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Ask Me Button Campaign Suceeds in Creating Welcoming Environment

Posted Dec. 13, 2010

Kent State University President Lester A. Lefton saw a clear communication need on the horizon as the fall semester approached. Lefton knows well that students of today, while enjoying the benefits of ever-present technology, can still benefit from a human connection as they first step onto a college campus.

special feature outside parade
Ask Me buttons were sported during the Homecoming

Lefton also knew that Senior Associate Vice President Justin Hilton, a three-time Kent State graduate, could relate to the difficulty some students and their families have getting acclimated to college life.

"I can't believe that I was the only student who ever experienced frustration while trying to navigate and negotiate this new landscape and environment called the 'collegiate experience,'" says Hilton.

So, at President Lefton's request, Hilton assembled a team of campus and student services experts to develop the Ask Me button campaign, designed to reach new students and their families as they began their own journey to navigate the college experience. The idea was simple: each faculty and staff member would be asked to wear or display the button at any time they were on campus. If a visitor or new student approached someone with a button, the faculty and staff member would demonstrate Kent State hospitality with directions, advice or encouragement.

During Welcome Weekend and beyond, students, faculty and staff proudly wore the button or displayed a button at their work station to let new and returning students know that they are valued and important members of the Kent State University community.

To aid in this effort, Hilton employed Student Success Programs, the Department of Residence Services and the Center for Student Involvement to help spread the welcome message from the very first time students and families stepped on campus this fall.

Charles Holmes-Hope, of the Department of Residence Services, says that he saw early on the benefits of the button campaign. Holmes-Hope coordinated the Moovers and Groovers program, where students, faculty, staff and community members helped students and their families move into residence halls, and says the buttons were a welcome addition to that program.

"It really helped parents to feel welcome, as well as students," Holmes-Hope says. "We saw more than 3,000 people on Friday alone, and the buttons helped ease the transition into the residence halls, a time and place where so many questions come up."

Students who staffed Welcome Weekend also reported a positive reception to the buttons when they interacted with new students and their families.

Eboni Pringle, director of Student Success Programs, says she heard raves from students who worked for her during the beginning of the semester events. She shared comments students provided to her on exit surveys after Welcome Weekend was successfully concluded.

"I thought the buttons were effective and a great idea," said Lindsey Nelson. "It definitely helped the new students navigate their first weekend on campus, and the buttons were easy to spot."

Nicole Ladd also commented that she thought the buttons were a good idea. "With the buttons, people couldn't miss us, and we were able to help more people with our knowledge of Kent State University!"

Student workers who responded to Pringle's questions said the most common questions were about building locations, programming, meal plans and directions to local retailers.

International Students Learn the Universal Language of Welcome

Sometimes a language barrier can make the introduction to college life more difficult. Kent State University has a substantial and growing international student population that may not consist of native English-speakers. In this situation, the Ask Me buttons provided a universal signal that help was at hand.

"I believe the Ask Me buttons were particularly useful for communicating with international students," says Dr. Randi Schneider, associate director of Student Success Programming. "On several occasions, I encountered international students who explicitly gestured toward the Ask Me button when approaching me. The students would make eye contact with me and then point to their own lapel. The gesture was clearly a way for them to say 'I recognize you as someone who works at the university. Can you help me?'"

Parents Have First-Day Jitters, Too

Parents also benefited from the button campaign. Not only did parents find help in locating the closest Wal-Mart or bank, they found that the Kent State community stood ready to help ease the transition from parent of student living at home, to parent of student living in a residence hall.

"The buttons helped mostly parents calm down and not get frustrated that they could not find something," comments education major and proud button-wearer Kevin Gardella.

Schneider agrees that the buttons had a calming effect on the parent population. "I also found that the button was a usual symbol for parents," she says. "During Welcome Weekend there are many parents on campus. I am about the same age as many of our Golden Flash family members. It was easier for a parent to differentiate me from among the sea of other parents when I was wearing the button."

Staff Adopted the Campaign, and Kept it Going

During the semester-launch festivities and beyond, staff embraced the button campaign. At the University Libraries, the Black Squirrel-attired mascot proudly pinned an Ask Me button to his costume. He wore the button during Welcome Weekend events at the Library, as well as in the Homecoming parade.

University Libraries Dean James Bracken also asked his staff to wear or display the buttons at their work location continuously throughout the semester.

And, at Kent State University at Stark, staff welcomed the community to the annual Halloween-themed "Boo U" event with buttons pinned to their costumes.

Painter Neal Liske also reported a series of positive interactions that resulted from his wearing the Ask Me button while he worked throughout the Kent Campus during the first few weeks of the semester. He said that his supervisor, Kyle Frazier, always made a practice of asking his employees to carry campus maps when they went to job sites as school began, but Liske says the button made him more approachable.

"I felt that my fellow employees were skeptical of the buttons at first, but I issued a dare to put the thing on," Liske relates, laughing. "Once we did it and started interacting with people, and they started responding to us as campus experts, we enjoyed their smiles!"

Liske says that he and his colleagues compared notes on the wide variety of questions they were asked - from the mundane to the specific.

"They wanted to find parking, as well as a cup of coffee," he says. "We met a lot of sweet people this way. I had nice chats with people - really gratifying interactions from those I had with new students that Kent State can really be proud of, to a guy who was relating to me the story of how he went to school with Dick Goddard, '60."

"I'm pleased that, not only did the launch of the academic year go so well, but that Justin Hilton introduced this welcoming initiative to our campuses and that it caught on so well, and lasted," says Lefton. "I hope that this initiative continues, yet it is only one way that everyone who comes to Kent State feels welcome here."

By Kimberley Sirk