Profile: Chris Atkins

One student wanted to go to Puerto Rico to sharpen her language skills in Spanish; another was headed to the University of California at Monterey Bay to see if she really wanted a career as a marine biologist. Both were thrilled to learn that they could explore their options as Marshall students while living and taking classes on distant U.S. campuses.

Chris Atkins, academic counselor and coordinator of the National Student Exchange program, is eager to get word out about this program and its benefits and, he says, its surprising affordability. “NSE is a kind of domestic study-away program, much like study abroad except it takes place within the U.S. and its territories, plus a few schools in Canada that participate,” he explains. “NSE is a consortium of schools that pay a membership fee in order to give opportunities to students to participate. Students can go to other member institutions for up to two semesters or for just one if they choose.”

And they go for a variety of reasons. Some, like the student who went to California, want to ensure they’re on the right career path; some want to explore other parts of the country for potential careers; some want to scope out graduate opportunities before they make a commitment;, others want to expand personal growth and horizons; and some are just looking for a change of scenery and maybe some adventure. But whatever the reasons, Atkins is determined to make it happen and as economically as possible.

“The biggest perk of NSE, the very best part, is that it allows us to enroll participants as Marshall students and that means that their tuition and fees are paid as MU students paying in-state tuition. We can also continue financial aid and students who have scholarships, such as PROMISE, or [who are] recipients of grants such as Pell or West Virginia Higher Education, can continue to apply them. There’s actually very little difference in what a student would pay to attend Marshall and say, Cal Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo, where we had a student last semester,” Atkins says. “Students can fan out across the county and attend schools that are NSE members at virtually the same cost they would be paying here. Room and board is cheaper at some institutions and more expensive at others, but usually it’s relatively close. People think going to out-of-state institutions is costly, but with this program it isn’t. It’s actually very affordable. The one big difference would be travel costs.”

The qualifications for a study exchange are relatively simple: students must have a 2.5 grade point average and be in good financial and social standing with the university. Study can be in any discipline and Atkins admits some academic areas are easier to study in than others. As the coordinator he’s diligent about making sure credits from the host institutions will transfer to Marshall. “We’re very strict in that regard prior to students leaving on an exchange,” he says.  “The last thing we want would be for a student to get behind because of this opportunity. We send out an average of 12-15 students a year but this is such a great program, I’d like to get that number a lot higher.”

And just as MU students spread their academic wings throughout the country, the university also plays hosts to others who want to come to West Virginia. “We have exchange students from all over,” Adkins says. “This semester we have two: a student from SUNY at Buffalo, N.Y., and another from the University of Quebec at Montreal in Canada. Last semester we had one from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and recently a student was here from Puerto Rico. They come from all parts of the U.S. and it’s an enriching experience, not only for the exchange students but for our students as well.”

Students are “placed” at NSE’s annual national convention, which took place the first week in March in Orlando, Fla. “We spend several days swapping students, trying to get them in the institutions they’ve chosen. There’s a lot of excitement. Marshall has an open policy, meaning we’ll accept all the qualified students who want to come; we don’t cap the number. Other schools for various reasons are known as ‘even ’ institutions because they have some constraints and will only accept the number of students they exchange. I always ask our students to list their top five institutions and I do everything I can to get them placed at their choices but I can’t guarantee anything. So far I’ve been successful in placing them at their selections. Overall NSE has an excellent placement rate. For example, at the 2012 convention which was held in Anchorage , Alaska, there was an 86% placement rate nationally. We placed more than 2800 students through 200 schools.”

Each participating institution has a designated NSE coordinator and Atkins always advises students to seek out their host coordinator. They are fonts of information and can be of immeasurable help in getting students acclimated on their new campus, he says.

The NSE program actually started in the Honors College but switched to University College, where Atkins is an academic counselor, a few years ago, he says. A two-time Marshall graduate with a B.A. and M.A. in journalism, he worked for several years as a photographer and producer for WSAZ in Huntington in their news division. It was fun and exciting, but the irregular and often very long hours, many of them in the middle of the night, grew wearying and with his marriage, he decided a career change was in order. “It was a fantastic job, I really loved it, but I had to work a lot of evenings and nights and you never knew what you’d be called on to cover. I made a bargain with my wife, Allie, that if I was going on an assignment that could be considered dangerous, I’d let her know ahead of time. She didn’t want to learn about a bad situation from watching TV. And one of the very last stories I covered before I left was a pipe bomb incident in the middle of the night where the whole bomb squad was called out. I knew right then I’d made the right decision to go to an 8-5 job!”

His new job was actually at Marshall, working a front counter for the Financial Aid office. After a few months he left to take on the dual role as academic counselor and NSE coordinator. Today he also does video work for the athletic department, doing video screens for both basketball and football. “It allows me to keep my hand in journalism and also to keep up with the gear,” he says. He also teaches an introduction to video production class for the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

His role as academic counselor finds him working with the conditionally admitted students who make up University College. “These are students whose test scores and high school GPAs do not meet Marshall’s admission criteria. Many don’t know what to expect from college; they don’t understand that there are rules and consequences if you don’t follow them. There are many who struggle. We have them as advisees for a maximum of three semesters to get them to the point where they can become fully admitted students. There are three of us advisors, Trish Gallagher and Amber Bentley, plus our director, Sherri Stepp. They’re all fantastic, and we all have different personalities and styles, which actually works out well, because we have students with all kinds of different personalities as well. What will work with one doesn’t necessarily work with another. I’m known as ‘the warden,’ Atkins says laughing, “because I enforce a kind of tough love. I tell my advisees I expect a lot from them and they can expect the same from me, so yes, I can be tough . But the goal for all of us is to see the students move on and prosper.”

Right now Chris and Allie are excitedly awaiting the upcoming birth of their first child later this spring. They’re very family oriented, with lots of visits to her family on their large farm in Gilmer County and to his family in Spencer in Roane County, where he grew up. It’s a good life these days, opening horizons for students by offering them a chance to temporarily dip into other academic pools, maybe far from home and comfort zones. And best of all, no more middle-of-the-night bomb squad calls!