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Everyone needs a person. Someone who mentors, scolds, encourages, influences, challenges, impacts. Starr Wentzel gladly serves as that person for dozens of first-generation college students at Eastern Kentucky University. 

Wentzel, director of EKU’s first-year courses and learning communities, recently was named Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience. Only 10 educators across the country are recognized each year.

“My reaction to learning I had received the First-Year Student Advocate was shock and excitement,” she said.

A fierce advocate for the first-generation student, Wentzel works daily to ensure that no student is left behind. She develops, coordinates, staffs and evaluates the university’s multiple student success seminars, designed specifically for the more than 2,500+ first-year students who arrive at EKU each fall semester. The courses are assisted by a group of first-year leaders, students she trains to provide guidance and support to students throughout the semester.

In addition to her efforts on behalf of the first-year courses, she works closely with academic advisors, financial aid counselors, residence hall personnel and other teams across campus to solve myriad problems for students. 

This persistent dedication leads to a culture that prioritizes retention and student success.

“I work with so many amazing staff and faculty members who share my desire to constantly make improvements for our ever-changing student population,” Wentzel said. “I have so much to be thankful for in this job.” 

Her goal is to help students have the best experience possible while at EKU. She knows not every student will respond to her efforts but she enjoys hearing the positive impact she is making. A student sent her such a note this past spring. 

“I am glad our paths crossed. Even though it was only virtually, it had a significant impact on me and my life,” the student wrote to Wentzel. “Keep fighting the good fight because there are people like me out there that really need people like you.” 

Colleagues noted the personal attention she provides to students also leads to retention and student success. 

A young woman a few semesters removed from Wentzel’s introductory course preparing for leadership roles on campus found herself back in Wentzel’s office for advice. Wentzel spent weeks helping prepare her mentally by rehearsing talking points and practicing interview skills as well as physically by finding her business professional clothing. With the additional knowledge and practice, the young woman found the success she was working toward.

“It is a real honor for the University and a testament to Starr’s leadership that this recognition has come her way,” said Gill Hunter, assistant vice president for retention and graduation. “The specificity of the award matters — Starr exemplifies First Year Student Advocate. It’s a role she relishes, advocating for students while teaching them to navigate college and develop the resilience to advocate for themselves.”

“Working with first-year students is my passion. I want every student to feel they have a place and are welcome,” Wentzel said. “Having the opportunity to help make that happen makes my heart smile.”