As past incoming classes continued to break down barriers with increasingly diverse student populations, William Jewell College was faced with a choice last spring: remain stagnant or evolve to serve these students.
According to Pharamond Guice, director of the Academic Achievement Center, opting for the latter meant Jewell needed to address important questions about equity in their classrooms. With such growth in student diversity, it becomes more likely that individuals are coming from underrepresented backgrounds, meaning they may not be as prepared for college as other incoming students. And so, with the incoming class of fall 2020 being the most diverse in the College’s history, it was finally time to “talk about the blisters” in higher education.
“What does it look like for students sitting in a classroom space and not a lot of other students look like them,” Guice said. “Whether it’s in terms of race, ethnicity, or even gender? What does it mean for a student who comes from a school district that doesn’t have… as much resources as a more affluent [one]? That looks at some really minute details but we are really pushing hard to make Jewell an inclusive and equitable place.”
However, since the needs of a student may vary greatly depending on their individual circumstance, developing a one-size-fits-all support system would be ineffective. On the other side of the issue, identifying and helping each and every incoming student who may be in need of extra support would be nearly impossible.
With this problem in mind, Provost Dr. Anne Dema gathered Guice and Dr. Gary Armstrong, associate dean of the core curriculum and professor of political science, for breakfast on a “cold and miserable [early February] morning” last year, as Guice recalls – a meeting that would catalyze the development of an extensive resource titled the Shape Your Future (SYF) program.
The program follows participants through their first year at Jewell, providing them with support and resources in an effort to close the gap in equitable disparities that students of underrepresented populations might encounter. Select student participants are invited to enroll in the program during the summer before their first semester at Jewell. During its inaugural year from Summer 2020 to Spring 2021, the program had 46 participating first-time college first-years and transfer students.
As stated in its course description on Moodle, the SYF program aims to empower students “to be self-advocates, to foster belonging, to serve their community and future professions and to be agents of change,” while exploring topics such as “equity in education, advocating for self and community [and] how to use influence to make change.”
Starting in July, students attend plenary Sunday sessions that introduce a weekly topic through a two-hour presentation and group discussion. Then, later in the week, students meet in small groups with a program guide, who is a current Jewell student, or mentor to reflect on the completion of self-directed exercises.
“Having the plenary sessions and several sessions [lets] participants bounce back and forth as their schedule allows,” Guice said. “The smaller group sessions were very intentional about creating [personal] spaces that are for the participants so they can get to know their guides and…each other. The fact that we’re able to grow this thing so organically, as an outsider to the student experience, I can tell you it’s amazing to see.”
The program holds 12 learning weeks that are spread out over late-summer and the fall and spring semesters. Al Leone, director of the Tucker Leadership Lab and SYF program mentor, explained that each learning week is intended to foster development of a specific skill as students venture into higher education. The 12 learning weeks are further divided between three fundamental course topics centered around the theme of a student’s personal journey through college and beyond.
The first course, titled “Gearing Up,” is designed to prepare students for their first semester in college. The second course, “Charting and Navigating,” engages students with concepts surrounding personal goals and potential challenges of the journey. The final course, “Expanding Horizons,” focuses on leadership and developing skills for problem-solving.
The self-directed exercises followed the learning week topics closely, allowing students to engage with the skills in a personal way. Students completed activities such as evaluating their identities and habits in the first course, mapping out their future goals in the second course and developing solutions to specific problems in the third course.
Additionally, student participants are paid a $200 stipend per course ($600 for the year) to attend the Sunday and small-group sessions as well as to complete the exercises. According to the “Expectations for pay” document on the course’s Moodle page, the stipend breaks down as follows:
- $25 for each Sunday plenary meeting (4 meeting per course; 12 total),
- $12.50 for each small cohort meeting (4 meeting per course; 12 total) and
- $12.50 for completing and turning in self-directed content (per week; 4 weeks per course; 12 total)
“Gearing Up” is held during four consecutive weeks in mid-July to early-August. “Charting and Navigating,” is held every other week from mid-September to late-October. “Expanding Horizons,” is held from late January to mid-March, with three learning weeks before spring break and one after.
Students will attend their last plenary session March 7 and their last small group later that week, officially graduating from the program by mid-March.
Leone led students through their first Sunday session in the program’s mid-July launch, introducing them to the foundational concept of the course and beginning with an introductory piece about preparation.
“Bilbo Baggins didn’t just run out the door the minute he met the dwarves,” Leone said. “He had to do some prepping; he had to talk to Gandalf. There’s all these things you have to do before we arrive at the start of our journey, and that’s really what the first section was all about.
The Sunday sessions are led by different faculty members to promote a variety of lesson styles and specialization in topics. Guice – also a SYF mentor – led a learning week that was focused on time management and how to prepare to prioritize learning in an entirely new environment.
“We’re planting these seeds early on in the program so that participants will connect the dots and start thinking these things through now before classes happen,” Guice said. “When I first started college, it was all new – stimuli, stimuli, stimuli, new classes, new people, new experiences, new, new, new – and it’s overwhelming. We are hoping to help participants take a step back and realize it’s not as overwhelming as it’s going to be [and] we can manage some of that.”
Transitioning to college was especially overwhelming for many 2020 first-years. Like many others, first-year music education major and SYF participant Brynesha Griffin-Bey’s senior year of high school was cut short as schools suddenly switched to virtual learning platforms last spring – the time period that is usually intended to help senior students prepare for college.
“After the last months of my senior year were spent online and were nothing like I was expecting, I was even more nervous to go to college,” Griffin-Bey said. “I felt like through online learning, I wasn’t learning all of the important ending units of my senior year to the best of my abilities. And I tried to stay calm and level-headed, but I was very anxious and nervous with not knowing what to expect.”
According to Griffin-Bey, however, the SYF program was exactly what she needed to ease her anxiety as she transitioned to college during a pandemic.
“Not only have I met new people from the program that I know I can rely on and ask for help if I need it, but the plenary and small group meetings keep me accountable and help me stay productive on the weekends,” Griffin-Bey said. “Also, the program helped me a ton during the summer leading up to August and move-in day: I got my iPad before my peers and figured out all of the Apple mechanics – since it was the first Apple product I owned. Just the little things, like getting introduced to Moodle early, have helped me feel more prepared and on top of things.”
Similarly, moving into the fall semester was difficult for first-year nursing major Jasmine Malisos. Although Malisos came to Jewell classified as a sophomore due to credits earned in high school, she was still new to the college experience, and she said SYF was a powerful resource in her specific situation.
“The program gives us resources to help us like tutoring and [recurring] Zoom meetings to discuss college or life to make sure we are happy and… that we are doing good in school,” Malisos said. “SYF has helped me become involved, gave me more friends and guided me through college. I definitely recommend the SYF program to incoming students because it is a fun and great opportunity that won’t be found anywhere else.”
As the program prepares to conclude its inaugural year, Griffin-Bey reflected on the skills she picked up along the way, stating that alongside learning many essential academic skills she also learned about herself as a person.
“This program has helped me realize my potential as a student,” Griffin-Bey said. “As a Black girl [at Jewell], it made me realize the impact that I can have for future Black girls on this campus. It also allowed me to see strong and true qualities inside of myself that I definitely wouldn’t be able to see all by myself.”