Retaining new students

Retaining new students

As New Student Outreach winds down this fall, you’ll find that not all the people you have contacted keep coming to chapter events. Some people will join other Christian groups; others will not even be ready to commit themselves to following Christ. Here are some ideas on retaining the new students who showed up at your NSO activities.

Follow up promptly. During the first weeks of school, InterVarsity staff, student leaders and other members should divvy up contacts for follow up, so that new students can interact with a variety of people from InterVarsity.

Don’t assign just one or two people to do all the contacting. If you rely on only one or two people to follow up, some newcomers who don’t click with them may never have a chance to meet others in InterVarsity whom they can relate to.

Take a special fall retreat. Where I work with staff and students at the University of Illinois, we hold a chapter retreat especially for newcomers after the first month of school. Held Friday night and Saturday, it helps us identify and get to know key freshmen who show by their attendance that they are looking for a committed group of Christians.

Host a freshmen banquet or a series of “frosh nights.” These events bring freshmen together and meet some of their needs in the process. By eating together at a banquet and taking time to share about themselves, freshmen get to know one another and feel a part of the larger InterVarsity group.

Frosh nights can be a series of dinners (held on Sunday nights or whenever meals are not served in the cafeteria) centered around different discussion topics of special interest to freshmen. At such events, be careful to avoid talking down to people. Even freshmen who are looking for help don’t want to be treated like children.

Re-contact people. At the end of the first term or the beginning of the second, re-contact people who showed initial interest in InterVarsity but did not join. Some students are simply not ready to get involved until after their first semester. (Some of our best leaders did not attend InterVarsity during their first semester at school.)

Send out an updated welcome letter (printed or by email) with current information about the chapter’s activities, drop them a personal e-mail message, and divide up names and phone numbers to set up appointments to get reacquainted with new students and ask how the year is going for them.

Don’t forget that a quick text message reminder sent to several people just prior to the next event might make a real difference as well.

Prepare small groups well. Plan now to get enough small-group leaders in place for next spring. Your ability to retain new students is tied to the number and the quality of your small-group leaders—the shepherds who will have the most impact on freshmen lives.

At Illinois we can nearly always estimate the total number of students who will become involved in InterVarsity by multiplying the number of small groups we have set up by seven. If we plan for 50 small groups, we will involve around 350 students.

Getting these small-group leaders in place requires action not only in the spring, but also now, in the fall. Although recruitment (identifying, searching and assessing potential leaders’ abilities, then training them at camp) should happen in the spring, you should now be considering how you can increase the number of future small-group leaders who will become available next fall.

One of the best ways you can do this is not to burn out the leaders you already have. The best small-group leaders are those returning with experience — and a positive experience from the past year; if the current leaders feel a lot of frustration and too little support this year, they may not want to try it again next fall. Support each small-group leader with a co-leader as well as an assigned “support” InterVarsity member.

Make strategic housing decisions. Toward the end of the fall term, your chapter members should discuss housing decisions for next year. Will leaders and influencers be located strategically so that they can maximize their ministry with freshmen and newcomers?

If you discover that the core of the InterVarsity chapter is moving into apartments even though most new people live in the residence halls, you will be diminishing your ability to reach and to retain new people. Challenge chapter members to consider remaining in the dorms. Visitors stick around when the Christian community around them is full of love, full of truth and easily accessible.

—John Roeckeman

Want to plan better for next time? Check out Evaluating New Student Outreach.