Building partnerships with families is crucial to support student success and they make excellent partners when engaged by an institution. As higher education professionals, we know that families need support at times. With this generation, college families often prefer the support of peers as opposed to institutional staff. At The University of Alabama (UA), Parent & Family Programs launched UA Family Affinity Groups in Summer 2020 to provide structure and connection within specific populations of our community of 50,000+ UA family members.
Launching Affinity Groups for Families
Parent & Family Programs is housed in the Division of Student Life with a mission to educate, engage, and guide parents and family members of UA undergraduate students with the goal of supporting successful student transition, retention, and persistence to graduation. Before launching our 3 pilot affinity groups (Black UA Families, Military Affiliated UA Families, and Solo Parent UA Families), we used our monthly newsletter to poll families for suggestions to identify the specific populations that could benefit from a support structure like an affinity group. We also looked at the affinity groups that existed through the Alumni Association and other groups on campus for faculty and staff. This helped us with naming our pilot (and future) groups and to create a structure so that the size would not present a barrier to establishing connections. Prior to launch, we sought feedback from our Parent Advisory Council (PAC) to gain their buy in and participation as we moved forward.
When we first launched the pilot affinity groups in Summer 2020, we invited only first-year families that summer and hosted virtual meet-ups for each affinity group. Those meet-ups included PAC members, relevant campus partners, Orientation Leaders who shared the corresponding identity with the affinity group, as well as Parent & Family Programs staff. The agenda was strictly introductions and time for Q & A. We encouraged attendees to share their contact information in the chat if they were interested in connecting with others beyond the meet-up. In Fall 2020, we marketed these pilot affinity groups to continuing families and hosted 2 virtual meet-ups in September (pre-Family Weekend) and in early November.
Since the launch of the pilot affinity groups, we have added more affinity groups along the way. We added Jewish UA Families, UA Families Supporting their LBGTQIA+ Student(s), and UA Families Supporting their First-Generation Student(s) in spring of 2021. With these three groups, it was critical to ensure the safety of the virtual meet-up space and the protection of students’ privacy as some of these groups were focused on the identity of the student as opposed to the family member themselves. We implemented screening surveys during the meet-up registration process and only distributed the virtual meet-up Zoom link via email to those who registered online. We added UA Families Supporting their Student(s) with Disabilities in summer of 2021 and Latinx UA Families and Asian-American/Pacific Islander UA Families in fall of 2021. We continue to host 2 virtual meet-ups per semester for each affinity group and have increased the engagement of PAC members in the creation of the meet-up agendas as well as the promotion of meet-ups. To date, agendas have included getting to know you activities, trivia, Q & A, focus groups, etc. Our goal is to eventually empower PAC members to facilitate the meet-ups but that will be a future step.
Lessons Learned and Next Steps
Along the way we have learned many lessons. We learned that while these are small groups, they are still meaningful for those families who choose to participate. We have had success in leveraging unofficial Facebook groups to market virtual meet-ups. Affinity group members have also joined the PAC, increasing the diversity of voices and sharing useful advice about what their student needs. One of our challenges we have faced is helping families understand the benefits of networking through affinity group participation. We continue to address this through new initiatives, communication, and opportunities for in-person interactions. In the future, we also hope to connect family member participating in affinity groups with others on campus to increase student support, retention, and ultimately success to graduation.
About the Author
Kimberly Sterritt is the Director of Parent & Family Programs at The University of Alabama where she leads family engagement initiatives and communication. She has served in this role since 2017. She has spent her entire 20-year career supporting students and their families throughout their college experience. Kim has previously held positions in UA Housing & Residential Communities, Georgia Tech Parent Programs, Florida State University’s School of Theatre, and Undergraduate Admissions at The Ohio State University