Q&A with Butler’s new first-year experience director

First-year experience director Nii Abrahams poses with Butler Blue IV. Photo courtesy of Nii Abrahams.

ERIKA KOVACH | STAFF REPORTER | ekovach@butler.edu

Nii Abrahams began his role as Butler’s first-year experience director this academic year. He is the first person to hold this position at Butler. 

Abrahams grew up around higher education, with both of his parents working as professors. He earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in communication at Missouri State University. 

He spent three years working at Anderson University and spent his final year developing a new position in orientation and first-year experience. 

He was contacted by Butler this summer to help develop the role of first-year experience director, a position that is becoming commonplace at universities across the country. He currently works out of the Center for Academic Success and Exploration, CASE, office in Jordan Hall room 144. 

The Butler Collegian: Why did Butler decide to add the new position this year? 

Nii Abrahams: So on a large scale, universities across the country are trying to navigate a changing landscape in higher ed. A couple of factors, for instance, are there are just [fewer] individuals who are being born and going to school, so [there are] fewer numbers of people who are going to school. And COVID really disrupted college readiness and college preparedness and the number of students who are interested in going to school. And then three, there’s just a lot more competition. In terms of community colleges and certificate programs, there are just a lot more other avenues for students post-high school.

While the middle-class white student goes [to a university] because it’s significant, there’s a less significant, but good increase of historically underrepresented students and students of color in terms of college entry. And so a lot of universities are pivoting not to just, “How do we just get as many students?” but, “How do we retain as many students as last year?”

Butler worked with the Gardner Institute, and they’re an institute that focuses strategically on first-year students and how universities create a plan for first-year students for retention from the first year to the second year because we know that if students retain their first year, they’re much more likely to finish out and persist all the way through. About 80 or 90 people across the campus were involved in this project. There’s like 50-something action items that came out of it, and I was one of those action items. My role was created out of that. So part of my job is to implement those different action items and really close the gaps that were discovered in the self-study report.

TBC: What are some of the roles and tasks you have as the first-year experience director here?

NA: People ask me that, [and] it’s kind of a weird role. I tell people that if I had to boil my job down, it’s essentially to create systems for first-year students to find their place of belonging and connectedness on campus, basically starting from the second semester of their senior year in high school — when they make that deposit and decide, “Hey, I’m coming to Butler” — all the way through — what I say — when they “graduate” their first year at Butler. So it looks like a lot of different things. 

Right now, it looks like working with marketing and admissions on the story of Butler — how do we get more students prepared and ready to be here to build relationships with people before they even step foot on campus? [I work on] that communication, and it looks like working with the incredible [director of new student and family programs] Meg Haggerty. In terms of orientation, it looks like working with faculty who have a large number of first-year students in their classrooms; how do we help those faculty teach first-year students in a way that helps them transition? It looks like working with faculty and staff on developing mentorship opportunities and different things like that.

More than anything, [I aim] just to be a random ear and resource for students who are struggling, so I kind of do a lot of different things, and I kind of exist in all different academic and student affairs units on campus.

TBC: What are some ways you connect with students on campus? What are some of your favorite things you have done here so far? 

NA: I’m the super ultimate hype guy. So technically, I had been on the job for two days, and I joined a student [who was a Student Orientation Guide] for Playfair and just had a freaking blast. I just went crazy and had fun, you know, yelled at students to come and be a part [of it], got to meet a ton of [first-years] that way. That was a lot of fun for me. So I really enjoyed those elements of it, like the opportunities just to be where students are at. 

More so than I had anticipated, this role is administrative in nature, but [I enjoy] getting to work when there’s some really incredible faculty and staff who really love students. And so getting to sit in on meetings and really dream about how to better the student experience has been a lot of fun. I’ve got an awkwardly big office, so my office has become like a random place where I’ll find students just hanging out and doing homework, so that’s really fun, too.

TBC: What is the easiest way for students to engage with you? How do you find yourself reaching students at this point in time?

NA: Weirdly enough, I’ve got to meet a good amount of students, and those students have introduced me to their friends, so that’s been really cool. People can email me; they can shoot me a text. I’m literally down. I’ve had coffee with students, and I’m just down to hang — so whatever that looks like. I play soccer, there’s intramurals, I’m down to do that, too. You know, I just want to be a resource. So people have swung by my office and just come and just to say hi for five minutes. That’s really cool too. I want to be as accessible to students as possible.

TBC: How have you participated in events and planning on campus for first-years thus far?

NA: The [faculty-in-residence trick-or-treating event] was something that we created. That was the first activity that I [programmed] that I got to be a part of, which just came out of a fun collaborative meeting last month. Other than that, not yet. My role really is attached to basically everyone else on campus. So it really is more leveraging what else is happening on campus, and how do we make sure that first-year students are attended to and cared for? And then specifically as well, are historically underrepresented students or students of color, but then also transfer students and commuter students [being attended to]? How do you make sure that they find their place of belonging, too?

In time, as my role kind of takes shape, and as the first-year experience develops, there’ll be more specific programming that I’ll do. But really most of the time, it’s just gonna be in partnership with the other great things that are happening on campus.

TBC: Do you have anything else to add?

NA: I guess the only thing I would say, just as a word of encouragement to the first-year students, is a reminder that everybody’s first year looks different, and the transition is really difficult for everybody — even if they don’t show it. So I always encourage students not to compare someone else’s journey to their own. Embrace the journey you’re on, and know that there are people who want to walk with you. 

Fear has a tendency to isolate people. But when you’re vulnerable enough to just say, “Hey, I need help,” or, “Hey, I need someone to talk to,” it can go a long way. It’s always really scary when you’re a freshman, even though nobody ever wants to admit it. So I just want to just encourage students and say: hey, it’s all good. Everyone’s pretty scared, but you can be vulnerable and step out, and good things can happen.


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