This post is co-authored by Zoë Vassallo, Moana Tago, John Tran and Betty Mekonnen.
For many students, transition into the first year of university will be one of the most challenging periods of their life, especially for those coming from equity cohorts. The First Year Success Program began in 2022 as a way to prepare and support first year students from widening participation programs such as the U@Uni Academy program, the Humanitarian Scholarship program, and the Schools Recommendation Scheme. It is the first of its kind at UTS as a bespoke program which offers tailored and targeted support for students from low SES backgrounds.
In anticipation of the upcoming FFYE Forum on using the Social Impact (SI) Dashboard to enhance the student experience, we share a snapshot here of the First Year Success Program and what we’re learning on the journey so far.
What is the First Year Success Program?
While universities often have an abundance of support services and resources to help students in their first-year transition, those who come through a non-ATAR entry pathway may lack confidence to reach out and use them. Aligning with other established initiatives such as the ongoing First and Further Year Experience (FFYE) program, the First Year Success Program is designed to help students navigate university systems with confidence, from administration to academic and social experiences.
Throughout the program, students take part in a number of activities to help them transition to uni life. These include academic bridging courses, workshops, social events and peer mentoring. While the program is still in its infancy, there have been many learnings already; not least that students’ sense of confidence stems from a variety of factors including belonging, wellbeing and academic success.
What makes the First Year Success Program work?
Anyone who has worked in student support will tell you that relationship building is key. It leads to higher engagement and as such, is the foundation of many of the program activities run by the First Year Success Team. This relationship is fostered from the very first SMS to students, as the First Year Success Team establish themselves as a key touchpoint for individuals during transition and beyond.
Some of the key pillars underpinning the program are detailed below.
Peer Mentoring is offered at key periods during the Autumn session and gives first-year students a chance to connect with an experienced university student in their faculty on a regular basis. This has helped to foster a welcoming and inclusive university environment for new students, building a sense of belonging as they grow closer to their faculty and peers.
Student wellbeing surveys are conducted twice each semester, in week 3 (pre-census) and week 8 (post stuvac). The first survey gauges students’ confidence about their study plan and their selected degree. The second survey is designed with the purpose of gaining insight into students’ awareness of support services, current confidence about their study progress and to invite their perspective on peer mentoring. Both surveys allow students to express any concerns, anonymously if they wish, and to request support.
Student advisory meetings
Student advisory meetings can be academic or welfare-related, conducted when a student’s concern is categorised as complex or urgent enough to require closer engagement. Using an online booking system, students are invited to schedule a meeting with us to triage any concerns they may have. The student can then be referred to a delegated faculty member for further support, and/ or to the appropriate UTS services.
A coordinated approach
The first-year success team works closely with each faculty’s delegated contact, who volunteers to be in this role. When a student’s concern cannot be triaged by UTS services, the first year success team refer students directly to the faculty. We have found that students benefit from speaking to someone from their faculty to give their expert advice on what steps they should take to ensure that they meet their learning outcomes, for example. We truly appreciate the support of faculty, and the multiple touchpoints described here have proven critical in ensuring the students’ needs are effectively triaged.
Where to next?
The First Year Success Program is built on foundations of trust, support, authentic connections and interpersonal relationships, along with a focus on case management and individual student progress, both academic and personal.
Student feedback shows that the program has been successful in helping students adapt to university life and develop a sense of belonging. For the 2022 cohort, engagement rates across all activities averaged 83%; average response rate for wellbeing surveys was 84.5%; and 81% of students engaged with their mentors and participated in mentoring activities. 88% of the commencing U@Uni cohort continued into the second teaching semester.
We’ll be watching this space after Session 2 ends to evaluate progress year-on-year, too. As with all things relating to student equity, modification is the key. We will continue to listen to our cohorts and ensure all changes in the future are for the benefit of student success.
If you would like to explore these issues further, don’t forget to register for the final FFYE Forum of the year: Using the Social Impact (SI) Dashboard to enhance the student experience. During the session, keynote speaker Professor Sally Kift will contextualise current government policy designed to support equivalent opportunities for students to progress through their course, irrespective of education background, entry pathways, mode or place of study.