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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 August 22 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Orientation All Term Long

SPECIAL REPORT: ACADEMIC KICKOFF, 2011-12

Orientation All Term Long

First Year Experience Programs
Guide Students on Path to Success

By Paul Bradley

Photo courtesy Northern Virginia Community College

The annual convocation at Northern Virginia Community College welcomes students to a scholarly community and smooths the transition to college.

It was the fall of 2008 and Kaity Delfin, having graduated from high school a few weeks earlier, was fretting about the upcoming semester at Glendale Community College when her cell phone rang. She peered at a number she didn’t recognize and hesitated. Should she answer or let it go to voice mail? She made a quick decision, punched the answer button and said hello.

Three years later, the 20-year-old Delfin is glad she did.

At the other end of the line that day was Susan High, a GCC faculty member and counselor, inviting Delfin to join a First Year Experience cohort — a central effort by GCC to orient new students to college, create a sense of community and set them on a path to success.

“She personally called me,” Delfin said. “The fact that she reached out to me was amazing. I really don’t think I would have been as successful in college without the First Year Experience.”

Delfin, a nursing student, earned her associate degree last spring with a 3.2 GPA. She is taking a couple of additional courses this fall and then plans to attend Northern Arizona University to work toward her bachelor’s degree. She hopes eventually to become a nurse-midwife. Her’s has been a rewarding community college experience.

As the 2011-12 academic year gets underway, community colleges around the country are devising and burnishing programs to welcome students to campus. It’s part of a growing effort to create a culture of academic success during that critical first year in college, and they are beginning to show some results in increasing academic performance and student retention.

For students like Delfin, it has become a critical part of their college careers. She had, in fact, unsuccessfully tried to sign up for a different cohort, with some high school friends, but had been put on a wait list. That only increased her anxiety as she prepared to start her college career. Then High called.

“A lot of students are intimidated by college,” she said. “You don’t know anyone on campus. You don’t know what classes you should be taking. I was scared to death going to college.”

“I would recommend FYE especially to students who are new to college.”

The First Year Experience program at Glendale has been around since 2003, when it started with a single cohort of 20 students. It has since grown rapidly, and this year the college will have nine FYE cohorts with more than 200 students, said David Gerkin, chair of the college’s Counseling Department.

‘Too Easy To Disappear’

The Glendale FYE forms semester-long cohorts to smooth the transition to college for new students who otherwise might get lost. Throughout the fall semester, students take classes as a cohort, sharing the same three classes taught by a team of three instructors. The goal is to provide students in their first year of college with maximum guidance and feedback on assignments, increase opportunities to interact with professors, explore student success strategies and possible careers.

“We are trying to connect the curriculum to students and faculty,” Gerkin said. “It makes for a more coherent academic experience. The more students are connected, the more likely they are to persist and succeed. It’s too easy for students to disappear.”

Elite colleges have long seen the value of such intensive interventions. The top colleges and universities provide students early and often with all kinds of support on campus, even as they work with the most capable students. Community colleges, historically focused on access and struggling with resources, often offer the least in terms of support services.

But under pressure to boost graduation rates, community colleges increasingly are seeing the value in the first-year programs, said Tanya C. Ingram, a counselor who heads the First Year Experience Program on the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).

“We have 20 years of research that show if we can engage students early on, if we can help them make that transition, they are more likely to stay,” Ingram said. “First Year Experience programs are not new. But in recent years, it has really caught on. I think it will be a mainstay of higher education. It’s helping us answer the question, ‘how do you shape the experience of the first-year student so they become a second-year student?”

The NOVA program grew from student and faculty focus groups that showed that many incoming students lacked understanding of college expectations and had poor time-management and study skills. Research showed that students aged 18-21 were particularly vulnerable, with high rates of being placed in development courses and low rates of academic success.

RELATED ARTICLE

CHART: NOVA First Year Experience program

The First Year Experience program at NOVA is part of Achieving the Dream, the national nonprofit organization that works with colleges and foundations to help more community college students succeed. It consists of a new student orientation program, early academic advising, peer mentoring and social networking. FYE students in Woodbridge will be reading and discussing the non-fiction novel “Tuesdays with Morrie,” serving to bind the students and curriculum together. The approach is based on the three C’s: connection, critical thinking and community building.

Building the community starts at the annual convocation, when incoming students are “pinned” and welcomed to a new academic community. That’s followed by meetings, in formal settings, with fellow students, faculty and staff.

“The students take a scholarly pledge and get a pin,” Ingram said. “They become part of a community of scholars. We want them to know ‘you are no longer in high school, but in college. This is what it means to be in college.’”

The effort is showing some results. Almost 86 percent of new students who participated in First Year Experience were retained from fall 2008 to spring 2009, compared to a retention rate of 68 percent of first-time students who did not participate in the program. The fall 2008 to spring 2010 retention rate was 63 percent for First Year Experience participants compared to 44 percent for students who did not take advantage of the program.

But for NOVA and other community colleges, a persistent challenge remains: how to bring such efforts up to scale. For all their successes, the First Year Experience programs reach a relative handful of students. And successful FYE programs can’t always be easily replicated. They are as distinct as the colleges themselves, said Trudy Bers, director of research, curriculum and planning at Oakton Community College.

Biers also works with the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, based at the University of South Carolina, which this fall will hold a conference focusing on community colleges.

“There is no magic bullet,” Bers said. “It’s much more complex than anyone realized. There is no clear combination of programs that work. And the real challenge is taking what works to scale.”

Both NOVA and Glendale are among the colleges contemplating making some parts of its voluntary FYE program mandatory for all students. But that would present a host of logistical problems and tax already dwindling resources, Gerkin said. Still, it would be a good idea, he said. The FYE program and its team-teaching approach has payoffs for both students and faculty.

“Faculty members have told me this a growing, learning experience,” he said. “The chance for a faculty member to work with someone in another discipline is very rewarding. They also get a chance to know their students on many different levels.”

As part of his doctoral dissertation, Gerkin surveyed Glendale students on their attitudes about the FYE program. He found that students felt more closely connected to their college and believed FYE helped them make the transition from high school to college. Most importantly, he said, FYE equipped the students with knowledge and skills that last well beyond their freshman year.

“I was very pleased to learn that,” Gerkin said. “The students told me they continue to use these skills. The whole aim of the program is not to just pass a course, but to be able to apply these skills for the rest of their academic careers.”

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