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February 6, 1997

Johnstown coordinates services to ease freshmen through first year

In the past 10 years, approximately 29 percent of full- time freshmen at public colleges and universities did not return for their sophomore year. According to the American College Testing Program, the number for private institutions was about 26 percent.

During that same period, Pitt's Johnstown campus (UPJ) lost an average of about 22 percent of its full-time freshmen annually, according to James Gyure, UPJ's director of admissions and assistant vice president, enrollment management.

Although UPJ's freshman retention rate is several percentage points better than the national average, the administration would like to see even more freshmen return to the campus for their sophomore year.

"We're not doing poorly, but we think we can do better by paying a little more attention," said Gyure. "And if you pay more attention to freshmen and improve the retention rates of freshmen, you stand a greater chance of having more upper class students on campus." To help ease freshman students through that often hazardous transition year from high school to college, UPJ in recent years has launched a number of efforts. They include a peer assistance program that uses upper-level students to help freshmen learn about college life, and a commuter residence program that assigns dormitory rooms to commuter students to make them feel more a part of the campus. (See Oct. 26, 1995, University Times.) Until last fall, though, UPJ's freshman programs generally were scattered in different departments and at different locations around campus. The mix made using many of them a chore and hindered communication. Searching for a way to improve the situation at minimal cost, UPJ began looking at some of the work being done at other institutions around the country, particularly the Freshman Year Experience Center at the University of South Carolina. Last fall, UPJ introduced its own version, the Freshman Network.

"The network in and of itself didn't necessarily create anything," Gyure said. "It tries to bring some coordination to activities that are already going on. Hopefully, it is the coordination of the process that helps bring some cohesion." Housed next to the Admissions office, the one office on campus that practically all freshmen have had contact with and know the location of, the Freshman Network is operated by staff from the Admissions office with some help from upper-level students.

Freshmen can use the network office as a one-stop shop to obtain information on everything from the proper way to drop classes and the name of their academic adviser to academic programs and financial aid.

Faculty and staff can use the office to keep abreast of what other departments are doing for freshman students and as a source of referral for freshmen who might be experiencing difficulties. All contact with students is handled in a confidential manner.

To facilitate communication, the Freshman Network publishes a monthly newsletter that is mailed to all freshman students, their parents and various members of the campus community.

"It is important to mail it to the parents," said Gyure, "because if a parent is aware of a deadline, they might remind their student." The network also is tied in with the orientation class conducted for freshmen at the beginning of each term. Topics covered in the orientation class are echoed in the newsletter and in the network office.

"Ideally," said Gyure, "if a freshman hears something in the class and they have it echoed in the newsletter and office, it reinforces it, whether it's a deadline, encouragement, a recommendation, a suggestion, a problem- solving technique." Oversight of the Freshman Network is handled by UPJ's Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs James Alexander. He chairs the Freshman Network committee, which is made up of representatives of offices that have extensive dealings with freshmen, such as personal counseling, the learning research center, the registrar, financial aid, housing, student affairs and the assistant academic vice president.

"Those people come together several times during the term," said Gyure, "to discuss the network, to talk about topics for the newsletter, to coordinate information, to talk about problems that may have arisen, to try to offer solutions and so on." During the fall 1996 term, the first for the Freshman Network, more than 100 of UPJ's approximately 750 freshmen stopped into the office for assistance. Network activities also were communicated to every freshman through the newsletter, as well as the usual contacts with faculty and staff.

"We felt that during the first term, as a pilot project, it went pretty well," Gyure said. "But we had modest ambitions because we only began the project in July." Although it is far too early to draw any conclusions about the success of the Freshman Network, Gyure believes it cannot help but be a plus in the eyes of prospective students and their parents when they are shopping for a school. He also believes that the assistance the network provides should aid retention rates by making the freshman year a less stressful experience.

Adjustments of all types take place during the freshman year. Being a transition year from high school to college, a lot of things occur that require adjustments in the social area, academics, the cultural arena and psychologically.

"The way we use this program is to simply tell prospective students that we have it," Gyure said. "We tell their families that we have it and let them know that we understand that the freshman year involves a certain transition and can be a little tricky at times for a young person. The college recognizes that and is trying to put some services into place to help students succeed.

"Will it help with recruiting?" he adds. "It certainly is a positive, engaging kind of program to talk about. We're very realistic in the ambitions for the program, but we think as part of a larger institutional effort, it could be important."

–Mike Sajna

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