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'Herkybot' virtual assistant helps Sac State students stay on track to graduation

As part of an effort to better align Sac State with the CSU's enrollment goals, Herkybot, the University's new virtual assistant, can help students via text message or computer, sending reminders about registration deadlines and keeping them on track to graduation. (Sacramento State/Christian Navarro)

Sacramento State students who have missed key deadlines to register for classes now receive a text reminder from a tiny, helpful hornet.

“We noticed you missed your registration deadline,” Herkybot might say. “Here are some instructions to help you get back on track.”

The virtual assistant is the University’s latest tool to keep students on track to earn their degrees, and recently got an upgrade to make it more conversational.

“Mental health issues have taken a toll on our students. We want to work with them to help get them to a better place.” -- Steven Salcido, associate vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Services

Ling Luc, a senior marketing and communication analyst with the Student Engagement Center, said the tool is a friendlier approach to connecting with students. Instead of a lengthy email or a phone message, they receive a cheery “Hi!” followed by a short question or prompt.

“We wanted to give it humanistic qualities, even though it’s robotic,” said Luc. “It’s not intimidating. Some students will never come into our office or call us, for whatever reason. But they will respond to Herkybot.”

Amidst a national trend of declining college enrollment, Sac State saw a slight drop in registered students this spring. Its overall head count was 29,975, with 24,560 full-time equivalents.

Those numbers are slightly under the CSU’s goal for Sac State but represent less than a 1% drop from last year. The decline mostly reflects students who dropped out during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and never returned, administrators said.

“We don’t like being where we are, but the fact that we are down less than 1% is encouraging,” said Steven Salcido, associate vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Services.

“Although we slipped slightly in our head count, students are taking more courses and are set to graduate on time,” he said. “We’re seeing our freshman and sophomore students persist.”

Salcido said Sac State “rallied as a university” to enroll students this spring. “It was all hands on deck. It made a difference, and we expect to see growth next year.”

A Sac State staff member shows how Herkybot text messages work.
Herkybot can periodically send text messages to students to check in on the progress of their educational goals or to send them reminders about key deadlines. (Sacramento State/Christian Navarro)

Herkybot is the latest part of the University’s wide-ranging enrollment and retention efforts, which

have also included regular text messages, emails and phone calls to students in danger of missing deadlines.

In some cases, students simply need a reminder to complete required documentation and filing. Other issues are more complicated, with many students struggling with financial issues, anxiety, or family problems. In these cases, the University offers referrals to campus programs, including Student Health and Counseling, that can help them overcome obstacles.

“Mental health issues have taken a toll on our students,” said Salcido. “We want to work with them to help get them to a better place.”

Herkybot might text a sad face emoji and a “How can I help?” to students who are struggling, sparking a text conversation that could lead to a referral or a phone consultation.

Students can opt out of the chatbot, but fewer than 3% have chosen to do so, administrators said.

Initially, some students were skeptical of the approach, said student service advisor Tyler McCoy, who helped develop Herkybot. “But over time people like it. Some miss it when they haven’t seen it for a while.”

In one recent exchange, the bot contacted a student who had fallen behind in the registration process.

“Herkybot here. Just checking on how things are going this semester.”

The student responded: “I’m working on a family life problem.”

“I appreciate your honesty,” Herkybot replied, offering a list of resources. “Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.”

“Thanks for caring,” the student replied.

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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