The voices on a new college podcast all belong to students who arrived on campus full of trepidation — a decorated U.S. Army veteran, a young woman who uses a wheelchair, a mom of two who yearned for a career that didn’t revolve around the question, “Would you like fries with that?”
Years later, with graduation in sight, they all have tips for new campus arrivals on how to conquer fears and persevere.
Upperclassmen and faculty at Minnesota State University, Mankato and White Bear Lake’s Century College created the “Finding Your Place” podcast to help first-generation students navigate college, which one student compares to crossing the Amazon, full of stunning scenery, opportunities for adventure — and lurking peril. Professors David Engen in Mankato and Robert Jersak at Century College teamed up, landing a grant through Shark Tank Open, a competition to fund innovative projects in the Minnesota State system.
“I wanted to let other students know, ‘I’ve been where you are,’ ” said Monte Brown, a student producer pursuing a master’s in education leadership at Minnesota State. “I’ve struggled, and I am still here.”
The project comes at a time when campuses throughout the state and the country are grappling with changing student demographics and an influx of freshmen who are the first in their families to go to college. At Minnesota State, the School of Business has made the podcast required listening in courses introducing freshmen to college. School officials are trying to gauge how successful the series is in steering students toward campus resources.
Several years ago, Engen, a communication studies professor, became interested in audio documentaries. He and fellow communication professor Jersak spent summer 2013 documenting the experiences of students in a freshman seminar at Century. In the resulting recordings, Engen felt he heard students in a revealing way that he hadn’t experienced before in his more than two decades of teaching.
The professors played the audio vignettes for colleagues at Century at the start of that fall semester, sparking intense conversations — and a surprise reversal. One student had been kicked out of Century’s cosmetology program after lashing out at an instructor. Thanks to the project, faculty heard for the first time about the family upheaval and financial pressures the student faced. They welcomed her back into the program.
Engen and Jersak believed they could harness audio to do more good, mindful of research that shows students are much more likely to act on advice — take advantage of faculty office hours, say — when it comes from peers with similar experiences. The professors pitched their idea for a college survival podcast to a panel of judges at last year’s Minnesota State Shark Tank Open and landed a $22,220 grant. They enlisted six student producers to share their stories and insights.
The eight- to 12-minute episodes tackle issues that include choosing a major, building rapport with faculty and more.
The podcast creators are now trying to persuade more colleagues to steer students to it.
“We are in the stage when we have to prove that the podcast is effective and working,” Jersak said, adding, “Students are usually assigned a textbook. To be assigned a podcast is a new thing.”