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including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

University Profiles - Project Success Aids Students

By Jessie Hensley, University Affairs intern

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 26 - March 30, 1995

For 26 Tech students, Project Success may well have made the difference between earning a diploma, or possibly leaving the unversity without that important piece of paper. Project Success, a relatively new program at the Office of Academic Enrichment Programs (OAEP) in Hillcrest Hall, is designed to increase student retention. The criterion for membership in this group was junior or senior status, and a QCA of 2.1 or less.

In the spring of 1993, Delores Scott, coordinator of the Office of Academic Enrichment, began Project Success with her then-assistant, Deanna Cotman. Later, Jennifer Stringer became assistant coordinator of the office and acted as co-facilitator of the group.

Due to severely limited human resources, Scott and Stringer narrowed down the list of eligible students to only those who had participated in the Virginia Tech Academic Success (VTASP) program. One-hundred and fifty VTASP "alumni" were eligible. Academic advisors were also encouraged to nominate students they felt would benefit from the program.

Letters were sent, but only a small portion agreed to participate. In many instances, apparently, at-risk students aren't aware that they are in academic difficulty.

"They don't know that probation is right around the corner," Stringer said. "It's helpful to have someone sit down and say, `This is the way it is.'"

"My mother saw the letter and said `You need to do this.'" said Maisha Fleming, a senior in liberal arts and sciences and a member of one of the first groups to graduate from Project Success.

Carolyn Craun, a junior in horticulture and a Project Success participant last semester, was trying to find a balance among work, extracurricular activities, and school. "(Project Success) came along at a good time," she said.

The students are put in small peer groups that meet for an hour and a half each week. Scott and Stringer act as facilitators to guide the groups through self-assessment, goal-setting, and study-skills seminars. The sessions are dynamic and intensive, they say, and are a unique experience for everyone involved. "It's very taxing," Stringer said.

Many times the discussions will move into other areas of the students' lives. "Some personal issues always flow into what's going on academically," Scott said. Sometimes the facilitators recognize the necessity to refer students to other departments in the university, such as University Counseling Services.

Even though family and relationship issues come up frequently, study skills are a major factor in the low grades of Project Success participants. To remedy this, the facilitators lead the groups through exercises to improve time management, test taking, memorization, and motivation.

"Jennifer would have a certain exercise...little anecdotes," Fleming said. Using her new time-management skills, Fleming said she "would take a book on the bus instead of watching the trees go by."

Stringer and Scott also try to reduce procrastination and encourage students to talk to their professors outside of the classroom environment. Many times, the professor will take an interest, and the students will realize that the university is not indifferent to their problems.

One important aspect of the support group is that they can make their own rules and do what they want to do. Stringer said that though they start with a syllabus, "it gets thrown out the window after the first week."

"We don't lecture at them, it's a student-directed group," she said. "We focus on the issues and topics that students want and need to discuss, which can be quite different from what we have on our syllabus," Stringer said.

"Giving them the opportunity to make the decision gives them control over what's going on in their lives," Scott said.

Fleming said unexcused absences were viewed critically by members of the group. Craun said she knew if she didn't do her work, "Someone would fuss." "Peer pressure is much more influential than anything Jennifer or I say," Scott said.

Just having other students who can commiserate is very important, Fleming said. Students don't usually talk about academics on a regular basis, especially if they are not doing well. "If somebody's grades are bad they keep it to themselves," Fleming said, but not within the peer group.

"You have to have people who are supporting your change," Stringer said. "I don't know if I could have gotten that (input) from others," Craun added.

Some groups of Project Success alumni even continue meeting past the initial semester. "The groups really do bond," Stringer said. "One of the students said, `The friends I made in Project Success will be my friends for life.'"

Though not every student improves academically after participating, the program does get results. Thirty-five students have completed the Project Success program, and 26 of them have graduated or are still enrolled in good standing.

Every group has finished the semester with a group average of at least 2.0. Stringer said it's wonderful to see students when "they've finally gotten over the hump and can breathe again. The unfortunate part is, for some students it still isn't enough," she said.

Scott stressed the holistic nature of the program's benefits. "It transfers to all parts of their lives-work, friends, priorities," Scott said.

"I don't know if I'd still be at Tech," Fleming said, if it weren't for the efforts of Scott and Stringer. Fleming said Stringer helped her find out where her strengths were.

That semester, Fleming made a 3.2 QCA. "I hadn't seen any kind of 3.2 before I'd been here in Project Success. It was a good feeling," she said.

Scott and Stringer have plans for expansion, but it's a long way off. "Everybody's plate is full," Scott said.

They would like to consult faculty members and train them to facilitate groups. "We think the colleges could add some things we can't add," Scott said.

"Ideally, we'd like to put ourselves out of a job," Scott said.