Clifton Davis was in the midst of his online graduate counseling program through Concordia University Wisconsin when two of his cousins, who were more like brothers to him, unexpectedly passed away within months of each other.
The losses hit Davis hard. He recalls having trouble finding the focus he needed to be successful in his courses, and soon he was failing one of his classes.
Davis knew himself well enough to know that it was now or never where his degree was concerned. Determined to continue, he sought help in the form of one of Concordia’s Online Student Success Advisors (OSSAs), Allison Wolf.
Wolf and the five other women who make up Concordia’s OSSA staff are charged with being the spiritual, emotional, and practical support system for the more than 3,000 individuals throughout the world who are enrolled in online programs or courses through Cconcordia. They’re the ones who receive the calls from the at-times burdened, overwhelmed, frustrated, or just plain overbooked students in pursuit of their degrees.
“I think of myself as the go-to person for my students,” says Wolf, lead OSSA. “I want them to know they can count on me to walk with them through the program. As an OSSA team, we want students to feel a connection to the university and know that someone is always there for them.”
The OSSAs are different from Concordia’s academic advisors, who guide students through course selection and the scheduling process. They do things like help learners navigate the online system, send reminders about essential paperwork to complete, look out for relevant financial aid opportunities, and act as an advocate.
OSSAs are an extra layer of support that few other universities offer, says Executive Director of Continuing and Distance Education Sarah Pecor.
“Other universities outsource this role to people who don’t really understand the goals of the university and who don’t really know the people these students are asked to interact with,” Pecor says. “Our OSSAs live and breathe Concordia’s mission every single day. They truly want students to be successful—not just academically but as individuals, and that starts with extending Christian love and care to each learner.”
The OSSA team makes a habit of doing just that.
Susie Pipkorn, for example, doesn’t hesitate to whip out a card and write a personal note of encouragement to a student when she sees that student’s name on Campus Pastor Steve Smith’s daily prayer list. She then adds the student to her own prayer list, which she started in 2015. That list now has more than 200 names on it.
Sometimes Pipkorn will pray for the list as a whole, and sometimes she’ll pick out individual names as the Holy Spirit moves her. As students call with general questions, they’ll often share personal struggles with their course, family concerns, or time management issues.
“These students are taking courses like, ‘advanced pathophysiology’ or ‘genetics, immunology & microbiology.’ They’re tough courses! So I’ll run a class list and send up a prayer, especially during exam times.”
As an OSSA team, we want students to feel a connection to the university and know that someone is always there for them Allison Wolf, lead OSSA
Whether it’s a student battling cancer while trying to still keep on schedule with his coursework, a single parent juggling school and parenting responsibilities, or an overwhelmed bride-to-be wrestling with the decision to drop a class in the months leading up to her wedding, it’s not uncommon for students to divulge some of the most vulnerable details of their lives to their OSSAs.
“They’ll call us to vent or voice their struggles,” Wolf says. “We’ll listen to them, talk through solutions with them and help bring resolution. And sometimes that is followed up by a prayer for them, a note of encouragement, or just a check-in to see how they are doing. We really care about our students, and it’s rewarding to know we can help make this part of their life a little easier.”
Get connected with an OSSA of your own. Learn how you can enroll in one of Concordia’s Online programs atwww.cuw.edu/MeetYourOssa.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Concordian, the official magazine of Concordia University Wisconsin. View a PDF version of the magazine here.
— Kali Thiel is director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-243-2149.
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