Ignite: From Peer-to-Peer Connection to Community Engagement

Part A: The QEP Topic and Institutional Planning


The UNC Asheville Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) is titled Ignite: Finding Your Spark.

Students participating in Ignite will build skills and confidence to be successful in college and will also be able to build meaningful connections to the community on and off campus. Ignite will accomplish this by engaging incoming first year students in a structured peer-led cohort experience in which the Peer Advising Leaders (PALs) facilitate structured conversations every week during the fall semester around topics such as interpersonal skill development, growth mindset, intercultural dialogue, and other topics.


This project is aligned with UNCA’s core values of diversity and inclusion, innovation, and sustainability as well as with key strategic priorities from the institution’s revitalization plan, specifically to evolve and innovate institutional culture and student support. 


The project grew out of broad-based campus concern about alarming declines in first-to-second year student retention at UNC Asheville. Prior to 2016, the first-time, full-time first-to-second year retention rate ranged from 78-82%. But beginning with the Fall 2016 cohort, first-year student retention slipped to 75-76%, then 72.5% for the Fall 2020 cohort. Preliminary data indicates that retention of the Fall 2021 cohort into Fall 2022 may fall further to 69%. This data compares unfavorably with our public-institution peers, who have seen a less marked decrease over this same period from 82% to 80%. 


Simultaneous to this growing concern, data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) surveys administered in the 2018-2019 academic year and subsequent data conversations illuminated the fact that UNC Asheville students struggle making connections across campus and don’t seem to be as engaged as their peers at other institutions. In response, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness developed an internal Continuing Student Survey (CSS) on retention-related issues. The fall 2020 administration of that survey revealed a large disparity on Sense of Belonging questions between students who persisted at UNC Asheville and those who did not. Students who exited during or at the end of the surveyed semester were significantly less likely to report a sense of belonging at UNC Asheville. In all six Sense of Belonging measures on CSS, exited students rated themselves significantly lower than re-enrolled students did. See Table 1 for the questions included in the sense of belonging measure as well as the percent of positive responses for these questions (strongly agree and agree). 

Table 1: Students Reporting Positively on Sense of Belonging Questions (CSS, 2020)
 % Positive
I have at least one close friend at UNCA with whom I can talk about important things57.7%78.8%
I have at least one faculty or staff member with whom I can talk about important things53.9%69.7%
I feel like I belong at UNCA38.5%77.8%
I think of myself as a member of the campus community26.9%63.9%
I feel integrated, socially, into campus life3.8%51.9%
I feel like I matter at UNCA42.3%70.9%


Further, a 2021 study of sense of belonging among students who persisted and those who did not also found large differences. Every sense of belonging statement proved to have a statistically significant impact on whether a student persisted at UNC Asheville. Other persistence factors included: positive faculty interactions, a student’s self-perception of their academic and leadership abilities, a student having a good relationship with their academic advisor, and taking a course taught by their advisor. 

Part B: Focus of the QEP on Student Success

IGNITE will have two different anchor points for each semester of the first year. In the Fall semester, the core element of the QEP project will be the IGNITE program, which guides first year students through a series of sessions focused on helping them “find their spark” and ignite their passion for UNC Asheville and their own growth and development. The IGNITE sessions connect to each First Year Seminar course and introduce students to concepts of leadership development and self-discovery through structured peer-facilitated discussions on topics related to value clarification, relationship building, intellectual curiosity, career exploration, empathy and perspective-taking, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and social responsibility. First year students are commonly searching for guidance and direction. Providing them the opportunity to work with a veteran peer on issues such as development of interpersonal skills will improve their self-efficacy and lead to successful academic outcomes. 


In the spring semester, FY students and their assigned PAL will move from the curricularly anchored engagement space of classroom meetings to the experiential learning space of community engagement. In collaboration with UNCA’s Key Center, FY students and their PAL will engage with one of our community partners in a semester-long project that will include regular on-site engagement as well as systematic reflections about the students’ off-campus experiences.


Centering peer-to-peer connections and community engagement in our QEP addresses not only the desire for a stronger sense of community expressed by stakeholders across campus, but based on the literature on student success, will also allow us to increase students’ sense of belonging as well their competence and confidence in navigating their journey at UNCA. Additionally, in increasing our intentional support for peer-to-peer relationships, we will significantly increase and strengthen the rich relationships across campus without dramatically increasing workload on a pandemic-strained faculty and staff. And finally, engaging upper-level students in this paid work increases our capacity to offer on-campus employment which literature also shows to have positive outcomes for students.


UNC Asheville has developed a 5-year plan for implementation and assessment, with a pilot of the IGNITE program scheduled for Fall 2022 (Year Zero). In addition to measuring fall-to-fall retention and academic standing at the end of the fall and spring semesters of their first year, our assessment will focus on measures of belonging that are already included in UNC Asheville’s Continuing Student Survey and those from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Given the 5-year framework, we will be able to track the first two cohorts over their entire time at UNCA and also assess the impact on the PALs. 


Throughout the Fall semester, Peer Advising Leaders (PALs) provide peer mentorship and education to welcome first-year students to campus and help them “find their spark” and ignite their passion for UNC Asheville. PALs create a transformational experience for new students and facilitate community-building and belonging for the entire campus community. PALs develop leadership competencies related to communication, planning, teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking, equity, consulting, and interpersonal skills. 

The PAL position supports two main programs: 1) August EmBark Orientation, and 2) the IGNITE Program.

August EmBark Orientation 

  • PALs play a critical role in introducing incoming first-year and transfer students to UNC Asheville and sharing their experiences as successful UNC Asheville students. They participate in leadership training in order to learn everything there is to know about campus and all the great ways to help you get ready to become a Bulldog!
  • During August EmBark, the Blue Crew assists our incoming students in becoming the newest members of the UNC Asheville community, excited and prepared to come to UNC Asheville. The Blue Crew diligently works to ensure that our new students have a positive orientation experience.

IGNITE Program 

  • PALs are trained to support incoming first-year students as they navigate the transition to UNC Asheville student life and learning. Each PAL leads a cohort of approximately 18 new students who also share a class through the First-Year Seminar program.
  • IGNITE cohorts will meet six times throughout the Fall 2022 semester (about every other week) on either Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday evening outside of their normal first-year seminar class time. PALs will be assigned a cohort based on their availability and will be responsible for community-building and facilitating the established curriculum and lesson plans. Topics will include values clarification, identity development, perspective-taking, diversity, equity, and inclusion, communication, and conflict management.