In #SAcdn, Articles

by Sarena Johnson

Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College, is one of the key players in the brilliant new College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC), a partnership between Mohawk and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. As a new student affairs professional (SApro) and Mohawk alumni myself, I was keen to hear about the amazing things Mohawk has been doing since I graduated.

During a phone chat with Tim I mentioned how thrilling it was to see bumble bees return to my backyard in Toronto after years of a seeming absence. This touched a chord as Tim had both personal and professional connections on that front. He giddily announced that he and his wife have recently purchased a home. The backyard was a major draw, as well as the location in Oakville, in between his work in Hamilton and her work at the University of Toronto. Mohawk College has also recently installed a bee pollinator near the Indigenous Gathering space. Further to that, Tim likened the CSSIC to a pollinator with aims to assist other colleges in their research.

The CSSIC has three main priorities: innovation, capacity building and knowledge sharing. The whole concept of a student success focused research centre is innovative in and of itself, but will act as an incubator for innovative ways of conceptualizing higher education. Capacity building is likened to pollination in that Mohawk and CSSIC have gathered funding and formulas for other colleges to do their own research – unique to their communities. Tim stated a key consideration for colleges is that they serve their communities first and foremost. Their programming and partnerships are specifically geared to the needs of their neighbouring industries and communities, including First Nations.

As a Mohawk alumni, I was already familiar with how closely Mohawk works with their neighbouring Indigenous community, Six Nations of the Grand River. The program I graduated from was highly populated with Six Nations students, and I know from personal experience that Mohawk has an excellent track record of supporting Indigenous students. Working towards the TRC calls to action, Mohawk has an Indigenous Community Education Council that guide their decision making. They’re sharing more Indigenous curriculum, have a solid relationship with a community Elder, and don’t make Indigenous related decisions without that input. As an Indigenous person, we say we’ve been “researched to death”, and the CSSIC seems to be planning every consideration to ensure that any research they perform is highly informed by community best practices, research protocols and reciprocity.

Having been a high school dropout and mature student myself, Mohawk could not have been more supportive in my transition into post secondary. While all Ontario Colleges have a mandate as access institutions to support the success of all students, Mohawk, and the CSSIC, have carved out a key interest in learning how best to support those students who may be most at-risk of leaving college early, such as Indigenous, mature and ‘first generation’ students (to post secondary education). Tim expressed the need to go beyond the dominant narrative of high school graduation immediately followed by college. So many students, especially Indigenous and other marginalized groups, have lived experience before they even consider post secondary. This centre will support mature students and work towards challenging that dominant narrative, because it can be a huge barrier to college enrolment, let alone success.

Another CSSIC key focus is proactive advising – catching any potential barriers to student success before it becomes too late. Aiming to maximize student retention and graduation, they will lead the charge in innovative student success methodologies at the earliest points in time. Mohawk has increased graduation rates by utilizing this strategy and are keen to explore it further and disseminate their findings for other schools. They are building evidence of best practices to create a culture of proactive advising.

Tim says Wayne Poirier, Vice-President, Student & Alumni Services, was the “visionary” of this series of projects. Dr. Ross Finnie from the Education Policy Research Initiative performed analytics and Tim operationalized the research and coordinated the proposal writing. Together they became experts on college student success. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) provided seed funding for over fourteen studies and seven predictive models. That research provided the foundation for the jaw dropping $1M in funding they have received with a further $650k confirmed to see the CSSIC come to fruition. (See graphic below for more info)

CSSIC is a true collaborative partnership, primarily between Mohawk College and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. It is a key differentiator for Mohawk in their new Strategic Mandate Agreement. The collaborations past and present extend broadly with researchers at HEQCO, McMaster University, the Hamilton-Wentworth and Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic School Boards, the Hamilton Community Foundation, Queen’s University, Waterloo University, University of Ottawa, Stanford University, Wake Forest University and Statistics Canada.

Most importantly, the primary project the Ministry is funding through the CSSIC, is an invitation to other colleges to partner in performing their own research. CSSIC will support research with 30k in funding, which a partnering college would be asked to match, and be given access to an Expert Advisory Council, a data and analytics partner, and all the resources necessary to complete the project. Mohawk would provide necessary training, ongoing support, and coordinate final data analysis. They would then facilitate the dissemination of the knowledge for the benefit of all colleges in Ontario – with findings that could stretch well beyond the scope of colleges or Ontario.

Tim says he loves that Student Affairs professionals are grounded and that they absolutely, 100% put students first. However, that doesn’t leave much capacity for research. In contrast to most SApros’ front line demands, these positions have been created with the capacity to do the research that’s so important to finding out how better to enable student success. Tim’s project has allowed for colleges to say yes – this is a priority and they want to invest in student success.

Tim says colleges are the backbones of the communities they serve – they create programs and partnerships based on community sectors. While Mohawk is the first Community College that changed their scope and mandates to reflect this bigger picture vision for student success research, Tim says they’re committed to remaining a college. “Over time student success research has become ‘our thing’, but we’re humble. We’re definitely a college that wants to remain a college – for the community we serve”.  Congratulations Tim and team, this is a fantastic development for #SAcdn

To find out more, contact Tim at or follow him on Twitter @timfricker


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