Helping students, faculty adapt to change
Thinking about the first time they donned lab coats, gloves, and goggles for an organic chemistry class at WSU makes rising seniors Haley Delgado and David Saldivar laugh, remembering both the joy and the anxiety.
“We were so excited, we took pictures of ourselves,” Saldivar said.
“We were thinking, ‘We made it to O-Chem. We’ve made it so far. This is a big deal!’” Delgado said. “Other people in our class were wondering why we were so freaked out. It’s just something that’s expected of you in college—but you want to turn around and scream like a little kid.”
For first-generation students, like Delgado and Saldivar, a fairly typical day in college can be a milestone on the road to success or a giant brick wall.
Students who are the first in their families to attend college, in a racial minority, low-income, and/or immigrants are most at risk of dropping out, and together they make up WSU’s fastest growing demographic group. In AY 2015-16, nearly 40 percent of WSU undergraduates were first-generation while 30 percent were minorities.
Helping these students succeed in the classroom and reach each milestone on the way to graduation is the aim of the Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Program (CLASP). Begun in 2008 and now largely funded by the College of Arts and Sciences, CLASP is making a positive, measurable impact on academic achievement and student retention, helping some of WSU’s most promising students pursue their dreams.
The program also serves faculty by providing valuable information, training, and experience to strengthen and expand their teaching to better connect with our ever-changing student population.
Underrepresented students face a variety of challenges, many that are invisible to their instructors and even other students, said CLASP director Anna Plemons, clinical assistant professor of English. CLASP is designed to help them overcome obstacles, such as culture shock, and successfully navigate college life by pairing them with a faculty mentor from one of their classes and engaging other follow-up support.
Making meaningful connections
CLASP focuses primarily on improving students’ writing skills, but, as Delgado and Saldivar gladly attest, it goes a big step further by facilitating meaningful, academically rich student–faculty conversations at a pivotal point in students’ lives.
“As a freshman, I had a really, really hard time adjusting to the college atmosphere,” Delgado said. “When I was in my classes or in my dorm, I just wanted to go home. But making connections with professors kind of reassures you that everything’s going to be okay and you’re going to get through your freshman year, even as hard as it is,” she said.
“I always doubted my writing a lot,” Saldivar said. “I felt like, ‘Man, I do not want to go meet with my professor. They’re just going to tell me my work sucks.’
“But then I discovered they’re really not out to get me. It’s not as hard to talk with professors anymore. I have more confidence to actually do these things.”
Delgado and Saldivar, both biological sciences majors and award-winning undergraduate researchers, now work as coaches in the Writing Commons, part of the WSU Writing Center. They urge all the students they meet, particularly freshmen and underrepresented students, to make the most of opportunities to talk with their instructors during office hours.
“It’s easy to get lost in a crowd of 20,000 students—to feel like it’s ‘The Hunger Games,’” Delgado said. “But the more interactions we had with professors who were so encouraging reinforced the idea that we could make it here at the University.
“These small connections aren’t entirely what kept us here, but they kept us from walking away.”
CLASP supports both students and faculty in two strategic ways:
- Students bring prepared questions to their professors weekly during office hours and report on the meetings to staff in multicultural and student support services.
- Faculty receive guidance to critically reflect on their teaching and discuss ways to adapt and connect their pedagogies to current literature about academic achievement and underrepresented students.
Providing support for faculty
For faculty, CLASP offers valuable information about the best ways to structure their classrooms and teaching to support underrepresented students and meet their challenges, said Todd Butler, associate professor and chair of the English department, where CLASP originated.
“It contributes to their professional growth and pedagogical development by giving them deeper insight into the diversity of students they’re teaching as well as both their general and special needs,” said Charles Weller, professor of history and a CLASP mentor for the past year and a half. “It helps bring new approaches to the classroom, and helps faculty connect on a more personal basis with the people they’re teaching. And it offers an added sense of fulfillment in helping nurture and inspire motivated students.”
A major strength of the program is that “it doesn’t put the onus for success solely on the student,” Plemons said. “Instead, it operates on the understanding that institutions of higher education must systematically prepare both students and faculty to address and engage the multiple factors that affect student achievement.”
Mark Triana, a doctoral student and instructor in English, said his three semesters as a CLASP mentor have enriched and expanded his academic skillset and approach to teaching in general. “In terms of pedagogy and teaching, CLASP enables you to step outside of your comfort zone and to invite things you never thought you would into your teaching career,” he said.
Last fall, eight CAS departments engaged with CLASP in some way, and 48 members of CAS faculty provided support in 16 different courses. Throughout the semester, faculty and staff across the Pullman campus received a total of more than 500 hours of facilitated training on topics from classroom pedagogy and course design to student support and stereotype threat.
Each CLASP faculty member mentors no more than four students per semester and averages about eight meetings per student.
This spring, WSU Vancouver completed its third year of the program, with several CAS faculty participating. Plemons is eager to see it expand throughout the college and broader University.
“CLASP is doing precisely what a publicly supported university should do, which is to help all the state’s citizens pursue and succeed in their academic dreams,” Butler said. “In an era when student debt and retention are significant issues, CLASP has more than four years of data to show that its students stay in school and succeed better than the average student.”
Faculty who are interested in becoming CLASP mentors can contact Plemons at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-335-3876.
CLASP partners include the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), College Success Foundation, First Scholars Program, Multicultural Student Services, Smart Start Program, The Writing Program, and TRiO Student Support Services Program.
—By J. Adrian Aumen