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Partnering with Student Organizations to Build First-Year Student Engagement: Special Olympics Young Athletes and Merrimack College


Partnering with Student Organizations to Build First-Year Student Engagement: Special Olympics Young Athletes and Merrimack College

Every day, academic leaders make decisions about what kinds of programming college first-year students will find attractive and engaging. Many colleges’ ideas, however, fail to connect to student interest and experience. Part of the reason for this disconnect is generational. The staff and administrators planning these programs are at least a decade and a few academic degrees removed from the people they are planning for. While administrators and staff in academic and student affairs can use surveys and focus groups to understand student needs and inclinations, these guesses can be off the mark and, more importantly, lead them to miss real opportunities for first-year student programming.

First-year experience (FYE) programs have been the backbone of student retention efforts for over four decades (What Works, 2016). But while FYE classes can deliver needed information on how to get accustomed to a campus, they can fail to engage students sufficiently to connect them to their courses and campus activities. First-year experience programs need to do more than build academic skills and campus knowledge. The role for FYE classes has shifted from helping students find their way around campus to helping students find themselves in the campus culture. Poorly designed and implemented FYE classes can have the opposite impact from their intent, making students feel more lost and disconnected than they would have been without the class. This is a particularly critical issue now as campuses face a growing number of students who, even when academically capable, transfer out during their first term because they feel little connection to their courses or to campus culture (Jaschik, 2019; Strauss, 2017).

FYE courses often assume that students come to campus with little relevant experience. While it is true that most students are new to campus and to college-level classes, many students come to our campuses with more experience than we give them credit for. For example, many arrive on campus with experience working with their peers with disabilities, including participation in organizations such as Best Buddies and Unified Sports while in high school. Even if students do not arrive with expertise directly with people with disabilities many have related experience in areas such as working with young children, which they can draw on when designing and implementing programming.

To engage students’ interest and capitalize on their experience, the Merrimack College School of Education and Social Policy and First Year Experience office rethought their first-year experience offerings. An FYE class section was partnered with Special Olympics Young Athletes, a unique sport and play program for children ages two through seven with and without intellectual disabilities that focuses on fun activities important to mental and physical growth (Special Olympics, n.d.). This program brings participants and their families to campus six Saturday mornings per academic term for physical activity and peer interaction. Unlike many youth sports and activity undertaking, this program takes it cues from what the children want to experience, and pairs each student with a college-aged buddy to provide support and encouragement.

The opportunity to partner with a strong student organization led the School of Education and Social policy to propose an FYE class connected to the Young Athletes program, giving first-years the opportunity to volunteer with the program. In the FYE class, students are strongly encouraged to participate in Young Athletes, receive training for the program, and learn about the history of Special Olympics. (Students who cannot make Saturday sessions do other tasks, such as recruiting.) They also learn about careers that involve working with children and adults with disabilities, in addition to the FYE college transitional activities. Giving first-year students at Merrimack the opportunity to become involved in both of these programs provides them with an exceptional chance to actively participate in a field they may one day aspire to join as a career.

Students reported that the program helped them engage with their majors, connect socially, and explore a new career field. In the FYE post-assessment survey, 100 percent of the students who took the class in fall 2019 reported that they had developed more extensive knowledge of careers working with people with disabilities. One student wrote, “This has been valuable because I am studying elementary education so it gives me hands on experience with young children. It has also helped me make some friends. It even helped me connect to someone I was becoming friends with that was in a different class.” Stated another, “Having this activity connected to FYE has been valuable because it allowed me to connect with the other volunteers and reflect back on how my experiences have been. It gives me a sense of community and belonging.”

Implementation was not an entirely smooth process. Some students struggled with the schedule due to sports and work commitments, and were unable to participate in the Saturday program time. Others felt that focusing on youth with disabilities left out teens and adults with disabilities. Students might also attend the program but not fully engage in the activities, undermining the intention of the project. But these concerns were less prevalent than positive comments. Each FYE class has a peer mentor, an undergraduate student who provides a connection between the FYE instructor and the first-year college students. These mentors greatly helped with implementation. The FYE peer mentor role in this case was filled by a student who was an officer in the student group, providing a strong connection and communication with the effort.

This program and partnership with FYE has continued each year, and Young Athletes continues to grow its numbers and expand its programming. With its volunteer base of 50+ college students each Saturday, Young Athletes added a Developmental Sports program in winter 2020, an extension of the program that focuses on a variety of sport-specific skills that children ages six through 12 can use in future team participation. Going forward, Merrimack could expand to develop Unified Sports, in which disabled and nondisabled athletes compete together in athletic activities offered at the high school age level and above, in the mix.

Building student engagement in a single, thriving activity is far superior to students’ signing up for a slew of clubs, many of which they may find only marginally engaging. Students today need to feel deeply connected to campus simply to remain enrolled. Involving students with strong student organizations tied to academics can have a powerful impact, especially when faculty and administrators can follow first-year students’ interests and passions instead of merely guessing which topics will engage them.


Jaschik, S. (2019, September 30). NACAC agrees to change its code of ethics. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2019/09/30/nacac-agrees-change-its-code-ethics

Special Olympics. (n.d.). Young Athletes. https://www.specialolympics.org/our-work/young-athletes

Strauss, V. (2017). Why so many students decide to transfer. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/01/29/why-so-many-college-students-decide-to-transfer

Additional resource

What Works Clearinghouse. (2016, July). Supporting Postsecondary Success intervention report: First-year experience. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/Docs/InterventionReports/wwc_firstyear_071916.pdf

Rachel Brown is a senior in the human development and human services program as well as an education minor at Merrimack College. She has served as an officer in Special Olympics Young Athletes and plans to attend graduate school in speech language pathology next fall.

Rachel Malieswski is a graduate of Merrimack College in human development and human services and health sciences. She currently works as a child life assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital and will attend graduate school full-time this fall in Chicago.

Margaret Ford is a junior in the education/moderate disabilities and human development and  human services programs at Merrimack College and president of the campus’s Special Olympics Young Athletes program.

Russ Olwell, PhD, is associate dean and professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.


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