The Center for Whose Success?

The Peer Mentor program, run by the Center for Student Success, is aimed at helping low-income and first-generation students in their transition to Oberlin life. Qualifying students are paired with mentors and provided with resources that can put them on the same playing field as other students. As both a former peer mentee and mentor, I can confidently say that the CSS has fostered meaningful relationships that have ensured the success of its intended demographic groups since its creation decades ago. But recent changes to this office have diverted attention away from the students they were originally meant to support. 

During spring 2022, the CSS externally hired a dean of student success, who was given complete oversight of the organization. The dean quickly raised concerns about the fact that a large portion of the student body had been unaware of this officeʼs existence. Without context, most would understand the desire to create more visibility for the CSS: the office wants to serve more students. However, I was under the impression that the office’s “lack of visibility” had been deliberate. Like any on-campus office, the pool of financial resources allocated to the CSS is finite. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that, in order to conserve the resources necessary to create programming geared towards first-gen and low-income students, the CSS would generally keep a low profile around students who are not a part of those populations. I recognize that low-income or first-generation students only constitute about 13 percent of the 2022 Oberlin student population, but because they require more resources in order to succeed at Oberlin, the equitable strategy would be to direct most of the CSS staff’s efforts toward those students. That no longer seems to be their approach. 

Many students and recent alumni were very concerned about the new direction the CSS was headed. Other PMs and I quit at different points throughout the year because we felt our feedback in regard to this new direction had been blatantly ignored. Stephanie Shugert, a fourth-year returning PM, quit during Winter Term 2023. She cited feelings of disappointment with the CSS and anxiety about its future as the reason for her exit. 

“As a student who frequently utilized the CSS’s resources and built relationships with previous staff members throughout my time at Oberlin, I could see how the changes in programming negatively impacted other first-gen and low-income students,” Shugert said. 

The returning PMs were confused as to why the new dean was trying to fix something that we felt was never broken. Five of the 10 PMs have quit this year, myself included. I quit because I could not participate in a program that is failing to support its intended demographic, one I am a part of and care deeply about. It’s simply not what I signed up for. The turnover in student employees is similar to the turnover in professional staff. The majority of the Success Coaches who started the year in the CSS are no longer employed in that office. It seems as if both students and staff are rapidly losing faith in the CSS’s ability to support students. 

Regardless of personal feelings, the ones who suffered the most were the current first-years who are first-generation or low-income. Instead of giving new students an opportunity to choose their peer mentors in July, as the CSS has done in the past, mentors were randomly assigned to students days before the start of the semester. Rather than focusing the majority of programming on low-income and first-gen students, the office initiated a new “success coaching” program available to all students, thereby shifting focus away from its target group. To many students, this model feels redundant, as there are other campus offices with similar services — such as the Center for Career Exploration and Development, the Executive Functioning Program, the Multicultural Resource Commons, and even the Counseling Center — that are already available to all students. 

Another program that has been affected by the CSS’s drastic change in focus is ObieCares. According to the CSS website, “ObieCares is designed to provide financial assistance to currently enrolled, high financial need students who are experiencing unexpected financial hardship or an emergency.” In previous years, I have received funding for books, a broken laptop, and an emergency flight ticket. This year, such expenses are seemingly no longer deemed hardships or emergencies. I have not received clear reasoning for the change in criteria for aid. Up until last semester, I only had positive experiences with ObieCares, but now my opinion of the program has soured. I would recommend taking a look at its description and application to examine for yourself how it might rub someone the wrong way. In fall 2022, I requested funding — $2,445 to be exact — to buy a hearing aid, which classifies as a medical emergency. I was ultimately denied because I have an unaccepted loan from the College. This is the sole reason ObieCares gave for my rejection. As an office whose focus has been on the success of first-gen and low-income students, it should abstain from encouraging students to take out loans they might not be able to afford. 

My intent is not to attack the CSS, but I believe it is important to bring awareness to the office’s current situation in order to ensure that the needs of first-gen and low-income students are prioritized in the future. I hope that the current leadership understands the importance of transparency and communication as they continue to make potentially harmful changes to processes and resources.