In UConn summer program, incoming freshmen shift from dread to appreciation

From left, Nadin Khalifa, 18, of Clinton; Kristiana Quintana, 18, of Willimantic, and Jason Rivera, 17, of New London, are three of the students who received certificates for completing the UConn-Avery Point Student Support Services Summer Program in Groton. The three are speaking on the phone Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, with one of Rivera's friends while attending a reception in the UConn-Avery Point Student Center of the Academic Building in Groton. (Tim Martin/The Day)
From left, Nadin Khalifa, 18, of Clinton; Kristiana Quintana, 18, of Willimantic, and Jason Rivera, 17, of New London, are three of the students who received certificates for completing the UConn-Avery Point Student Support Services Summer Program in Groton. The three are speaking on the phone Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, with one of Rivera's friends while attending a reception in the UConn-Avery Point Student Center of the Academic Building in Groton. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Groton — Genesis Tejada recalls getting that "dreadful" letter from the University of Connecticut.

She said the good news was that she got accepted. The bad news was that it was contingent upon her completion of a five-week summer program prior to the start of her freshman year.

But by the time she stood at a podium in Room 308 of the Academic Building at UConn Avery Point on Thursday afternoon, she was speaking of the program's merits.

"We have all experienced a tiny bit of what our life as college students will be this upcoming fall," she said. She met students from different cultural backgrounds. She learned about the essentiality of time management. She learned that there's nothing wrong with asking for help.

Tejada was the student speaker at the "finale" of the Student Support Services Summer Program and one of 44 participants, the program's largest class to date.

Aaron Collins, SSS coordinator at Avery Point, explained to The Day that students mandated to complete the program fall into at least one of four categories: first-generation college students, from low-income households, part of underrepresented populations within UConn, or in need of some extra academic support.

The program is meant to increase the enrollment, retention and graduate rates of these students, Collins said, and to aid in their transition from high school to college.

It's not necessarily reflective of academic struggles: He noted that some students come in wondering, "Why am I in the program? I was valedictorian of my high school."

Each student in the summer program takes two of the four courses offered and earns six credits. The courses this summer were introductions to theater, sociology, American studies, and individual and family development.

Each student pays a $75 fee, and the program otherwise is funded through the university. The UConn campuses in Storrs, Hartford, Stamford and Waterbury also have Student Support Services programs.

SSS has been part of the university system since 1967 and at Avery Point for at least 30 years, Collins said. But a new aspect this summer was a STEM initiative, in which 18 of the 44 students participated.

"Students are doing STEM-based workshops twice a week to learn all about the world of STEM," Collins said, "in terms of what a lab looks like, sounds like, how to study for laboratory courses, just be prepared for the heavy math and sciences."

SSS continues from the summer into the academic year, with a freshman seminar course, leadership development conferences, study abroad opportunities and peer advising, Collins said.

"When you're SSS, you're SSS for life," he told the students on Thursday. "It means that you're a family."

David Iler, who taught the American studies course, offered lots of advice in his faculty address. He dared the students to overcome obstacles instead of whining about them, to question everything, to think instead of just reacting, and to positively influence others.

Iler also encouraged them to spend an hour every night filling out forms for small scholarships, commenting, "You just made $1,500 an hour."

After the ceremony, students expressed that while they initially dreaded the program, they made friends and got to know the campus better.

"It really integrates you into the atmosphere here," said Jordan Reid, an East Lyme High School alumnus. "It prepares you for exams. You kind of get your feet wet."

Kristiana Quintana and Annie Lang both noted that because of the summer classes, they now will be able to graduate early.

e.moser@theday.com

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