Thanks to four years of planning and development, The Evergreen State College is welcoming 2020’s first-year students with its most robust offering of First-Year Experience programming in the college’s history. With a special eye on supporting the needs of first-generation and low-income students, Evergreen has developed a system that helps first-year students be successful while building support structures for students who might fall behind.
“It’s an overarching approach to understanding how students matriculate into the college, how they find their place and develop networks of support, and how they learn to navigate the college effectively,” explains Jadon Berry, Evergreen’s director for new student programs. The First-Year Experience is a best practice approach across higher education formalized over 40 years ago by the University of South Carolina.
Jadon says the First-Year Experience uses national standards to look at student success from an equity lens while keeping Evergreen’s approach to education that encourages independent learning.
The First-Year Experience starts well before the first day of class. This year, in addition to new remote support systems for enrollment, academic advising and course registration, new students will participate in webinars prior to the start of their first quarter. The webinars connect them to resources around campus and the greater community that will help them through their first year. They also lay a foundational understanding of Evergreen’s values around diversity, equity and inclusion.
First-year students can also participate in one of two pre-orientation programs: the Multi-Cultural Scholars program or the Evergreen Student Civic Engagement Institute (ESCEI). These programs are designed to connect first-year students to each other and to faculty. They also foster community connections in Olympia and around Thurston County.
The Multi-Cultural Scholars program is geared toward helping students from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds orient themselves to Evergreen’s learning environment and help them to access what they need for success.
ESCEI gives first-year students the chance to deepen their understanding of civic engagement. In previous years the five-day program let students move into on-campus housing a week early; spending every day taking outings throughout the area to meet with community leaders and organizers at a variety of places, including anywhere from GRuB to the State Capitol. This year’s virtual program is non-residential. The student mentors got creative, and curated a program using multiple modes of media and engagement opportunities.
“ESCEI was a really big part of coming into Evergreen with a sense of community for me,” explains student Milo Gaudiano, who participated in ESCEI in 2019. Milo is going into their second year at Evergreen this fall and now has a job as a student mentor in the ESCEI program. “A lot of the friends that helped me get through my first quarter were friends I made in the ESCEI program.” It also opened Milo to possibilities for civic engagement they’d never considered. “I feel empowered to seek out jobs and opportunities to make more good and have a net positive on my city, state and country,” Milo adds.
A third pre-orientation program, focused on outdoor adventure and environmental sustainability, is in the works for the near future.
If a student can’t make it to the pre-orientation programs, they still have a chance to forge strong connections in a supportive academic environment thanks to Greener Foundations, a first-year course in its second year of implementation. The 2020 iteration of Greener Foundations will be a two-credit, one-quarter course taught in groups of 30 to 50 students.
“It’s a series of 10 classes that help students develop both the skills necessary to succeed in college and essential connections with peers as well as faculty and staff,” explains Cynthia Kennedy, a First-Year Experience faculty fellow responsible for the curricular development of Greener Foundations. The coursework she developed helps students build skills around time management, notetaking, stress management and other tools necessary for a successful first year of college. Acknowledging that students come to college with strengths and weaknesses in a wide variety of areas, the course seeks to level the playing field.
Perhaps most importantly, Greener Foundations seeks to foster a sense of belonging at Evergreen. “When I use the word ‘belong,’ I mean that students are able to feel like they belong, act like they belong and think like they belong,” Cynthia explains. Part of that work is empowering students to feel like they are responsible for helping everyone else feel like they belong, too. “It’s important to us that students not only have a sense of belonging but also a sense of how they can help other students feel like they belong,” Cynthia says.
If you’re a high school student considering your first year of college at Evergreen, you can learn more about the First-Year Experience on The Evergreen State College website.