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UI students study culture of college in unique transitional program

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A group of University of Iowa students will study the culture of higher education as if they are anthropologists in a foreign country this fall as part of a unique program that's successfully helping capable, but underprepared students make the transition to college life.

The program, called "IowaLink," is a one-year program designed to provide academic and social support to students who are recruited to the UI, but whose academic background is less rigorous than other students. Each IowaLink student has to indicate academic, artistic or intellectual promise that they are capable of succeeding at the UI.

Pat Folsom, director of IowaLink, says the program has been successful in retaining students through the first year, an often difficult period for any student, but even more trying for students whose academic background may be limited.

In 1995-96, the program's first year, 18 students were enrolled and 15 finished; in 1996-97, 30 students were enrolled and 27 finished. During the past two years, the grade point average for the IowaLink students is above 2.0 on a four-point scale, well above that predicted for students with their academic backgrounds.

About 26 students are enrolled for this fall.

"Our experience shows that the students who succeed are the students who figure out the college culture and all the other things that go with being a college student," Folsom says. "The faster students make that adjustment, the better they will do."

One of the key components of IowaLink is the required class, "Academic Seminar," in which students are asked, in part, to explore life at the UI as if they are trying to understand a new culture.

James Marshall, professor of English and education who coordinates the seminar, says the anthropological approach is a powerful way to get students to appreciate the transitions they are going through and learn critical-thinking, problem-solving and vocabulary skills necessary for success in college.

"Students come to the university with cultural experiences and a certain set of cultural strategies that have enabled them to survive and succeed," says Marshall. "But at the university, they need to learn a whole new set of strategies. The seminar is a place in the university freshman experience where students can step back and reflect on their first-year experiences and put them in perspective."

(more) 8/13/97

With the help of College of Education graduate students Yolanda Majors and

Kathi Griffin, Marshall redesigned the Academic Seminar in 1996. Borrowing research techniques from the field of ethnography, Marshall revamped the course so that students can tap into their previous experiences to understand life at the UI.

For example, students write papers on topics such as, "How are textbooks written compared to other books?" or "How do people talk to one another in residence halls, classrooms, or on campus?"

"We're not trying to make them 'unlearn' the things that they already know and that have served them well, but we're asking them to think about how they can use their skills in a new environment," Marshall says.

The other key component is a required study group that each IowaLink student takes in addition to a regular schedule of first-year lecture and discussion courses.

Study groups are led by a "model student," usually an upper-level undergraduate who takes the class along with the IowaLink students and helps students apply the skills they learn in Academic Seminar.

Bette Mayes, IowaLink coordinator, says combining the model student approach with the Academic Seminar and the general education courses is unique to IowaLink.

"Study group leaders are not instructors," Mayes says. "They are model students who do everything that the students do, but who also guide the IowaLink students in how to apply the skills they are learning."

In addition to the instructional components of the program, IowaLink students receive academic advising through the Academic Advising Center. They also have access to a wide range of tutoring, counseling and academic support through other UI offices.

John Folkins, associate provost who oversees IowaLink, says the program is a small step to broaden the scope of the UI for students who might otherwise be overlooked.

"These are young people who show their talent in many, many ways," Folkins says. "They have shown they have potential. We need to be broader in terms of thinking about what are the precursors to success at the university."

Marshall emphasizes that IowaLink students are bright and creative young people who have different backgrounds from the majority of UI students.

"These are students who may not have the academic histories that other students have," Marshall says. "But they are smart people who have, in some cases, survived things that would crush most people."

(more) 8/13/97

He says approaching the first year of college from an anthropological approach may help other students as well, especially at a large university where students often feel they are left to "sink or swim."

"The transition to college is sharp for all students, no matter how well prepared they are," Marshall says. "Students suddenly find themselves in a new culture where the message is, 'If you want to survive, you have to adapt quickly.'"

"If we can make that first-year experience more humane, and give it more of a sense of community, I think that's a good thing," he says.