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A stepping stone to student success

Leadership Safari improves student persistence and retention


​​​​​With more than 24,000 participants in 20 years, Central Michigan University's Leadership Safari has evolved into an integral experience for incoming students. The five-day post-orientation program — which begins Saturday, Aug. 20 — also improves student persistence and retention, according to a longitudinal study.

"Students who participate in new-student leadership programs, such as Leadership Safari, are significantly more likely to persist toward degree completion than those students who do not participate," Leadership Safari Director Dani Hiar said. "It levels the playing field — which many university programs don't do."

Hiar conducted research on the effect of first-generation status and participation in a new student leadership program, specifically examining the persistence and retention, for her doctoral dissertation.


Leadership Safari is an optional program for CMU freshman and transfer students. The program gives students the tools and connections they need to be academically successful and demonstrates how involvement in campus helps develop leadership abilities. It also serves as an interactive introduction to CMU — from traditions to connections to faculty and staff.

“Comprised of a mix of orientation activities and leadership development, this hybrid early integration/extended-orientation program brings students to campus prior to the start of the fall semester as an opportunity for building connections and constructing a resource network early in each of the student’s college careers,” Hiar said.

Each student is assigned to a small group of approximately 10 students called a Safari team. A Safari guide — a student leader — facilitates each team.

Throughout the conference, participants engage in discussions and activities centered on a wide array of topics ranging from leadership to being an active community member. Leadership Safari also hosts a showcase of nationally renowned speakers.

​​"Retention is an institutionally cultivated characteristic, defined in terms of whether or not a student was successfully retained at a specific college or university," Hiar said. "Persistence, on the other hand, is generally considered a student-centered phenomenon, determined and defined by each student's set of circumstances and experiences."

Hiar said first generation college students often face additional barriers to success and, typically, incoming first-generation students with lower GPAs from low-income households have a lower chance of finishing their degrees.

"The results of this study indicate that while first-generation students were generally less likely to persist at the same rate of continuing generation college students, all students who participated in the new student leadership program were significantly more likely to persist toward degree completion than those students who did not participate," Hiar said.

Cultivating community

Student does trust fall with Safari team
Several programs on campus — such as Leadership Advancement Scholars, Multicultural Advancement and Lloyd M. Cofer Scholars, IMPACT, and even athletics — see the value of Leadership Safari. Some require it.

Last year, the new women's lacrosse team debuted and Head Coach Sara Tisdale required all 27 incoming players to register for Leadership Safari. Tisdale, a 2006 CMU graduate, participated in the program when she first came to CMU.

"It gave me the opportunity to open up and really spread my wings," Tisdale said. "I knew how valuable that would be for such a young program."

Tisdale wanted her team to to participate in Leadership Safari to help them develop friendships and connections beyond their fellow players. With players coming from 14 states and Canada, Leadership Safari provided an extra layer of support to help their transition into college go more smoothly, Tisdale said.

"I'm really big on team chemistry and culture, and Leadership Safari aligned with those values that we have within our program," Tisdale said.



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