The staff at Hagerstown Business College is actively committed to retaining every student who enrolls here. As with many technical schools, our traditional and non-traditional students have diverse academic backgrounds; a large percentage are first generation college students.  Many have very little “outside” support to help them complete their eighteen-month course of study.  It is not uncommon to hear “victim” stories especially during the weeks of “mid-term” and “final.”  During or shortly after mid-term week, many students (especially first- and second-quarter students) begin thinking about dropping out.

To combat this attrition, our president and registrar suggested that we mail encouraging letters to the students. They felt this would be an effective tool for making a personal connection with students and “cheering” them on to the finish line. So now, I send the entire student body a letter shortly before the term ends. I also send first quarter students a letter before mid-term as well as the end-of-term letter.  And “struggling” students who have less than a 2.0 GPA receive a separate letter. These struggling students also receive a phone call encouraging them to sit down with a member of our Student Success team and formulate a plan of success.  

The letters I write to the students are intended to turn “Victims” into “Creators.”  Sometimes I share my own life experiences since I, too, was a first-generation non-traditional college student who remembers all too well the inconvenience and difficulties experienced while trying to fulfill my dream.  The letters create an open door for students to feel comfortable in talking with me about their own concerns. They know I can empathize with the challenges they are going through to get their education. I then have an opportunity to listen and try to change the “victim” into a “creator.”

The feedback from this effort has been quite positive. Comments have included:

*How do you know when I am down and need a pick-me-up?

*Your letter gave me the support to continue. 

*Mrs. Wilson, I read every word of your letter to my family; not just my immediate family, but my parents and my husband’s parents.

*Even though I am graduating, could you please keep me on the mailing list?

One student told me a story that illustrated how meaningful these letters were to her. After receiving my letter, she told her children to be very quiet while she read an important letter.  As she was reading, her husband came home and yelled, “Hello, I’m home.  Are you here?”  Their five-year old ran to her father and said, “Shhhhh!  Mommy doesn’t let us talk when she’s reading Mrs. Wilson’s letter.”

Probably the highest compliment I have received was when a student asked permission for her mother to use my letter to help a support group that the health department was sponsoring. Thereby, I can only conclude that these letters are not only helping our students, but are also helping the extended family of our school.

As for retention, because of this strategy and others, our college is presently experiencing a 97% completion rate of students beginning the quarter.

SAMPLE LETTER (sent in December when final exams are just around the corner)

Dear…

As I drove to school this dark and cold morning, I noticed several families were displaying a single glowing candle in each window of their homes, a gentle reminder that Christmas is approaching.  Listening to music on the radio, thinking about everything that I had to do in anticipation of the holiday, I suddenly realized the car was very quiet.  The tune had stopped.  As I was wondering why the radio was not playing, the music began.  Elton John was singing “Candle in the Wind.” At this point, memories began surfacing for me; one particular night came to mind.

I was driving home from a late college class fighting the snow and tears; I was so tired.  I was a student myself back then, and it seemed as if all I ever did with my life was study and drive to and from school.  I was looking forward to going Christmas shopping the next day, although I am not sure why as my checkbook was dripping in red ink. The snow was posing a threat to the only day that I had to purchase as many gifts as I could afford for the family.

I can remember answering my family’s question, “What do you want for Christmas?” with, “Oh, nothing,” when I really wanted to yell, “How about a little support with the housework, and a little quiet time so I can study?  How about not waiting until the bread is gone before telling me there’s nothing to eat, and how about grabbing some money from your uncle’s money tree so I can pay the bills on time.” I can remember thinking, if there were really such a thing as angels, they would help me understand the importance of some of the “stuff” the college deemed important for me to learn when I saw no relevance whatsoever.

In my memory, I am driving by a huge house in Sharpsburg noticing that every window has a single glowing candle.  For some reason, I feel as if the people who live there understand my tears and anxiety.  For one quick moment, I have an uplifting feeling that all I am enduring for a college degree will be worth it some day. The Christmas gift I so desperately want is not wrapped in tinsel with a bright red bow attached. It is a gift no one can buy me, no one can give me; only I know how much that degree means.  That degree is going to be my Christmas gift.

The next time you pass my office you will see two lit candles in the windows.  They are a reminder that the greatest gift you may give yourself is a college degree.  It is not on sale, it cannot be returned, but it will change your life forever.

May you and your family have a wonderful holiday, and continue to know that for every lit candle is a wish for you to be successful.  Take care, and keep smiling.

Sincerely, Mrs. Wilson

–Virginia Wilson, General Education Coordinator, Hagerstown Business, MD

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