Published: May 22, 2018

New MSU program helps students successfully STEP into college

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When Nia Jackson started her freshman year this past fall, she was worried about feeling isolated and lost because MSU is such a large school. But MSU’s new Spartans Transition to Excellence Program, or STEP, provided the support she needed to have a successful freshman year.

“STEP is what made my freshman year at MSU work so well,” Jackson said. “I was paired with an awesome coach, Lorelei Blackburn, who soon became like a second mom to me. She has continued to be there for me and has shown her concern for my academic and personal growth.”

STEP is a free program that extends beyond the traditional academic orientation program to connect incoming first-year students with a network of other Spartans, both students and coaches, to help students make a successful transition to MSU.

The program’s mission is to help first-year students make connections and develop a sense of belonging. STEP is an important part of MSU’s overall Student Success Initiative, which is focused on increasing the university’s overall graduation rate and closing opportunity gaps for lower-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority student populations.

“The first year of college is most critical and will largely determine if students will continue and graduate,” said R. Sekhar Chivukula, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate studies. “Students arrive from high school having been closely supervised by teachers and parents. But by the end of that first year in college – a short nine months – students need to have matured enough academically, emotionally and socially to become the agents of their own success.”

Students who join STEP are paired with a coach, who is a faculty or staff member and has volunteered to assist with STEP.

“As a first-generation college student, my transition was really difficult and my first attempt at college was not successful,” said Blackburn, instructor, Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures, and STEP Coach. “I would have greatly benefited from a coach helping me navigate the seemingly small challenges of that transition, like how to change a major, how to find academic support, how to deal with roommate issues or what to do when I got sick. These issues and more can cause great stress and derail the freshman year.”

Data shows that MSU is taking a step in the right direction with this new program. Incoming freshmen were surveyed last summer before orientation began. Of this group, only 17 percent felt a sense of belonging at MSU. After the STEP Welcome Event, that number grew to 79 percent. In addition: 

• 95 percent felt better informed to use a campus resource.
• 92 percent were ready to attend class.
• 89 percent felt better prepared to do well in class.
• 92 percent said they would like to get involved on campus.
• 88 percent were ready to meet new people.

And STEP helped first-time freshmen parents and family members as well:

• 93 percent felt better prepared to support their new student.
• 98 percent said the STEP Welcome Event was helpful.

Though students felt better prepared and engaged right after the STEP Welcome Event, it was important to determine the impact of the program over the school year. Students who participated in STEP performed better academically than students who were invited but did not participate. And, 86 percent of the students participating in STEP were in good academic standing after their first semester.

"The college transition can be difficult for students for reasons ranging from academic experience and socioeconomic, or family background, to moving out of state or to a new country,” Chivukula said. “STEP invitations are sent to all students who, based on our experience, might particularly benefit from this kind of support.”

And, it appears students are benefitting.

“I think it’s easy to feel like just another number at a big school, but STEP provides community for every student so they feel supported and uplifted as unique individuals,” Jackson said. “I was able to find a community of students like myself, which I believe is important for minority students.”

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