August 14, 2020 | By Chuck Carlson
The doors to the Sarah S. and Alexander M. Cutler Center for Student Success and Academic Achievement are opening for the first time this fall.
And with that, even more important, a new door opens for Albion College students in their pursuit of a quality, lasting, indelible liberal arts undergraduate experience.
“If students commit to Albion College, we commit to them,” said Dr. Shannon O’Neill, associate dean for student success and the Cutler Center’s director. “Student success is about belonging, and the opportunity for impact is huge. We have the opportunity to make that institutional impact not only now but for the future, and that’s very exciting.”
Open and accessible to all students, the Center is described by Dr. O’Neill as a “one-stop shop where students can get a wide variety of their needs met.”
“We know that successful students use resources,” she continued. “We offer resources that we know support academic excellence and achievement, and they are accessible to all students.”
Vitally, the Center, which will be housed in Stockwell-Mudd Library, will be a place where students in need of academic assistance can come without fear of being judged.
“It’s about having support in one place,” Dr. O’Neill said. “The Center is centrally located and easily accessible. We know what works. Co-located and integrated student services is a best practice in higher education.”
Some of the services students will now find under the Cutler umbrella include the Writing Center; the Quantitative Skills Center; test preparation; accessibility services; learning skills; peer mentoring programs; financial advising and advising for fellowship opportunities.
The Center will also offer drop-in hours and online chat opportunities.
“Students should be able to access the Center almost any time. We can provide services where students already are,” Dr. O’Neill said, adding for a visual, “If we walk into the Center in the morning and see remnants of their late-night study groups, we know we’ve created a space where students feel like they belong.”
The Cutler Center has been made possible by an $8 million gift from Sally Cutler, ’75, and her husband, Sandy. It is the largest single gift in school history and its impact figures to be wide-ranging and transformative.
“What an amazing and game-changing gift,” said Dr. O’Neill. “The Cutlers wanted to support student success and had a vision. They know how impactful student success is, not just to individual students but to families and communities. That vision is really inspiring.”
Sally Cutler recently spoke with Dr. O’Neill and came away convinced that she was the ideal person to lead the Center, especially in its launch and as it begins to resonate with students across campus.
“I was very impressed with how well thought out her plans for the Center are,” Cutler said. “Locating the Center in a place ‘where students already hang out in the library’ and combining its services with other supportive offerings in order to reduce the stigma of receiving extra help is, I think, inspired.”
Dr. O’Neill—who comes to Albion with her partner, Dr. Mathew Johnson, the College’s 17th president—saw her interest in educational access and opportunity take root as an undergraduate at St. Catherine University in her native Minnesota. Yet she learned at the women’s college how access to opportunity was not enough.
“Sometimes we all need someone to reach out to us and offer to help us take advantage of that opportunity,” she said. “That assistance might involve removing a barrier or offering us a chance to develop skills we did not know we had.”
Dr. O’Neill would continue her work on gender equality and student engagement as a professor and academic administrator at Siena College and Brown University before coming to Albion.
“I think there’s great work to be done at Albion,” she said. “This is a chance to have an integrated approach to student success.”
It begins, Dr. O’Neill says, simply with an awareness that the Cutler Center exists and is there for any and all students to use. Her hope is that the Center becomes an invaluable part of their experience and that it’s the place to go outside the classroom and residence hall.
From a broader perspective, she hopes the Cutler Center will provide the opportunity for every student to fully engage in the academic experience at Albion.
“When you walk into that space, it’s clear to you that students from all different backgrounds are hanging around and collaborating at the Cutler Center,” Dr. O’Neill said. “If they’re encountering trouble, a peer will say, ‘Go to the Cutler Center.’ Or a faculty member says, ‘If you’re thinking of a Fulbright Scholarship, go to the Cutler Center.’ I want students to know what’s available as soon as they go there.”