Butler has long been known for its first-year experience, earning a spot in the national ranks. But by hiring Nii Kpakpo Abrahams in 2022 as the inaugural Director of the First-Year Experience, the University is placing even more focus on ensuring new Bulldogs feel connected.
“We have a moral imperative to deliver on the promises that are made to admitted students,” Abrahams says. “We say all these things about the University during recruitment, but there was previously no single person making sure all those things happened. Everyone was kind of doing it. That’s why my role was created—to bring faculty and staff together in creating a smooth pathway for first-year students.”
Starting in 2021, Butler partnered with the Gardner Institute for a year-long study aimed to investigate all aspects of the first-year and transfer college experience. The intent of the study was to improve student learning and persistence and increase student retention. Abrahams was hired as one of about 50 action items resulting from the study.
“A lot of our work is centered on making sure there are no gaps in the process,” Abrahams says of the program now known as ButlerONE. “My goal behind ButlerONE is that it’s a complete pathway from the time a student deposits to the time we celebrate the end of their first year.”
Abrahams began his career in communication, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Missouri State University. He held several roles in the field before moving to Fishers, Indiana, in 2016 to found a church with some friends.
Splitting his time with the church, he began teaching adjunct courses at Ivy Tech while freelancing for a branding agency, then joined the admission team at Anderson
University in 2019. He eventually wanted the chance to support students more long term. He found that in a position as Anderson’s Director of Orientation and First Year Experience, holding that role for about a year before Butler invited him to apply.
“Butler is one of those schools that when they call, you answer,” he says.
Now, Abrahams aims to help students find a sense of belonging.
“I frame this as ‘to belong and to become,’” he says. “That they are developing into the person they want to be, but also that they are finding a community, both academically and socially.”
Those communities begin forming after students arrive on campus, with an orientation led by Meg Haggerty ’04, Director of New Student and Family Programs, and Josiah Hatfield, Assistant Director of New Student and Family Programs. The four-day event is focused on social engagement and supported by returning student mentors.
Students then join a First-Year Seminar course, which lasts two semesters and goes beyond teaching basic study skills, instead demonstrating all aspects of college-level academics.
“The First-Year Seminar is taught by passion-led faculty who teach about things that are exciting to them,” Abrahams explains. “We see all sorts of really cool and relevant topics. Through that, new students are introduced to the college classroom: They learn how to have civil discourse, how to write, and how to engage.”
While Orientation, First-Year Seminar, and other impactful Student Affairs programming have been key parts of Butler for years, Abrahams is working to coordinate all those pieces together into a more cohesive, holistic experience.
So far, that has included changes like streamlining Orientation and communicating more throughout the year to provide the right information at the right time. Abrahams’ team also created a podcast called “The Struggle is Real,” which interviews Butler faculty, staff, and returning students about their own first years at college.
“We want to normalize that there is a struggle in your first year, and that’s okay,” Abrahams says. “That’s part of the process, and it’s how we build resilience.” To help ease some of that struggle, the team is empowering those who support new students every day. Faculty now have access to more specialized professional development opportunities, including a new grant-funded fellowship based on the themes of vocation, meaning, and uncertainty. Members of these cohorts will learn strategies for working with first-year students in an uncertain world.
“Our incoming students are part of a generation that’s feeling the weight of anxiety and hopelessness, especially with existential crises like climate change and systemic racism,” Abrahams says. “Our hope is that we can help them know their mess is welcome.”
Abrahams is also developing more routes for first-years to receive mentorship from fellow students. The team is currently exploring a peer mentorship program that leverages the already established First-Year Seminar groups, with the vision that every incoming Bulldog has at least one consistent student mentor to lean on.
“We want our first-year students to know they don’t need to have it all figured out,” Abrahams says. “Our job is to mentor, challenge, and celebrate them along the way.”