GCU program helps new students find guiding lights
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Senior animation major Cathee Ojeda remembers her freshman year at Grand Canyon University. She didn’t know anyone, didn’t know how to manage her time and felt the weight of deadlines for class assignments pressing on her.
“When students are stressed and overwhelmed – I’ve got a couple of them – when they just don’t know what to do, I go back to how I felt when I was a freshman, and I totally understand them,” said Ojeda, one of the First-Year Experience learning advocates, or LEADs, who are dedicated to helping freshmen and other first-year GCU students navigate those initial months on campus.
Ojeda hears all manner of questions that run the gamut.
“Some students come in with two or three questions … other students come in with a whole list of things they want to go over,” Ojeda said from the Academic & Career Excellence (ACE) Center on the first floor of Willow Hall, which opened to students in person this semester for the first time since the pandemic hit in spring 2020.
The Willow ACE Center (see slideshow here) is home to the First-Year Experience, a program to support first-year students and help them adjust to what will be one of the biggest life changes they will experience: leaving the comforts of home and heading to college.
Helping those students successfully transition into college life is a big job for Ojeda, her fellow First-Year Experience LEADs and department staff members.
“It’s just helping first-year students get acclimated to university life, university academics, being away from mom and dad, being in a different state, different country, having roommates and really just, as we like to say, being a concierge,” said William Lange, First-Year Experience Program Manager. “There are so many great resources at GCU. We help connect them to all those different resources.”
Added Marette Hahn, Academic Support Director for ACE, “University-level learning is different from what our new students experienced previously, whether that be high school or a community college. No matter what their class level, if a student is new to GCU, we help them transition into GCU’s academic rigor, systems and expectations. We want to see every student who starts here at GCU succeed.”
According to a report released in July by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, for the first time in four years, the number of beginning freshmen returning to continue college dropped significantly. Of the 2.6 million students who entered a higher education institution as first-time freshmen in fall 2019, only 74% returned for a second year. That is a 2% drop compared to the persistence rate from the year before – a decline attributed to the pandemic.
Those are numbers the First-Year Experience staff doesn’t want to see. The goal: Keep the newest Lopes on their path to completing their degree.
The First-Year Experience opened in Willow Hall in October 2019, though the initiative existed in different departments before becoming a part of the ACE Centers a little more than three years ago.
Since then, Lange said, “We’ve really been pushing it and trying to make it what it is today.”
The first step was to find a good home for the program, so the ACE team worked with Residence Life and other campus leaders to carve out a space and found the perfect location in Willow Hall, one of the freshman residence halls at The Grove.
“We talk to a lot of students, and they LOVE the fact that we’re in their dorm. We’re two floors away,” Lange said. “We’re down the hall or we’re right next door. It makes it really easy for them to come and ask simple questions or come in and get help with an academic LEAD or a First-Year Experience LEAD.”
Conveniently, Welcome Programs is nearby, on the first floor of Juniper Hall next door, and is yet another conveniently located resource for first-year students.
The Willow Hall ACE Center has grown to include Lange and eight student workers for the First-Year Experience program along with a full-time staff member and two additional student workers who concentrate on success coaching for upperclassmen.
The team didn’t get to work with students in person for very long, just a few months, before the pandemic arrived, and the First-Year Experience at Willow, like the rest of the ACE Centers, went virtual. Students during the pandemic relied on Zoom appointments they made with LEADs through Career Connections, the online tool students use to apply for jobs, RSVP for career events and more.
Lange and his team also launched student-led webinars called Walk to Class for the 8,000 new students in 2019-20. The department hired seven First-Year Experience LEADs to help their fellow students transition to college life and to teach them how to use the learning management system at the time, LoudCloud.
“We were kind of bummed NOT to be able to use the space (in Willow Hall),” Lange said of the facility’s short in-person existence before COVID. “So this year is great for first-year students to know where to go. … Hey, you have a space right in your residence hall or in your area to come get an answer, even if it’s a simple question. Just come down and say hi and we’ll get you connected.”
One of the big initiatives for the First-Year Experience team has been educating students on Halo Learn, the new learning management system created specifically for the University by Grand Canyon Education.
“High school is different than college. Most of them (high schools) don’t use a learning management system, so just getting them accustomed to it,” Lange said.
Students who stop into Willow can get tutoring from academic LEADs ready to help with subjects such as math, science and writing.
But this particular ACE Center also specializes in support skills for freshmen and other first-year GCU students, which often means teaching time management and study skills.
“We’ll see students one time, three times, 18 times, whatever they need – that Mary Poppins effect. We’re here to help. They fly away, we don’t,” Lange said.
Sophomore public health student Mary Abebe has been working as a First-Year Experience LEAD for a few months. She used to work in Tech Support, an experience that helps her train students on Halo Learn, and she’s a resident assistant, which comes in handy when it comes to orienting students.
“A lot of them ask me about getting involved on campus.. … They’ll say, I don’t know where this is or I don’t know how to find my RA. … I just help them with that, getting them connected,” she said.
Jayleen Escobar, who is majoring in Business Management, has visited the Willow ACE Center about a dozen times, meeting with both First-Year Experience and academic LEADs.
“I go there often, whether it’s just to do some homework and need somewhere quiet or if I need help with math … or to get some help with a project. All the students who work there are very friendly and welcoming and make it very easy to ask for help,” Escobar said.
Ojeda, who has tutored K12 students as part of her Students Inspiring Students scholarship, noted that students are looking mainly for advice. “Since I’m a senior, I have plenty,” Ojeda said with a smile.
“It makes me happy to see that they feel at ease once our meeting ends,” she added.
In the end it’s about helping first-year students who may be struggling and, ultimately, helping them realize their academic goals.
“They’re thrown into this huge university, and they don’t know what to do,” Abebe said. “You’ve got to be there for them.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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