Knowing how to launch and navigate a successful college career is challenging even for the most astute students. For students who enter academia with little knowledge of what to expect, college can feel like a quagmire. This is often the case for first-generation students – those who are the first in their immediate family to attend college.
Not to be confused with first-generation immigration status, first-generation students can come from low-, middle- or higher-income families, and from all different ethnic backgrounds. Associate teaching professor and undergraduate program director Suzanne Sukhdeo of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, explained “There are many challenges for first-gen students ranging from lack of family knowledge of the complicated university system to understanding what is a major, minor, advising/advisors, graduation requirements, TAs, tutoring, computer requirements, software, who are deans, faculty, how to address their professors, and how BIG a leap it is from grade 12 to any university course and exams. They are unaware that universities, like Rutgers, have so many resources to help students with their academic needs or their mental well-being.”
“In addition, attrition is highest among first-generation students; they are most likely to drop out after a few semesters and not complete the degree. The freshman year is very important and sets students on their path to a major and degree,” added Sukhdeo.
At Rutgers, about a third of first-year students are first-generation undergraduates (first in their family to attend college). While most of the schools at Rutgers-New Brunswick have some assistance available for first-generation students, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) has the most comprehensive program, with two one-credit courses: Academic Mentoring (AM) and Portals to Academic Study Success (PASS). These courses are the result of a huge collaborative endeavor among many faculty, administrators, post-docs and graduate students. Also unique to the SEBS program is that AM is a mandatory course and students receive a grade for their work.
The AM course, which was implemented in Fall semester 2014, has had approximately 800 students enrolled to date. After taking these classes, few of the students end up in academic warning/probation (GPA <2.0), and most of them continue successfully in their programs. Interestingly, from a comparison of the students’ academic performance each year of the program, the highest average term GPA occurred in the Fall 2020 semester, during Covid-19 lockdown, while classes were conducted remotely on Zoom.
We asked Sukhdeo, who serves as SEBS coordinator for Student Success Initiative and oversees the Academic Mentoring course, to tell us about the program, and how it was established and what contributes to its success.
Q: What were the trends in academic performance/retention rates that led to the development of the program?
A: I was appointed as coordinator of Student Success Initiative in 2008 by the dean of academic programs at SEBS. My mandate was to develop a program to help the freshmen succeed, because there was national concern among universities for the high attrition rates among freshmen. I created a course in Spring 2010 (2nd semester for SEBS freshmen) who were on academic warning or probation, and I called it Portals to Academic Study Success (PASS). It was mandatory that all freshmen students on academic warning/probation (GPA < 2.0) to be enrolled in this one-credit graded course. The contents of the course were related to improving study skills, time management, library and tutoring trips, helping to declare major. All meetings were in a small–sized class (six-nine students per instructor) to allow for conversation and building relationships with the academic mentor.
Just prior to Fall 2014, Sharice Richardson, assistant dean for first-year students, approached me to discuss having a Fall version of PASS targeted to at-risk students. For three years, we did a number of “test runs” with PASS classes in the Fall, focusing on select students that Dean Richardson considered “at-risk” based on their high school performance, and from meeting them at advising sessions. Based on the feedback with those students and the instructors, we decided that we needed a specific course in the Fall for first generation students.
I created the Academic Mentoring (AM) course starting in Fall 2017 for this second group of students. The students were selected based on self-identification in their admission forms, and all first-gen students were enrolled in a session of AM.
Q: Who are the key faculty/staff involved in the course?
A: I would like to emphasize that while I created these courses and act as coordinator, this has been a SEBS campus-wide endeavor that operates through a number of departments and supported by deans and other campus leaders. Not only that, but I think that it is really important to recognize that the success of this program depends on a large group of volunteers, including members from the Office of Academic Programs (OAP), post-docs and senior graduate students in addition to faculty teachers. Some have been volunteering to teach sections of these courses for years. This pedagogical initiative is very special to SEBS as I have talked to academic individuals at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers Business School and School of Engineering and they were quite surprised and shocked that so many individuals volunteer without pay, year after year, to teach a one-credit course that changes students’ lives.
Thus, I would especially like to acknowledge assistant deans Sharice Richardson, Liaan Pechera, Joseph Ventola, and Serafina Smith-Matos; associate dean for academic programs Julie Traxler; Chair of 4-H Youth Development Rachel Lyons; and assistant dean/director of SEBS EOF program Jenice Sabb-Dumas, who have been among the most steadfast contributors.
I also want to recognize several instructors who have taught for many years in both AM and PASS classes to illustrate the diversity of academic departments responsible for the success of these courses.
Animal Science: Troy Roepke, associate professor; Biochemistry & Microbiology: Ramaydalis Keddis, teaching instructor; Kyle Murphy, assistant teaching professor; and Natalya Voloshchuk, assistant teaching professor; Environmental Sciences: Steve Decker, associate teaching professor; Food Science: Chitra Ponnusamy, teaching professor; and I represent Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources.
Q: What were the results this year that showed success; please compare to the results from previous years to reflect the improvement.
A: This year mean GPA was 2.922, which was the highest average term GPA over the last six years. This is fantastic considering that all the students met remotely on Zoom. Many felt the loss of not meeting new people, leaving home for the first time and being on campus.
Comparison: Fall 2019, mean GPA = 2.771; Fall 2018, mean GPA = 2.635.
In addition, nine students (6.6%) had 4.000, 35 (25.5%) ended up on the Dean’s List (>3.500) and 132 (96.4%) of them registered for Spring 2021 classes. Registration for the second semester is vital to retaining students.
Faculty, Staff and Student Perspectives on the AM Program
Sukhdeo attributes what they have achieved to the commitment and contribution from throughout SEBS, “The success of the Academic Mentoring course is due to the SEBS faculty and Office of Academic Programs personnel who volunteer their time, energy and mentorship and to the hard work these SEBS first generation freshmen put in their first semester at Rutgers.”
Comments from individuals involved with the program affirms the value to students. Here is what they shared:
“This class taught me how to be more organized and productive – it was a great way to transition from high school to university because it walks you through a lot of the resources and tools available for the students,” said Jessica Stochel, SEBS Class of ’24.
“Academic Mentoring is the most of important course I teach every year as it has the greatest impact on the success of students not just during the semester but for the rest of their academic careers,” said Troy Roepke, associate professor, Animal Science.
“Students can struggle making the transition from high school to college. The AM course provides the tools first-generation students in particular may need to make the transition successfully, as they are less likely to know others to turn to for advice on how to be successful in college,” said Steven Decker, associate teaching professor, Environmental Sciences.
“In a small classroom supportive environment, the AM course provides practical and proven strategies for students to achieve academic success. Class lectures, discussions, and exercises prepare students for full participation inside the classroom. More importantly, the course helps students outside the classroom with developing critical study skills and learning strategies to successfully retain and comprehend the course material,” said Joseph Ventola, assistant dean, OAP.
“This AM class is for a good reason; “go figure yourself”- may not always work when you start college,” said Chitra Ponnusamy, teaching instructor, Food Science.
“The main objective of RU-1st is to provide informational equity, and make Rutgers more accessible and supportive, for students who are first-generation college students. The AM course will engage you in learning about the process by which you learn best, and assist you in setting educational and career goals, and managing stress,” said Sharice Richardson, assistant dean first year students, OAP.