Feature Stories

Owning the First-Year Experience

By Tiffany Edmonds

When Catelyn first arrived at UIW she was both excited and apprehensive about her new college life. Embarking on this new journey made her a bit nervous: Would she make new friends? Would she be able to handle her school schedule? As an athlete, how often would she have to practice? Did she make the right decision by selecting UIW?

For most students, the transition from high school to college is challenging. Freshmen often experience a mixed bag of feelings, arriving at college with countless concerns and expectations about their first year. To help them make the transition, UIW created an office of First Year Engagement (FYE) last year that extends academic support to first-year students through programs and services.

FYE develops activities that focus on first-year issues such as time management, study skills, test taking, financial responsibility, campus resources and ways to get involved at UIW. The goal is to help students take responsibility for planning the roadmap for their college life - and non-college life -- because FYE believes that being a college student means being educated both inside and outside the classroom.

Established with a Title V Cooperative Grant, the FYE office aids retention of students. Not only will the grant help improve UIW's overall retention rate and that of its minority students, but it will also help strengthen the university's faculty and broaden external collaborative relationships while increasing graduation rates.

First Year Experience Staff
FYE director Sandy McMakin (left) and staffers Rochelle Ramirez and Raul Zendejas

Comprised of a small but enthusiastic force of three, FYE hit the ground running with their first class last year. “I think students often start college expecting to do well,” said Director of FYE Sandy McMakin. “But what they don't expect are the other factors of college life; that is where they need to learn how to adapt.”

To address all factors of college life, FYE staffers held individual meetings with students during orientation and after their academic advising sessions to inform them of various campus resources and establish the FYE office as a point of contact for all first-year concerns. They created information packets and a bulletin board to communicate activities to students and faculty -- and developed their own web site on UIW's internal “Blackboard” network where staff can participate in online chat sessions with new students. FYE also introduced “University 101,” a series of workshops to help freshmen adjust to college life. In other words, FYE provides resources for everything you ever wanted to know about college and probably a few things you didn't know to ask.

“It is important that students learn how to own their education,” said McMakin. “First-year students, and especially commuter students, often struggle with learning how to make boundaries. Once a student learns how to create boundaries and make their education a priority, they become successful.”

By the end of FYE's first year, the staff had not only made an impression on the graduating class of 2009, but they learned several lessons themselves including the importance of family in college students' lives, especially for first-year students. Staff also learned that students really do need direction; whether it's telling them about campus activities or simply supplying them with a campus map.

“This has been an interesting year,” said McMakin. “I learned a lot about students and their thought process, and I have been in education a long time.”

Armed with this knowledge, FYE is gearing up for the 2006-07 school year. One of the new initiatives will be a peer mentor program that partners an upperclassman with a group of incoming freshmen, building mentors as liaisons between the FYE office and first-year students.

Someone who knows first hand how important a liaison could be is Catelyn - a new FYE mentor. “Everyone around campus was very helpful,” said Catelyn. “The staff taught me that they were there to help but it was up to me to follow through and do the work. College offices are about guidance and support, and there comes a time when the hand-holding stage is over and you need to look both ways and walk across the street by yourself.”

She understands the fears and excitement that come with entering college. “I felt I could relate to experiences freshmen might be having, and with relations already strong in the FYE office, I could help relay the types of questions students have that Mrs. McMakin might otherwise not know about,” said Catelyn.

Additional FYE reinforcements planned for this school year include financial literacy training and parent orientation sessions.

“There is nothing like watching a student blossom,” said McMakin. “Watching a student grow from that initial 'deer-in-the-headlights' to an individual who has learned to accept responsibility for their life and take ownership of it -- that is what college is all about.”