Always Communicate a Message of Positivity

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By Gary A. Enos, Contributing Editor
Enrollment Management Report / October 2021
©️ 2021 Wiley Periodicals, LLC DOI: 10.1002/emt

Optimism in the face of the challenges a small private liberal arts institution can encounter characterizes the leadership at Emory & Henry College, located in the highlands of southwest Virginia. Jennifer Pearce, Vice President for Enrollment and External Affairs, considers the can-do attitude a cornerstone of her leadership style, mirroring the approach she has seen from the college’s president, John W. Wells.

“He has said, ‘We will be a school of vitality,’” said Pearce, who was hired at Emory & Henry in late 2017, two years before Wells’ arrival. “We want to be relevant.”

Advances in academics, athletics, and student support all have contributed to elevating Emory & Henry’s profile under Wells. As of early August, the college was preparing to welcome the largest incoming class in its 185-year history, with 392 first-year students committed for the fall semester (a 63% increase from the fall of 2020). Pearce, who has a strong communications background, credits the success in part to the synergy between marketing and strategic planning at the college. The messages heard from students are applied directly to the school’s ongoing improvement efforts, she said.

Benefits of virtual communication

Pearce said the college recently has maximized opportunities to connect with prospective students virtually. Zoom sessions with directors of academic departments have allowed for a closer connection than what can be achieved in a large in-person open-house setting. She believes this has helped increase out-of-state enrollment, and a hybrid of virtual and in-person open houses is contemplated going forward.

The college also responded to a decline in financial aid filing by offering a virtual “FAFSA 101” training to lessen confusion for families. This resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of students filing financial aid applications.

“Our taking the time to do this meant a lot to a lot of families,” Pearce said. Around one-third of Emory & Henry’s incoming students are first-generation college students.

The college also has been aggressive in adding what it calls “world-of-work friendly” academic programs to its offerings. Some of the newest disciplines are engineering science, clinical mental health counseling, and equine-assisted therapy, and the college has a new School of Business and School of Nursing. Clinical mental health counseling is housed on the college’s Health Sciences campus, which has prioritized filling a need for health professionals in the surrounding low-income and underserved communities of southwest Virginia.

The college’s move up to Division II status for athletics also is driving enrollment increases, Pearce said. Emory & Henry has received provisional status in Division II from the NCAA for the next three years.

Leveraging communications

Prior to joining Emory & Henry, Pearce worked at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio for 12 years, where she managed a 13-person marketing and communications team. Otterbein is her alma mater, where she graduated with double majors in public relations and speech communications and a minor in business. She has also overseen marketing and public relations activity for medical and retail businesses.

At Emory & Henry, she has sought to elevate the communications presence. In leading her department, she sees her role to be motivating staff with an optimistic outlook. She considers it highly advantageous to have marketing/ communications and admissions housed together in Enrollment Management and External Affairs. “I like the synergy between marketing/communications and admissions,” she said. “We meet weekly.”

Her approach is clearly in step with that of the college’s president, who often talks of moving aggressively to expand the liberal arts curriculum. “We have competition like any other business,” she said, adding, “We don’t want to be the one to fold or collapse.”

Maintaining these gains requires a commitment to student success, and the college is seeking to ensure that by providing students with a team of advisers. Its Student Success Center offers students a “success coach” whose focus goes beyond academics to evaluate the student’s sense of belonging on campus, Pearce said. The idea is to identify potential problems early on before they become the kind of crisis that can result in withdrawal.

“A lot of other places rely too heavily on looking at the data, and by then it might be too late,” Pearce said. “We hate to see someone walk away because of something that may have been relatively minor.”

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