When John Brandt learned last spring he’d received a full scholarship to Vassar, he was “ecstatic but, at the same time, concerned about culture shock.”
Brandt grew up in a modest neighborhood in the small coastal town of Newport, Oregon, with his mother, who is single and disabled, and his two brothers. He says he knew his family’s income was “somewhere below the poverty line,” while many Vassar students come from families with considerable wealth. “I was worried about how I’d fit in.”
By the time classes began in the fall, Brandt wasn’t worried anymore. He was one of 50 freshmen who participated in Transitions, a four-day program designed to help low-income and first-generation college students adjust to life at Vassar.
They arrived on campus four days before New Student Orientation, meeting key administrators and taking mock classes—complete with homework—taught by three faculty members. All were assigned student mentors who helped them move into their dorms and answered their questions about campus life.
Many of this year’s mentors had been enrolled in the Transitions program as freshmen—something Brandt says he found particularly reassuring. “They’d been in the same place we were in, and they’re all thriving at Vassar,” he says. “It made me realize that while I didn’t have some of the same opportunities growing up as some other students, that didn’t mean I couldn’t achieve now that I’m here.”
Brandt’s reaction was the one Dean of Freshmen Ben Lotto and other administrators were looking for when they launched Transitions in 2010. The program was developed in response to a proposal submitted the previous year by students and faculty. From the start, Lotto says, one of the primary goals was to stress to the incoming students that they were in no way being singled out as “needing special help.” “We stressed that the deficit here was Vassar’s, not the students’,” Lotto says. “They had already demonstrated they could do the work. It was just a matter of helping them acclimate to new surroundings.”
Another architect of the program, Dean of Residential Life Luis Inoa, agrees.
“Vassar is very relationship-centered, and students who don’t automatically feel comfortable in their new environment can be reticent to reach out and begin establishing those relationships,” Inoa says. “We were aware there might be the perception that these students would feel stigmatized, so, from the start, the message was always the same: ‘We have high expectations for you, and we want to help you by making the college user-friendly.’”
Associate Professor of Sociology Eréndira Rueda, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, says she had benefited from a similar program for incoming freshmen at the University of California at San Diego. She taught a mock course at this year’s Transitions program and was impressed with how it had helped the students “get a jump start” on their college experience. “My own parents gave me tons of emotional support when I went off to college, but they weren’t equipped to help me navigate the bureaucracy on campus and the change in culture, and it’s the same here,” Rueda says.
“I can see the impact this program has made in just three years,” she adds. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of these kids, and many of them mention Transitions on their Facebook pages. They see the experience as a positive thing, and there’s still lots of interaction among the group.”
Vassar alum Kleaver Cruz ’11, one of the students who originally proposed such a program, lauded President Catharine Hill for supporting the concept. “A lot of us felt low-income students needed a voice, a way to adapt, and I give the administration credit for embracing it,” Cruz says. “Once the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence [and Hill] endorsed it, we knew we’d develop something that worked.”
Hill says a program like Transitions has become increasingly vital as the makeup of the student body changes. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, she noted the proportion of freshmen receiving scholarships from the college has increased from 46 percent to 58 percent in the last six years, and first-generation college students account for 13 percent of the current freshman class, up from nine percent in 2006.
“It isn’t enough to admit a diverse student body. We want to make sure they are successful when they get here,” Hill says. “Some students, particularly lower-income students, had been telling us that they had some trouble feeling like they belonged and understanding everything they needed to about how the college worked to succeed. So, the Transitions program seemed like a great way to start them off with more understanding about Vassar.”
Photos © Vassar College-Buck Lewis