Transitioning to college is anything but easy.
It’s been three years since I began college and I still recall the chaotic mix of feelings. I was so ready to leave the nest but was totally unsure of what to expect. I was simultaneously terrified and excited and I felt way too much like this:
I lived in a 15’ x 15’ room that I shared with two roomies. We lived in a residence hall exclusively for first-year, first-time-in-college students — a.k.a. we were all trying hard to act like we weren’t too lost, but still only traveled around campus as a huddle.
Being a first-generation college student definitely added to my feelings of being incapable and that I didn’t belong. But the truth is, we were all figuring out how to manage things — the time not spent in classes, the living spaces we were sharing with peers — on our own.
This aimlessness wasn’t something we talked about, and even if we did, we couldn’t really help each other deal with it. We just wanted to belong (and that takes a lot of reaching out and plugging in), but we were also just trying to get our bearings.
I can definitely say that the discomfort of this experience was valuable to me, but it probably could have gone more smoothly. Helping students find their place in the community is a challenge that student affairs professionals are perfectly positioned to do.
Student affairs professionals are trained to understand that you can’t be plopped into a new place and expect to feel a part of the community overnight. It’s an unsettling experience and it takes a lot to put yourself out there to join organizations and find people or resources who fit your needs. Serving in a student leadership role is usually a great way to find purpose and feel at home, but that can be hard for first-years to get the chance to do.
Now, I’m an RA to first-year students and work as part of a team that leads a first-year leadership program. I’m pumped to be actively supporting first-years because they have so much going on and deserve to be plugged into a support system: a group of people who care for them and know what it’s like.
When we focus our programming efforts on a particular audience or population, we can serve these students better by targeting their specific needs as we connect them to the campus community.
By creating a structured program, the pathway for student involvement and leadership is made crystal clear.
Very important note: Creating intentional programming and general support doesn’t at all require a full curriculum or a living-learning community be built from the ground up. Instead, keeping these programs targeting toward addressing specific needs is key!
First-Year Leadership Programs
What’s really helpful to first-year, first-time-in-college students is a mixture of experiences that allow them to find, express, and develop themselves.
Skill-building programs and creating connections to their community facilitates this growth.
The Student Affairs Leadership Council has a guide for developing a leadership-themed LLC and in that, they recommend that programs support these components/objectives be implemented/targeted: academic support, professional support, social programming, civic engagement, and a capstone project.
Building these valuable skills gives us space to grow our sense of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-knowledge. We learn more about what we like to do and build our sense of being capable of doing it.
Connection to the community is built through engagement with other community members in a variety of settings like social, service and leadership ones. New relationships fuel new ideas and forms of support which encourage us to expand and be part of something greater.
First-year leadership programs can focus on both of these things by utilizing the structure of a Living-Learning Community (LLC). These environments are ones that encourage students to learn around-the-clock through experience-sharing with their neighbors.
Looking more closely at a few of these programs across the US, I broke down the ways these programs impact/transform participants personally, academically, professionally, socially and civically.
Programs to Inspire You
- Personally: Focus on building self-knowledge and the competencies of ethical awareness, global understanding, and social responsibility.
- Academically: Academic credit for leadership studies courses in which they can obtain a minor.
- Professionally: Career development through alumni and community networking for career development, with an eye toward their lives beyond their time at the university.
- Socially: A residential learning environment that is interpersonally and academically challenging and inclusive, encouraging sharing of values and passions.
- Civically: Collaborative community-based engagement that focuses on social justice through citizen-leadership towards equity.
- Personally: Builds knowledge and skills useful for holding leadership roles, specifically with the opportunity to become a leader involved with this very program in the future.
- Academically: Educated on leadership theory and practical skills through 2-hour-long weekly meetings in a formal setting, (sometimes in small groups led by team leaders and sometimes through guest speakers presentations).
- Professionally: Matched with a mentor and given an opportunity to meet more frequently and in intimate settings with other students, staff, and guests which serves a networking function.
- Socially: Specific program-focused orientation which builds a connection with other participants as well as early (and then sustained) connections to the greater university community.
- Civically: A foundation for leadership in the greater community is also built.
- Personally: Inspires growth and connection to something bigger with a focus on responsible citizenship and an understanding of disparities and injustices.
- Academically: Learn about public health, civic engagement, environmental sustainability, race/ethnicity, and more through 2-hour-long weekly meetings (large group discussions on current topics and small cohort-based experiences in res areas).
- Professionally: Non-traditional leadership experiences and connection to students, faculty, and the greater Miami community.
- Socially: An immersive community that facilitates lasting friendships through impactful conversations and interactions with reliable mentors.
- Civically: Translates in-classroom lessons to change-making beyond the classroom through required attendance of two off-campus team building and community trips.
There are many institutions implementing these types of programs, including the one that I attend and serve as an RA at.
This year I have the privilege of being an RA involved in New College of Florida’s SuccessQuest LLC. It focuses on building the following competencies through bi-monthly hour-long sessions by staff:
- Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
- Oral/Written Communication
- Professionalism/Work Ethic
- Multicultural Fluency
- Self Reflection/Awareness
- Meaningful Interpersonal Relationships
We define leadership as necessary, processual, and a discipline. Success is defined as a measure for leadership that’s linked to a leader’s implementation of collaborative and inclusive practices that are purposeful, ethical and just. We also recognize that both leadership and success can look different depending on the field/profession as well as the personalities of the people who are being successful leaders.
One standard image does not apply! Because of this, participants are given room to utilize sessions and resources in ways that support their goals.
The goal of the program is to craft resilient, self-aware, and innovative student leaders who will be equipped and motivated to positively contribute to their current and future communities.
As an RA who gets to interact with our SuccessQuest both in the sessions and around campus, I’ve seen our program do truly fantastic things over the past semester. Here are some of the short-term effects I’ve observed since I’ve been an RA with this program.
Starting the semester with icebreaker activities starts our time together off in a welcoming and inclusive way. We want to get to know everybody and show them their voices are valuable. We encourage everyone to join in on the fun and the housing staff also hosts end-of-semester celebration dinners to spend some quality time together. Because we all live nearby, it’s no coincidence that a lot of our participants spend time together outside of the more formal setting.
Our participants get a tailored, in-depth look at our campus’ resources when we have staff from around campus visit us. These friendly faces become familiar and so more easily accessible. These visits also help students feel more comfortable reaching out to these offices when they need support. This eases the worry that comes with directly seeking help from both student and professional staff.
Because we the RAs are directly involved in presenting content and leading sessions, we too become more accessible. We are both knowledgeable about resources and are students, too, so we serve as mentors to our residents. Many students who enroll in these sorts of programs are interested in being leaders on campus and in the community, so interacting regularly with other students who are in positions they wish to occupy someday gives them an inside look at what it takes and what it’s like.
The variety in these programs makes it clear that there’s not one way to do it and the options are limitless! So now it’s your turn.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re getting started:
- Which student population are you trying to support? (ex: first-year first-time-in-college, first-year transfers, etc.)
- What sorts of skills do you want residents to build? (voila! you can start a programming series based on that!)
- How can you leverage your financial resources? (ex: partner with other campus offices to further their initiatives!)
- What definition of leadership do you want to base your program in? (ex: there are some pretty great ones here)
These programs provide valuable resources that ease the difficult transition for students experiencing their first year in college. Implementing a curriculum based in residence life recognizes that the transition to college is a change that involves more than just academics.
Moving away to college changes a student’s life and integrating them into the community while encouraging them to build skills is a great way to support them as they develop.
We would love to know how you use leadership and success programs to support your first-year students. Be sure to tweet @HelloPresence!