses with limitations and cancellations of in-person activities. But UWA’s expectations for a vibrant, if not rejuvenated, campus for the 2022 fall semester are nonetheless strong after ramped-up orientation efforts this summer to introduce students to campus life. 

“What we're hoping is that it’s going to transfer into a comfort level when they come back, that they will already know people, they will already be familiar with some of the student activities that we're going to be involved in or be offering,” said Haab, who was hired in 2021 after serving as vice president of enrollment services at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi. 

And they are coming back. 

Gilbert Hall, a focal point for new freshmen, was abuzz this week as parents and university staff members -- including UWA President Ken Tucker -- helped students drag suitcases and tote storage bins into their rooms, an all-hands-on-deck operation marked by sweat-soaked T-shirts and smiles. Preseason training for UWA’s fall sports teams were under way. Sounds from the UWA Marching Tigers band camp drifted across campus. With fall semester classes beginning Monday, the UWA campus in year three of the pandemic is beginning to reclaim a sense of normalcy. And near the top of this fall’s to-do list for Haab and the university’s Division of Student Affairs is reaffirming the on-campus atmosphere for UWA students. 

 

Students move into Gilbert Hall dorms.
Faculty, staff and an assortment of campus groups helped students move into Gilbert Hall dorms.

 

“Everybody hates talking about Covid, but it had just an incredible impact on students in general,” Haab said. “Specifically, when you look at where they were affected the most, I think it affected the student life experience. A lot of that involves trying to get students to re-engage because there was a lack of engagement. Some of them were still in high school, and they missed out even on academic opportunities, but certainly they missed out on a lot of socializing.”  

Haab didn’t arrive at UWA until last October, well after the start of the fall semester. Nevertheless, she wasn’t oblivious to the pandemic’s residual effects on campus life. “One of my observations was we had a lot of students who just did not come out and participate in a lot of the student activities because they either still were not comfortable interacting at a high level, or they lacked the skills.” On-campus mental health services, Haab said, also were in increased demand. 

In conjunction with the opening week of classes, UWA’s Campus Activities Board has scheduled a smorgasbord of events designed to squash boredom and flavor the semester with a pinch of fun. Dubbed “Welcome Back Week,” the activities range from food to movies to sporting events, starting Saturday evening with the football team’s intrasquad scrimmage at Tiger Stadium that will also include an appearance of the Marching Tigers Band, now under the guidance of new director Dr. Tyler Strickland. 

Other events include a splash party at the UWA pool (Sunday, 7 p.m.-9 p.m.); Bingo for (Tiger) Bucks at the UWA Auditorium (Monday, 8 p.m.); an appearance of “The Great DuBois: Masters of Variety,” a two-person circus that’s been featured on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Night with David Letterman” (Tuesday, 8 p.m.); and three events on Wednesday: an intramural football toss at the Caf (11 a.m.), a welcome-back picnic on the Foust Hall lawn (5 p.m.), and a movie, “Jumaji,” on the Gilbert Hall lawn (8 p.m.). The SUB lobby will host a job fair Thursday at 3 p.m. 

The long view of the student experience rises above entertaining students during the first week of classes, Haab said. There’s much more at stake, such as building relationships between universities and students’ families, academic success, student retention, degree completion and alumni engagement. National higher-education data consistently shows that students who are engaged in their campuses are more likely to stay in school, feel connected to the campus and graduate. Additionally, she said, “that research also will say that the richer experience you have, the more you want to stay engaged with the university afterwards, that you will be a contributing alumnus, whether that be with time or resources financially. And so that's why so much is invested in that.” 

Haab, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University, recalls her undergraduate days in Starkville and admits to lingering memories of classes and professors, though most of her memories “are (on) the social side.” But as a higher-education administrator, she also understands that had her experience been strained -- if she’d failed classes, if she hadn’t graduated, if she’d had a disagreeable roommate or lacked needed tutoring sessions -- she’d remember those darker times, not the fun of campus activities.  

Which means a successful student experience involves all facets of university life, she said, not the least of which are a campus’ facilities, cleanliness and landscaping. 

Those thoughts were prominent in Haab’s mind when she recently toured nine university campuses with her high school-age daughter, who is attending MSU. One of the campuses they visited was UWA’s, which provided a long-time university administrator a parent’s view of the process. 

“What impressed me on the visit was the people. It was the warm, friendly nature of feeling like they're going to know me by name, they're going to work with me in the classroom,” she said. “I felt really special and I could see myself here.”