The Allendale campus at Grand Valley State University is usually quite vacant in the summer; dorms are mostly uninhabited, in-person classes are far and few between, and campus dining is practically non-existent. But for the last five weeks, campus has enjoyed the full attention of students who had the opportunity to arrive ahead of their fellow incoming freshman. These students, the Oliver Wilson Scholars, had a chance to live in the dorms, tour Grand Rapids, learn about Grand Valley’s infrastructure and take two of a variety of credited courses.
“I feel the program has really helped me get a sense for the campus,” said OWS Student Kaiya Smith. “I get to know where everything is, and I get to get an idea for what the environment is going to be in the classroom.”
Smith is taking courses in English and Women and Gender Studies; others in the program are taking Math, Sociology, and Philosophy. Students remarked on how much they enjoyed getting to take classes outside of their basic general education requirements, and that it piqued their curiosity for taking more courses in those fields. Others who were taking classes for their major found the college classroom experience satisfyingly different from taking required courses in high school.
“I hated math in high school, but I think that had to do with the way it was taught,” Chance Scarcelli-Navarro said. “I’ve noticed that college classes are taught so differently, because it’s up to how the professor wants to teach it to you. In the math class I’m taking now, there’s so many different ways to explain things— there are so many paths to the same answer. I found that really cool. I have to take a lot more math classes for my major, but I’m definitely looking forward to them now instead of dreading them.”
Being able to take credited courses was an important part of the program when it was founded as the “Freshman Academy” in 2003 by Dr. Oliver Wilson, the then-dean of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (and who the program was named for, after his passing in 2009). 2021 was a return to this original form.
“It started off as a summer bridge, where the students moved in weeks early and took classes,” said V’Lecea Hunter, the program’s Senior Director of Diverse Populations & Retention Initiatives. “But then that stopped, and the students would only be here for one week, and were unable to earn any academic credits. It’s going back to how it was— this is the first year that we have had the students be here for six weeks, and get to take six to seven academic credits while also engaging in educational and co-curricular workshops.”
One such workshop was on “Life Readiness, Social Skills, and Networking,” given by the founding director of Grand Valley’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, Dr. Susan Mendoza.
“One of the most difficult transitions to college is going from a place that you know to a place to a place that’s completely different,” said Mendoza. “One thing I really like about this program is that it allows you to wade into the pool, because there can be a hidden curriculum that you don’t get in orientation.”
As Mendoza went on to express in her seminar, one of the biggest keys to success is networking with faculty and staff. Going to office hours, getting involved in research, talking to financial aid about scholarships and study abroad— all can be extremely beneficial, especially if students start doing so early in their academic careers. As Mendoza pointed out, there’s much less she can do for students if they come to her in the last semester of their senior year.
“Grand Valley in general is a campus that wants to help its students as much as it can,” said OWS student Elijah Sauceda. “I think a lot of people are scared to ask faculty questions, but here you can tell that almost all the faculty really do just care about the students. They can either help you or point to the exact person that can.”
As it stands now, the Oliver Wilson Summer Student Success Program is a six week transition course that helps incoming freshmen adapt from high school to a college environment. In addition to giving students an opportunity to take courses for credit ahead of their first official semester, the program incorporates educational workshops and co-curricular activities to develop their learning skills and create a sense of belonging in the GVSU community.
“This is just the beginning,” Hunter said. “This summer bridge contains about half of the students that will matriculate to the program in the fall semester. The students are required to be actively engaged in the Oliver Wilson program their entire freshman year, but we will track them from the time they start to the time they end at Grand Valley.”
Throughout the academic year, the program will be partnering with campus advisors in academic and career planning to engage with students on a weekly basis. They’ll also be keeping up the co-curricular social engagement for the group, maintaining the bonds created over the summer and creating new ones for the students joining the program in the fall.
“The more you are engaged with students, the more the students will show success,” Hunter said. “They see that you are invested in them. But at the same time, we’ll be creating a sense of belonging for the students in this program— that can mean community service, it can mean going to events as a group, it can mean our Oliver Wilson game nights— just social support activities, so that students can feel they belong here, and not get overwhelmed with college.”
Transitioning from high school to college certainly can be overwhelming for many incoming freshmen, but those participating in the OWS summer program are entering the fall semester with more tools and support than most.
“Their level of advocacy has increased significantly,” Hunter said. “They’ve stepped out of their comfort zone, met new people. They have learned how to be college students by taking these college courses. We’ve been very intentional with talking to the students about being their authentic self in this fresh space. Everyone came to Grand Valley with a blank canvas. What do you want your picture to be? You design your picture.”