July 30, 2008
St. John’s administrators work tirelessly to ensure that our
students are provided with a quality, affordable education that
embodies our Vincentian mission. In an effort to give new and
prospective students, their parents and friends, as well as our
returning students, a glimpse into the responsibilities, challenges
and concerns of St. John’s leadership, we’re presenting a series of
interviews with those who make a St. John’s education the
stimulating, student-centered and rewarding experience that it
In this interview, Vice President Andre McKenzie speaks about
the University’s academic student support services. Dr. McKenzie
has held a leadership position at St. John’s University since
Q.: Dr. McKenzie, what are the Academic
Support Services at St. John’s?
A.: First and foremost, is the
University Freshman Center, which includes services provided to
freshmen primarily in the form of academic advising, assistance,
and direction throughout their first year. It’s a central area of
support for students as they make the all-important transition from
high school to college. Another area that comes immediately to mind
when you hear “support services” is tutoring, which is provided by
University Learning Support Services. They also provide assistance
to students in the development of critical thinking skills and
sponsor the academic reading program. The Division of Academic
Support Services also assists in the coordination of the Math
Center as well.
Academic Support Services also includes the Honors Program, the
Graduate Admission Assistance Program (GAAP) and the McNair
Scholars Program for students interested in pursuing a doctoral
degree. We are also involved in Student Development for Athletes,
under the direction of Dr. Nancy Kaplan, which is a partnership
between the Division and the Athletics Department.
While the primary focus remains on the St. John’s student, as
part of our Vincentian mission we have traditionally reached out to
the community and have made very strong linkages with them over the
years. Special and opportunity programs that are primarily focused
on community outreach with middle school and high school students
include Gear-Up (Gain Early Awareness and Readiness for
Undergraduate Programs), a grant-sponsored program of the US
Department of Education and the New York State Higher Education
Corporation; College-Bound Liberty Partnerships Program, funded by
the New York State Education Department and St. John’s; the
Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) for St.
John’s students; and the Science and Technology Entry Program
(STEP) for talented middle- and high-school students.
Q.: What about high school
A.: That’s us as well. In the High
School Extension program, we provide courses to students that are
taught by their faculty and validated by St. John’s department
chairpersons. We made our first link with a high school around
1976, and are in a process right now of expanding and broadening
our arena for the program.
Its’ a great way for students to become familiar with St. John's
but it’s also a good head start for college for those who choose to
enroll here, because obviously those credits would apply towards
their St. John's degree and they save dollars too.
Q.: Does the Staten Island campus have a
Freshman Center as well?
A.: Yes, there is a comparable Center
on the Staten Island campus but they deal with a much smaller
number of first-year students.
Q.: One of Fr. Harrington’s challenges to
all of us here at St. John’s is to serve our students in an
A.: I love it!
Q.: How are you doing that in your
A.: After reviewing the
pre-Presidential Summit material provided by our Provost, Dr.
Upton, I thought that this is a perfect opportunity for our
division as we go through the process of planning our contribution
to the University’s Strategic Plan 2008-2013. After all, service is
what we do. I was so excited about Fr. Harrington’s message and the
challenge he has given us because we are ready to run with it, from
looking again at what we do, how we can plan to be successful and
be able to actually assess how well we’re doing.
When service is in your name, as in Academic Support Services,
it’s important that we have the highest of expectations in regard
to every interaction with our students. But how do you package that
in terms of behavior, protocol and procedures, and then make it a
deliverable? That’s my job—and the job of my directors—and it means
a reexamination, a reassessment. Even though we’ve been pleased
with where we were, there’s always room for improvement.
Q.: The “Millennial Student” was
introduced to us at the Summit. Your thoughts?
A.: Fr. Harrington pointed out to us
that if you’re going to serve a certain clientele well, then it’s
best that you get to know who they are. Our focus is the Millennial
student, and in getting to know Milllennials better, we have to
think about how different they are and how our approaches may have
to be a bit different.
Leaving high school for college has to be one of the most
exhilarating , exciting, yet challenging and stressful times in a
young person’s life. Our job, if we’re doing it effectively—and I
mean all of our services whether it’s getting advisement or working
with an honors program faculty—is to make this the most rewarding
educational experience. At the same time, we can’t have processes
that don’t acknowledge the individuality and uniqueness of each
student. And we can’t lose that personal touch, it’s what makes St.
John’s such a unique experience for students when they come
For example, some of the advising staff are Generation-Xers and
even Milllennials themselves and on their own, they have introduced
Instant Messaging into our advising. Now, I don’t personally use
that tool but my staff has made me more aware of—as well as open
to—whatever might be the best way to communicate with our students.
Naturally, we’re going to continue our face-to-face advisement but
are always looking at how to expand our outreach to students.
I joined St. John’s in1986, as Director of New Student
Orientation. Twenty-two years later, I’m still involved in that in
some form or fashion. We all contribute to it, continually
orienting our students to the culture of this institution, of what
St, John’s is all about. I’ve seen new traditions develop over the
years, e.g., Freshman Convocation, that have made us stronger.
We’re building a campus environment that makes people feel proud to
be here–it’s something we should continually strive for.
Q.: Wasn’t creating the Freshman Center a
momentous step toward being more student-focused,
A.: The Center was created in 2000,
and I have to say that it wouldn’t have happened without Dr. Pellow
and Dr. Upton. They recognized the importance of that first-year
transitional period, with the intellectual, personal and social
development that occurs, and they determined that it would be best
to have a centralized approach where we could bring them all
together in one place.
At the Freshman Center, we’re continually thinking about new
ways to improve the first- year experience. All the literature on
retention tells us that the first six weeks of a college student’s
life is so critical to his or her success. During that time they’re
getting a sense of whether they have made a choice that meets their
educational and social expectations. There are other questions and
concerns as well, so as an institution we want to be sure we’ve
responded to the concerns discussed in the literature and that
we’re providing services and programs to address them.
We’re continuing to work hard on that. Since there’s a very
personal relationship between the advisor and advisee, we make sure
early-on that freshmen know who their advisor is, and that parents
know what we’re going to work on in terms of maintaining
communication during this critical year.
Because we aren’t professors in a classroom, where we know
students spend the majority of their time, we’re working harder to
forge closer relationships with faculty of first-year students to
identify students who most need immediate intervention and
For example, when we introduce students who are undecided about
their majors to the field of psychology, we reach out to the
department chair and have his or her faculty come to a dinner or
reception for students who are interested in that field. Then they
have the opportunity to meet psychology professors up close and
personal and forge that link.
We see ourselves, as a sort of central hub with all these
linkages, realizing the importance of relationships between
students and faculty and trying to facilitate them. We’re
there to help and support.
Q.: Tell me about your freshmen
A.: They’re a diverse, eclectic group
of men and women who embrace the fact that the core of their
responsibilities is the role of advisor-teacher-mentor. What
we look for are enthusiastic, energetic, caring individuals who
have a desire to work with first-year students. Advisors have to be
the “go-to person,” ensuring there’s at least one individual on
campus that a first-year student can go to anytime with a concern
or question. As I said earlier, students learn who their advisor is
before they arrive at St. John’s. I will often walk through
Marillac Hall and ask, “any first-years here?” And if the answer is
yes, I ask “who is your freshman advisor?” Nine times out of 10
they can tell me the advisor’s name.
But our advisors aren’t hand-holders. They are supporters who
walk beside their advisees, not behind propping them up. If a
student stumbles, the advisor is there to steady him or her and
keep the student moving forward.
We recognize too that parents have concerns about their
student’s first year and are in the process of developing
mechanisms to allow for better communication with them.
Q.: When will that occur?
A.: We’ll start that this fall. After
the Presidential Summit, we began to ask ourselves how can we
engage parents in order to help students, being cognizant of FERPA
(Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and other
confidentiality issues. I think engaging parents and other support
systems that students may rely on—if used in the appropriate
way—can help in student engagement.
Q.: How does technology help? You spoke
about Instant Messaging and the Chat Sessions. What else are you
A.: In general, technology has
provided immediate access to the world of information. It also
allows us to communicate in a more immediate and oftentimes
effective manner. For example, in cooperation with the Career
Center, we’re using online resources such as career search tools or
inventories, especially for students who may be undecided on a
major. The fact that you can sit in the Freshman Center and explore
career opportunities by visiting the site of, for example, a
professional association for journalism and learning what
journalists do and add that to information obtained from faculty is
wonderful. In addition, I can sit with students in McNair who are
preparing for graduate school and navigate a site with them,
looking at the curriculum and discussing whether the student is
interested in a program like this. It’s invaluable!
Q.: Student Feedback. Do you get
A.: We gain feedback from a variety of
sources such as the Student Satisfaction inventory, the
University’s Quality Service Initiative and student focus groups.
While satisfaction with the Center’s services and advisors is high,
feedback is incorporated into planning sessions, staff meetings,
and the performance appraisal process for continued
Q.: What is your vision for the Freshman
A.: To create a place that recognizes the importance and the
critical nature of the first year and provides resources and
support for students going through that pivotal time. I think the
fact that senior administration recognized the need for a Freshman
Center at St. John’s and created a model for first-year advisement
underscores our commitment to customer service. Through their
efforts, Dr. Upton and Dr. Pellow raised the level of importance of
first-year students. A key component of the Center’s vision
includes the creation and implementation of activities designed to
underscore the significance of the first-year experience, and the
commitment to continually work toward improving the quality of our
Q.: What question haven’t I asked you that
I should have?
A.: A question about Discover the
World (DTW), the University’s innovative, multi-city approach to
studying abroad. When we were introduced to the program, I had
never seen so much excitement about an initiative from the advising
staff. It energized us. We all attended the Office of Global
Studies’ training session to get a sense of the program and our
role in it. We were pumped. It’s such an exciting opportunity for
It turns out that our role was (and is) to make students aware
of Discover the World and to discuss with them, not IF you’re going
abroad, but WHEN you’re going and how we can assist in that
process. It’s so important today for students to gain that global
perspective that can only come from living and learning abroad.
I think this is a very exciting time to be a St. John’s student.
There’s so much going on. I look forward to serving the next class
of first-year students who will be arriving at St. John’s and urge
them to take advantage of the support any or all of my areas can