SJR Column: First-Year Students, August 2016

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 70% of the 3.3 million students who graduated from American high schools during the past year will be starting undergraduate classes at colleges and universities across the U.S. during the next few weeks. They will soon constitute the 2016 freshman class at campuses across the country – including at the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois.

Anyone who has attended college or who has sent a child off to college likely remembers that first year, along with the excitement, anticipation and anxiety that accompanies one of the most important transitions in the educational process. The freshman year is a time of significant adjustment as students attempt to find the appropriate balance between higher academic demands and new levels of personal freedom and responsibility. Affordability has become an additional concern for many of today’s college freshmen who need to manage personal finances, loans and scholarships or who need to work to help pay for their education.

Fortunately for students, researchers have learned a great deal about the college freshman experience during the past few decades. At UIS, we’ve been applying that knowledge and implementing best practices to support new students both academically and socially and to increase student retention and success.

Lisa McGuire is Director of the Office of New Student Orientation and Parent Relations at UIS and is on the front lines of those efforts.

“They start long before classes begin,” says Lisa. “As soon as a student is accepted to UIS, we start communicating with both the student and their parents.”

Though most students will have spent time with an admissions counselor and made a campus visit during the college search process, a steady flow of communications helps insure any questions or concerns are addressed when they arise.

Students (with a parent or guardian) then participate in the two-day summer “KickStart Program”, which includes academic advising, placement testing, registration for fall courses, financial aid consultation, an overnight stay in a residence hall and a variety of social activities. The goal is, by the time students return for “Launch Week” in late August, they’re already familiar with campus resources and they’ve begun to make a plan and form the networks of support that will contribute to a healthy lifestyle and academic success.

According to Lisa, surveys have shown most students want their parents to remain involved and appreciate their continued support during their college years. The trick is for parents and their student to communicate and find the right balance. Fortunately, cell phones, social media and other technologies make that task easier today than ever before.

“I encourage students to stay in touch with their parents,” says Lisa. “The transition to college can be tough for parents as well as students and communication is part of what helps make the freshman year smooth and successful for the entire family.”

Faculty and staff play an important role in supporting students during the freshman transition and many UIS faculty and staff are closely involved with first-year students. Tena Helton, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the English Department, has directed the first-year writing program and currently coordinates freshmen seminars.

“One goal in the freshmen seminar,” says Tena, “is to familiarize students with the academic expectations of college coursework. Some students have the skills they need; but they just can’t quite put them together. For others, we need to work on basic writing skills.”

Happily, adds Tena, “We also get students who are better than they think they are and the fun part is telling them they are a good writer!

Regardless of where they are in the beginning, students need to ‘own it’ and take responsibility for their learning, time management and performance.”

Hilary Frost-Kumpf, in Political Science, and David Bertaina, in History, both teach the freshman seminar every year. “We’re not only engaging with students academically,” says Dr. Bertaina, “but we’re also integrating them into the freshman experience and the life of the university.”

Dr. Frost-Kumpf also speaks to the parents of incoming freshmen during summer orientation.

“I don’t encourage ‘helicopter parenting’,” she says, “but I do advise parents about helpful questions they can ask their student when they call home at the end of that first week. The first thing I tell them is to ask their student if they have read the syllabus for their class. I want to give parents a clue about the resources their student has available to them.”

Dean of Students Dr. Charles Osiris works directly with new students to smooth their adjustment to residence hall living and college-level academics. “The first year of college presents a transitional time for students,” he acknowledges.

“If students take advantage of the programs and services available to them and reach out to both faculty and staff for support, it will greatly enhance their transition and success.”

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch