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A Studied Effort to Ease College Transitions

“It’s simply not enough to give students access to higher education,” says the director of a new master’s program for first-year studies.

National Journal
Stephanie M. Foote
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Stephanie M. Foote
Nov. 27, 2013, 6:58 a.m.

Stephanie M. Foote in­tim­ately un­der­stands the chal­lenges to ad­just­ing to col­lege. After a dis­mal fresh­man year, she had to trans­fer from Win­throp Uni­versity in Rock Hill, S.C., to Coastal Car­o­lina Uni­versity — a jar­ring ex­per­i­ence for a high school stu­dent who had found get­ting good grades rather easy.

Since that hum­bling ex­per­i­ence, she has ded­ic­ated her life to ad­dress­ing the is­sues of ad­just­ment and re­ten­tion of first-year col­legi­ans. Now an edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or at Ken­nesaw State Uni­versity, 25 miles north of At­lanta, she works in its De­part­ment of First-Year and Trans­ition Stud­ies and is dir­ect­ing the launch of a mas­ter’s of sci­ence de­gree in first-year stud­ies that will start in au­tumn 2015. For 11 con­sec­ut­ive years, U.S. News & World Re­port has ranked Ken­nesaw State in the top 10 for first-year pro­grams.

Na­tion­ally the trends are for an in­creas­ingly di­verse stu­dent body, in­clud­ing a rise in first-gen­er­a­tion col­legi­ans and com­munity col­lege trans­fers. For in­stance, 69 per­cent of His­pan­ic high school gradu­ates last May are in a two- or four-year pro­gram this fall, up 30 per­cent since 2000. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing that demo­graph­ic in­fu­sion is the need to of­fer pro­grams and ser­vices to en­sure the so­cial and aca­dem­ic suc­cess of stu­dents from var­ied cul­tures and so­cioeco­nom­ic back­grounds.

The title of Foote’s 2009 Uni­versity of South Car­o­lina dis­ser­ta­tion was “A Multi-Cam­pus Study of the Per­ceived Ef­fects of First-Year Sem­inars on the Ex­per­i­ence of Stu­dents in Their First Semester of Col­lege.” Pre­vi­ously she dir­ec­ted the Aca­dem­ic Suc­cess Cen­ter and First-Year Ex­per­i­ence at the Uni­versity of South Car­o­lina (Aiken) and now ed­its the Journ­al of Col­lege Ori­ent­a­tion and Trans­ition.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

The idea of the new gradu­ate pro­gram is rooted in our cul­ture. My de­part­ment is unique be­cause we have ten­ured and ten­ure-track fac­ulty ded­ic­ated to teach­ing first-year sem­inars, one of the few — two that we are aware of in the coun­try. [The four sem­in­ar choices re­quired of stu­dents with few­er than 30 cred­it hours em­phas­ize “life skills, strategies for aca­dem­ic suc­cess, cam­pus and com­munity con­nec­tions, and found­a­tions for glob­al learn­ing.”]

Stephanie Foote is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or in edu­ca­tion at Ken­nesaw State Uni­versity and dir­ect­or of its forth­com­ing mas­ter of sci­ence pro­gram in First-Year and Trans­ition Stud­ies. (Cour­tesy photo)Our former pres­id­ent, Betty Siegel, [who stepped down in 2006] was the cata­lyst for the de­vel­op­ment of my de­part­ment in 2007, and in many ways, the gradu­ate pro­gram ac­know­ledges her vis­ion for stu­dent suc­cess and es­pe­cially for first-year stu­dents.

Al­though the trans­ition to the first col­lege year has long been a con­cern in high­er edu­ca­tion, the grow­ing body of em­pir­ic­al evid­ence demon­strates that the first year really mat­ters. And one key to mak­ing a dif­fer­ence at this crit­ic­al point is to train fac­ulty and staff in more mean­ing­ful ways.

As we were de­vel­op­ing the cur­riculum for the new gradu­ate pro­gram, we drew on re­search, best prac­tices, as well as the in­ter­dis­cip­lin­ary fac­ulty in our de­part­ment. Ad­di­tion­ally, we looked to our in­sti­tu­tion­al his­tory and what was hap­pen­ing on a state and loc­al level and thought about how that might in­flu­ence ef­forts aimed at help­ing first-year stu­dents in the fu­ture.

His­tor­ic­ally, we are an in­sti­tu­tion that has served all stu­dents — tra­di­tion­al and non­tra­di­tion­al. In­creas­ingly, we are work­ing to meet the needs of a di­verse stu­dent body — a mix of first-gen­er­a­tion, con­tinu­ing adults, and at-risk or edu­ca­tion­ally vul­ner­able stu­dents. In Geor­gia, like many oth­er states, we have few­er tra­di­tion­al stu­dents in the pipeline. We have pro­grams to sup­port these stu­dents, as well as trans­fer stu­dents, stu­dents of col­or, vet­er­ans, and stu­dents who might be con­sidered “in the middle” — those not be­ing served be­cause they aren’t the highest achiev­ing stu­dents or those most at risk.

Over the last sev­er­al years, I’ve had an op­por­tun­ity to look closely at these oth­er pop­u­la­tions of col­lege stu­dents in trans­ition [the cul­min­a­tion is her book Col­lege Stu­dents in Trans­ition: An An­not­ated Bib­li­o­graphy], and I’ve come to the con­clu­sion that as the paths to and through high­er edu­ca­tion be­come more di­verse, it will be im­port­ant to broaden our per­spect­ives and ap­proaches to work­ing with these stu­dents. It’s simply not enough to give stu­dents ac­cess to high­er edu­ca­tion. As an in­sti­tu­tion we feel a great deal of re­spons­ib­il­ity, not to just re­tain stu­dents but to act ser­i­ously in the area of suc­cess.

With all of these changes and the move­ment to­ward more ac­count­ab­il­ity, which is evid­ent at the na­tion­al [Com­plete Col­lege Amer­ica pro­gram] and state levels, this is an im­port­ant time in the his­tory of high­er edu­ca­tion and in the emer­ging dis­cip­line of first-year stud­ies. For all of these reas­ons, I’m ex­cited to have the op­por­tun­ity to launch this new gradu­ate pro­gram for pro­spect­ive fac­ulty and staff that will be work­ing with and teach­ing first-year stu­dents as well as oth­er pop­u­la­tions of stu­dents in trans­ition. Our stu­dents will learn about the chal­lenges of the ini­tial col­lege trans­ition, de­vel­op skills and know­ledge needed to cre­ate and man­age cur­ricular and co-cur­ricular pro­grams that re­spond to these chal­lenges, and en­gage in re­search that po­ten­tially ex­tends the dis­cip­line of first-year stud­ies.

In many ways, dir­ect­ing this gradu­ate pro­gram is the cul­min­a­tion of my life’s ded­ic­a­tion to first-year stu­dents and stu­dent suc­cess that began when I failed my first year of col­lege. Al­though it was the first time I had truly failed at something, I real­ized it was an im­port­ant ex­per­i­ence for me. Through this pro­cess of fail­ing, I learned about my real mo­tiv­a­tions and as­pir­a­tions. For some of us, we need to have fail­ure to truly un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate suc­cess.

All in all, I was lucky to have had this ex­per­i­ence be­cause it led me to this pro­fes­sion and to the dis­cip­line of first-year stud­ies. As a col­lege seni­or, I even wrote a cap­stone pa­per about first-year sem­inars — and it was then that I knew it would be my area. In gradu­ate school, I was for­tu­nate to have worked for and stud­ied un­der some of the lead­ing schol­ars in first-year stud­ies. It’s ful­filling to think that through the gradu­ate pro­gram at KSU, I might now have an op­por­tun­ity to pay for­ward some of the ment­or­ing I re­ceived while mak­ing a last­ing con­tri­bu­tion to a dis­cip­line that means so much to me.


Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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