Purposeful Learning staff, students learn lessons as they go

One year in, innovative program that guides and supports first-year students is meeting its goals, adapting to experiences

May 31, 2023

The Purposeful Learning team outside their Joyce Hall office early fall semester 2023. From left, student student success advisors Katie Barry, Heidi St. Peter (director), Vernita Weller and Lou DiMasi. The large photo behind the headline by Patrick Bohan shows Weller advising a student on one of the office”s outdoor tables.

Like the new Saint Michael’s College students it supports, the Office of Purposeful Learning is taking lessons from its first full year on campus to adjust course, adopting intentional strategies to build on successes with clear direction.

Heidi St. Peter ’96, director of Purposeful Learning, said when students returned after COVID from extended remote learning that limited direct in-person mentoring, the campus culture felt changed. Pre-pandemic, she said, close involvement from all St. Mike’s community members in seeking and guiding students felt organic and natural, if more low-key and subtle.

Yet in a quest after that remote learning period for return to post-pandemic “normal,” College leaders perceived the need for a high-profile program with more intentional outreach to keep those life-changing personal human interactions – always the distinctive appeal at Saint Michael’s — part of each student experience without anybody falling through the cracks.

For St. Peter and her staff – student success advisors Vernita Weller, Lou DiMasi and Katie Barry – the over-arching goals of the Purposeful Learning Office, located in an inviting and homey space on the first floor of center-campus Joyce Hall, are to “meet students where they are, identify any needs, encourage their engagement in the community, and be present as a resource and support space.”

“We wanted this office to be a space where they could just come and relax, connect with others,” she said. The mission feels accomplished after the first year on those broad program goals, St. Peter said, even though her staff learned valuable lessons to operate more efficiently next year.

“While this program has a lot of vision behind it, the logistical, practical side of it still needed to be figured out,” St. Peter said. “We didn’t know what the reality was going to look like, so we had to learn as we went.”

Heidi St. Peter 2

Heidi St. Peter

One big take-away from the first year, she said, is that “we want to encourage faculty and staff across campus to be involved in the office’s work for it to be most effective.” The guiding goal for next year will be to continue meeting Purposeful Learning’s goals as efficiently as possible, based on good recent student feedback and staff observations about what works well and what does not for today’s students.

Small groups/Large Groups

Part of Purposeful Learning’s program involves first-year students meeting regularly as small-group classes with success advisors and a variety of other faculty and staff as their instructors. Those smaller sessions worked well, St. Peter said, while larger group discussions in the Recital Hall with the whole first-year class proved not as effective last fall, “so the new class structure will continue as it was in the spring, meeting only in small groups.”

Also new in the coming fall semester, she said, the office will be offering in August a collaborative leadership development seminar, for students in various co-curricular leadership roles such as Adventure Sports and Orientation among others, to explore an “ethical leadership framework.” St. Peter is coordinating that with Todd Johnstone-Wright ’96 director of the College’s also relatively new Undergraduate Professional Endorsement program. Wright also was founder /former longtime director of the Adventure Sports Center and is one of the world’s highest-certified ocean kayakers.

“While it won’t be mandatory, we are also working on a new initiative with Student Activities, Residence Life, Wellness and other campus offices to offer programming specifically for students in their second year, new programming as well as possibilities with Adventure Sports and MOVE,” said St. Peter. The office plans to send information about that to rising sophomores ahead of time this summer. MOVE is the popular signature volunteer service arm of Edmundite Campus Ministry.

Lou and Beth

Lou DiMasi, student success advisor, with a student in the comfortable Purposeful Learning office in Joyce Hall. (Photo by Patrick Bohan)

Students seem to appreciate the Purposeful Learning office’s support and location. Kailey Palmer, an elementary education and equity studies major from South Burlington, VT, said the “PL class” for her “provided a safety net as I adjusted to my first year of college. It provided resources and tools that have set me up for success beyond my first year. All of the success advisors are welcoming and will help you in any way that you need them to. The office is a great place to study or take a break between classes.”

Samantha McGrath ’26, an environment studies major from Kennebunk, ME, with minors in business, human geography, political science and sociology, is similarly positive. “I would say Purposeful Learning has been an important part of introducing me to the different possible ways students can get involved,” said McGrath, who also is working on an Undergraduate Professional Endorsement in sustainable management. “I thought its efforts to create a welcoming environment for new students were very successful, and I felt that welcome during every campus activity.”

Student response in surveys was positive not only to the smaller regular PL class meetings, but also to fun activities that went beyond those classes: – a holiday gingerbread-house building contest, coffee meet-ups, movies. “Some students have found they like studying or meeting friends in our space because people feel welcomed in,” St. Peter said.

Over 80 percent of last year’s first-year class came in as suggested to meet with their student success advisors, with word often spreading by word of mouth. “For those who didn’t’ come in, we made a point of meeting students outside the office,” she said. “That means part of our goal is to get out and be seen and be with people where they are, since coming to Joyce is not always a priority with a student. But we went to the athletic fields to see them play, or sent an email, or maybe Lou DiMasi, who has a long Student Life and coaching background here, found them in the cafeteria, so we were able to make contact with most all of them.”

Purposeful Learning also just hired Maria del Sol Nava, a recent graduate of the University of Vermont’s higher education graduate program and before that a Middlebury undergraduate from California, as a success advisor. “Our original strategic plan was to hire three more staff in Year Two so that the first three advisors would move with sophomores after we’d working so closely with that rising first-year class,” she said. With del Sol Nava on staff now as an added advisor, each staffer will take on a group of 120 to 130 first-years and/or sophomores, which feels manageable.

“Ideally, Purposeful Learning is something students will experience all four years, and we need to be intentional of how they connect, so we’ll continue to engage them,” St. Peter said. However, by junior or senior years, academic advisors and career coaches typically are more involved in that role, so her team can stay focused on the first two years.


One year down: St. Peter, right, and DiMasi, after Commencement in May 2023. (Photo by Michelle Jordan)

This year already her staff played a part in junior seminars, speaking with the Career Education office to juniors about leadership skills as they translate into career readiness skills. “I see that kind of thing evolving in pockets around campus – purposeful learning is happening all over campus, but I don’t hear folks articulating it in that way, so that is another goal,” St. Peter said.

“It’s all about collaboration and sharing, thinking strategically and thoughtfully of how this plays out for students,” she said. “If by the time they leave, they can say ‘I get what the purposeful learning piece was about—reflecting on skills, challenging yourself, engaging,’ that will be a success.

“I hope students engaging with our office this year felt part of something bigger, part of the community of Saint Michael’s, and have some space and time to think of what they want to do here with some intention behind this,” St. Peter said. “I hope they’ve been given the opportunity to learn about good programs to get involved with in years two and three; or, for first years, to think about what Study Abroad looks like and what they should do to prepare, or what GPA they need, or who they need to talk to.”

“Certainly, we want them to feel that people here care about them and their development, as human beings as well as students,” St. Peter said.

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