Advising staff are key allies in recruitment; after all, they are the ones who help students select their courses and major/minor(s). The history department at the University of Oklahoma has shown how professional advisors can make a significant impact on recruitment far beyond their 1:1 advising responsibilities.
Sarah Olzawski was hired as senior academic counselor by the College of Arts and Sciences in 2012, and began advising for the history department in 2016. Over the past five years, Sarah has found new ways to grow the pipeline of potential majors, implementing several strategies that have helped increase the number of history majors by 17 percent and the number of minors by 19 percent since 2016.
First, Olzawski beefed up the department’s presence on social media. When she began advising for the department, they had only a largely inactive Facebook page. Now the department Twitter account has more than 1,700 followers. As an alumna of the department, Olzawski was particularly adept at constructing an earnest-yet-fun conversation about the value of history that drew undergraduates in. First, she earned students’ trust by paying attention to what students were talking about on social media. They came to appreciate her poignant statements about the value of studying the humanities in the context of the ascendance of STEM and political and social upheaval. These were balanced with a healthy dose of humor as Olzawski sprinkled her posts with memes and “light snark.” This approach encouraged students to identify with history and the humanities and gave them a sense of belonging with like-minded peers. “The great thing about the online community we have built,” Olzawski said, “is that this community recruits for itself.”
Olzawski also helped facilitate in-person opportunities for community building. “Our outreach is centered on enlisting students as colleagues and co-conspirators,” she explained. “In 2018, a group of motivated undergrads created the History Club, which is creating a pipeline of new majors. These students are an ‘activist core’ of students and passionate about expanding the presence and visibility of all humanities students on campus.” Since Olzawski had already earned these students’ trust, they tapped her to help them get the club off the ground. She provided crucial support in securing student government association recognition and funding for the organization, utilizing the university’s mass email system to contact over 29,000 OU students about the club’s events, and publicizing their efforts on the department’s social media. Olzawski helped the club identify and empower a social media-savvy student, Sally Johnson, to take over the club’s Twitter account in 2019, which then had about 40 followers. Johnson followed Olzawski’s lead in creating her own blend of “light snark” and forceful statements on the importance of the humanities. The club now has over 1,300 followers on Twitter, and has even attracted history majors from other schools around the country to its virtual events.
Meanwhile, Sarah crafted a data-driven outreach strategy targeting students who had previously selected other majors but found themselves gravitating toward history. Olzawski’s analysis revealed that roughly one fifth of history graduates started as business or STEM majors. She worked to identify students who were struggling in these majors and choosing to take history courses, sending them direct emails. She visited classes that included many of these students, giving presentations that appealed to students’ sense of autonomy (“It’s OK to study the subject you love!”) and addressed misconceptions they may have about history majors’ career prospects. “When these students switch to history, they are overwhelmingly excited,” Olzawski said. “The turnaround on their transcripts is remarkable.”
Finally, across all of these efforts, Olzawski and her co-conspirators have been intentional about signaling that the OU history department is an inviting place for underrepresented students. “Credit goes to our student leaders for purposefully building an inclusive community,” Olzawski said. “That matters to students, and I've had conversations with multiple new majors about how that matters to them. It's an extremely effective recruiting tool and the right thing to do.” In Spring 2021, as Olzawski prepared to move on to Oklahoma Humanities to continue her work as an advocate for the humanities, the department graduated the most history majors since 2013. Her legacy illustrates what is possible when departments leverage advising to reach new students and foster humanities identity and community.
Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of Sarah Olzawski.