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Freshman Success Program Wins $514,875 Grant


UCR Freshman Success Program Wins $514,875 Grant

CHASS Connect program will double with U.S. Department of Education funding.

(July 14, 2008)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A UC Riverside program for freshmen that improves academic success and the time required to complete a degree is the recipient of a $514,875 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand and evaluate the effort.

The four-year grant will enable CHASS Connect, which was created by UCR's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) in 2002, to double from 240 students per year to 480 beginning in fall 2008. The grant, initiated by UCR's Office of Undergraduate Education, also will fund outreach efforts to encourage other universities to establish similar programs for entering freshmen.

CHASS Connect is a yearlong program in which freshmen choose a sequence of three classes that are linked thematically — one course in each quarter — as part of their regular course load. Topics offered this fall will include: California; violence; media, diversity and childhood; manifestations of spirituality; revolutions; and Latin American studies. The California sequence, for example, will feature courses that address visions of California in literature, the state's natural hazards (such as earthquakes, fires and floods), and the complex history of the state's more than 100 Indian tribes.

That interdisciplinary approach is key to a successful university experience, said David Fairris, vice provost for undergraduate education and principal investigator on the grant. "The students are exposed to different ways of thinking about a particular problem," he said.

Students meet on a regular basis with the same teaching assistant and peer mentors all three quarters, and are required to attend an academic, cultural and athletic event on campus. Teaching assistants and peer mentors help the freshmen sharpen their academic skills and get over their fear of speaking with faculty, said Geoff Cohen, CHASS Connect academic coordinator.

That is especially important given the diversity of UCR's student body and the large number of students who are the first in their families to attend a university, he said. More than 80 percent of UCR freshmen in fall 2007 were minorities, and more than half were from families where their parents do not have a bachelor's degree.

UCR's long-range goal is to have every freshman on campus in some first-year experience program or community, Cohen said. "It's a great way to initiate students into an academic climate. You challenge them and support them."

A preliminary study in 2005 found that the yearlong program helps to retain students, improve their academic success, and leads to graduation sooner than similar students not in the program, said Fairris, who conducted that study while he was an associate dean in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

In addition to allowing a doubling of capacity, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant will pay for a more formal evaluation of the program. It also will fund two conferences to disseminate information about CHASS Connect to other UC campuses and provide follow-up support, and fund presentations about the program at regional and national conferences, said Melba Schneider Castro, director of First Year Success Programs at UCR.

Depending on the evaluation results, UCR's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and Office of Undergraduate Education have agreed to continue accommodating the larger number of students, Fairris said. UCR's contribution to the program over the four years will be $1,237,076.

Anne Sullivan, a 21-year-old English major who graduated in June 2008, said CHASS Connect helped her overcome her fear of talking to professors and speaking in class.

"The teachers are very invested in student success," she said. "It's easy to be anonymous in a class of 300. Regular contact with at least a teaching assistant, if not the professor, makes it easy to get help. I became much more confident about going to professors for help, even outside CHASS Connect."

She also made friends through the program and eventually became a peer mentor "because I wanted other students to have as good an experience as I did. It's so valuable in your freshman year when it's easy to feel lost. It was a really great experience."

Johnnie Ren, a sophomore history major, said taking three courses with the same people during his freshman year helped him make new friends. His teaching assistant and peer mentors — Sullivan was one — helped ease the transition from high school and became friends as well, he said.

CHASS Connect also broadened his academic experiences and exposed him to new events and programs on campus, said Ren, who is an ASUCR senator representing the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

"I came out (of CHASS Connect) as a rounded-out individual," he said.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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