First-Year Experience Off to a Good Start, Nov. 5, 2001

Peer Facilitators SOCORRO, N.M., November 5, 2001 -- The newly established First-Year Experience at New Mexico Tech is off to a good start in its inaugural semester at the university, offering its various services, programming, and learning opportunities to all members of the freshman class.

Although it's not yet an official requirement for freshman students at Tech, more than 230 students have opted to make the First-Year program part of their overall academic experience.

The First-Year Experience program is offered through New Mexico Tech's Advising Resource Center (ARC), as a means to assist these "students in transition" to fully realize their academic and personal goals.

Students participating in the program meet on a weekly basis and are grouped together by declared majors to address many of the issues affecting today's college student.

Among the topics discussed by each of the 11 groups are proper preparation for classes, different learning styles, effective note taking and textbook reading, time and stress management, academic integrity, and effective test taking.

"The groups are led by peer facilitators," explains Elaine Debrine-Howell, director of ARC. "Peer facilitators typically are upperclassmen who are successful in their studies and have demonstrated leadership abilities."

Studies have shown that peer education is extremely effective, and college students are more apt to listen to advice delivered by their peers, Debrine-Howell says.

"I think they actually hear it better when someone who has been through it and is close to their own age is saying it," she says.

Peer facilitators get to personally know how the first-years are doing in their introductory classes, and as such, can often recommend to certain students that they seek academic counseling and tutoring before they get bogged down in their studies.

"Our First-Year Experience program is very dependent on peer facilitators," relates Tony Ortiz, program coordinator of ARC. "They're a very good group--many are the same ones who always do everything around campus--and they essentially run the program by themselves. . . . Our peer facilitators are Carolyn Munk, Lisa Edwards, Mindy Gilbert, Aaron Lund, Aaron Prager, Mary Irwin, Becky Redden, Diane Meier, Levi Chavez, Israel Vaughn, and Nikki Beauchamp."

However, the First-Year Experience is not strictly an academic program: many of the enrolled students also enjoy social events which are interspersed throughout the semester, such as friendly competitions in volleyball and kickball, movies, and barbecues. The facilitators currently are planning a variety of social events for the spring semester.

"So far, we have found there are several levels of participation in this program," explains Debrine-Howell, "ranging from students who form their own independent study groups to those who stay in contact mostly through e-mail.

"Essentially, what we've done is present them with all the choices," Debrine-Howell continues. "We want them to have
ownership over their own decision-making processes; and, we're hoping they'll be motivated enough to make adaptive choices for themselves. . . . It's all up to them--the ultimate decision is theirs, but we want to facilitate positive decision-making as much as we can."

Although New Mexico Tech's First-Year Experience is still in its inception, the program actually evolved from the university's Group Opportunities for Activities and Learning (GOAL) program, which began in 1996.

The programs are similar in the sense that they are both attempts to keep more Tech freshmen coming back to school for their sophomore year.

However, in contrast to the large number of First-Year Experience students, GOAL participants typically numbered between 60 and 70 students each semester.

"This newer version of our first-year program is made available to all freshmen, regardless of whether they live on- or off-campus. GOAL students were grouped together in the same sections of introductory classes and lived next to each other in the same residence hall, but we have our First-Year Experience students interspersed throughout the residence halls and even
throughout town," Debrine-Howell points out.

"One of the things we learned from the GOAL program and we now use to our advantage in First-Year Experience is that freshman students actually prefer to interact with upperclassmen, and stand to benefit from the vision and experiences slightly older students can bring into these mutually beneficial relationships," she adds. "As a result, they often form learning communities on their own as well."

Since it is a new program at New Mexico Tech, it's probably going to take at least four or five years to accurately assess whether First-Year Experience is effectively accomplishing what it's set up to do, Debrine-Howell says.

"Although we have measurable objectives such as increased academic participation, the students themselves may not be able to effectively assess the impact of the program until they move further along in their academic and personal development," she relates.

In the meanwhile, Debrine-Howell is expecting, as are most Tech administrators, that First-Year Experience will have a marked effect on improving retention rates for its students in transition during that critical freshman to sophomore year.

"We're hoping to see the retention rate improve to 80 percent from fall semester to fall semester for these students," she says. "Currently, it's at about 72 percent. . . . And, we're hoping to use many of the strategies which prove successful for the development of a transition program for our transfer students."