When Michelle Foster, Associate Dean for Student Success at the College of Science and Mathematics, first invited Erica Elliott to enroll in the fledgling Freshman Success Communities (FSC) program, Erica was skeptical. All she knew about the program was that she’d be taking classes with the same group of students all year.
“I thought it sounded too much like high school,” she says. “I didn’t like the idea at first.”
But Foster was adamant that it would be a good fit for Erica, and so she agreed to join the first group of students participating in FSC’s in fall 2009. Looking back on her year, Erica, now a sophomore majoring in biochemistry, says, “It was amazing. I’m so glad I had this chance!”
Freshman Success Communities were developed by College of Science and Mathematics dean Andrew Grosovsky in response to the challenges facing undergraduate students, especially new freshmen. According to Grosovsky, CSM has the fastest-growing population of “traditional age” students at UMass Boston; 75 percent of the college’s incoming students are freshmen, and of those 80 percent are first-time freshmen. The first challenge for such students, he says, is that for many, attending a large university can be an alienating experience, especially if they are the first in their families to do so.
“When [students] come into a large place, it can be hard for them to figure out what’s what,” he says. Foster agrees, adding “Often, students don’t know about all the resources we have for them. They don’t want to ask for help because there’s a stigma that they’re not good enough.”
Another obstacle, according to Grosovsky, is the rigorous schedule of required courses that must be completed by first-year science students. A student who does not successfully fulfill freshman science and math requirements during his or her first year is less likely to return for sophomore year, less likely to graduate in four years, and less likely to graduate overall, says Grosovsky.
Foster also notes that many students aren’t aware of how critical these required classes are. “I can’t tell you how many students walk into my office and tell me they want to be doctors – when they have no idea of what that means or what kind of classes they’ll have to take,” she says.
To help students overcome these challenges, Grosovsky drew on his experience at the University of California Riverside – where as a professor and vice provost he was involved with various models of student success communities – to create UMass Boston’s Freshman Success Community program. He envisioned the FSC as a way to establish a bond among students, while bringing them closer to the resources they would need during their first year.
“These communities are about students being involved in their own success,” Grosovsky says. “We wanted to let them know: They are supposed to be here. This is their university. And we will reach out to them, and do everything in our power to support them.”
He and Foster began enrolling students last year, inviting incoming freshmen who, like Erica Elliott, were taking biology and chemistry classes, and who had tested into pre-calculus courses. The inaugural group consisted of 46 students split into two cohorts, each taking the same sections of math, chemistry, and biology together, in addition to special year-long Science Gateway Seminars led by Grosovsky and Associate Dean William Hagar.
Students also participated in out-of-class opportunities, including career and time management workshops, and enjoyed a Boston Harbor cruise and box seats at a Celtics game. Elliott says that the support she received from the students in her group as well as from Grosovsky, her cohort’s advisor, was exactly what she needed during her first year at UMass Boston.
“Just in the first week [of the program], we had this sense of family,” she says. “ realized these people were going to be there for me for the rest of the year. It made me feel like I had someone to go to when I didn’t know what to do.”
Grosovsky adds that even he benefitted from the program. “I’ve taught for decades,” he says, “but I don’t think I’ve ever had a more satisfying teaching experience than this. In the communities, everyone is empowered. They help each other grow.”
The statistics gathered from FSC’s first year reflect the positive effects of such community: 90 percent of the students involved in the program enrolled in the CSM for 2010. (Of the five who did not return, two changed majors, one transferred schools, and two had not regularly participated in the program.) A majority (60 percent) of FSC students completed their freshman year with 30 credits or more, on track to graduate in four years. A majority (60 percent) also finished the year with a GPA of 3.0 or higher; only 10 percent received a GPA of 2.0 or lower.
In fact, the Freshman Success Communities have been so effective that the program has tripled in size from last year: Six cohorts will serve 135 students in Biochemistry; Biology; Chemistry; Computer Science; Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences; and Premedical Studies. And nearly half of the first group of FSC graduates has volunteered to stay in the program as Dean’s Ambassadors, who participate in campus events and encourage new students to join FSC.
Grosovsky says, “I’ve had students from the first cohorts ask me, ‘Is there a Sophomore Success Community?’ This is a way to keep them active and involved.”
The FSC program is part of the College of Science and Mathematics’ Student Success Center, which provides services to students in every phase of their academic career at UMass Boston. Led by Foster, the Student Success Center connects students with tutors, helps them find internships that relate to their majors, and keeps track of any potentially helpful resources for students inside or outside UMass Boston.
“We make it our job to understand all the curricula in science and math programs; we put all the resources for students together for a complete picture,” Foster says. “We make sure our students are on track to be as successful as they want to be.”
For more information on Freshmen Success Communities and/or the Student Success Center, visit www.umb.edu/academics/csm/student_success_center/, or call 617-287-3974.