LEWISTON — It didn’t take long for telethon volunteers to sense a theme.

New students at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College were concerned about textbooks. Affording them. Borrowing them. Getting them in time for classes that start this week.

And it didn’t take long for Dean Joyce Gibson to come up with a plan: The college library should keep some textbooks on reserve for students. It had been tried before, minimally, but after three calls in a row with students who spoke of their textbook woes, Gibson decided it was time to try it again.

“Even if we help just one student, it makes a difference,” she said between calls.

Alumni, faculty and students staffed a small bank of phones for two and a half hours Tuesday, calling to welcome new students on the first day of fall-semester classes and to talk with students who had taken classes but weren’t signed up for more courses.

USM leaders hope their Back to Class Telethon will help make a difference in the number of people who choose to enroll — and stay to finish their degrees.

“We want to make sure students coming here know this is a special community and we’re really here for them. It sounds cliche, but we really are,” Dan Philbrick, communications director, said.

Enrollment at USM has been declining in recent years and officials have been concerned about retention rates, which hover around 65 percent for first-time, full-time students at USM and 61.6 percent, including transfer students, at Lewiston-Auburn College. 

Though enrollment has slumped university-wide in recent years, it is up 4 percent this fall at Lewiston-Auburn College.

USM’s student success office and student advisers routinely call students to check in. This year, officials decided to make the effort more formal and more concentrated.

At USM’s Portland campus, 21 volunteers spent four hours making 585 calls, 357 to welcome new students and 228 to ask former students why they hadn’t come back. 

At Lewiston-Auburn College, half a dozen volunteers made 100 calls, 62 to new students and 38 to former students who hadn’t registered for new classes.

Marcel Gagne, a student and chairman of the L-A College Community Advisory Board, was one of the volunteers staffing the phones in Lewiston. He chatted with new students, bonding over shared hometowns and the challenge of navigating the school’s online portal. He answered questions about textbooks, forwarded students to their advisers, told them who to call if problems came up.

“This isn’t just something we’re checking off on the list,” he said. “If they go to a place that really cares about their outcome and their success, those are usually ingredients for success.”

Student issues became obvious as the calls went on. An online writing course had been scheduled, but it didn’t yet have a teacher and a number of students were concerned. Several students had ordered books from an online retailer or book discounter to save money, but the texts hadn’t arrived and students were worried about falling behind. The online portal was confusing to beginners and many new students weren’t sure how to use it.

Volunteers answered questions and flagged concerns. Some arrangements — such as Gibson’s plan to place textbooks in the library — were developed immediately.

Themes also became apparent among former students who hadn’t signed up for classes this semester. Many said they were too busy. Some said they were still struggling to make up work from past classes.

One student thought he had another two weeks to enroll, until Mary Anne Peabody, a faculty member and telethon volunteer, told him he actually had less than a week. He wasn’t sure he was in the right program, he said. He might want a new major. Now that he was thinking about it, could he talk with someone about that? 

Peabody offered to give him a phone number to call at his convenience or to transfer him to his adviser right away. He asked to be transferred.

“He said, ‘I think this is important enough. I plan on coming back,'” she said.

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