Help Coming Through the First Years

Penn College’s efforts to help students identify their needs – then meet them – pays off in fewer dropout rates overall and a unique reward for one.

by Steven K. McCoy, manager of the Academic Success Center. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel, except as credited.

Many years ago, the theme song to a popular television series called “The Paper Chase” began with these words:

First years are hard years.
Much more than you know.
With good friends to love us,
we'll fill every row.
Stay open to all things,
unknown and new.
Then one day, we'll all say
“Hey look, we’ve come through
the first years.”
Dalaney T. Vartenisian, a sophomore in the Web and interactive media major, credits a conversation with her First Year Experience instructor about the stressors she identified in a survey with helping her to progress successfully.

For Dalaney T. Vartenisian, a sophomore in the Web and interactive media major at Pennsylvania College of Technology, these words ring especially true. When Vartenisian began her academic career in the fall of 2013, she faced several challenges and realities common to many first-year students. In addition to acclimating herself to the academic rigor of six classes and the homework that came with them, Vartenisian was a commuter student working a part-time job off campus to help finance her education. Early on, she was finding her transition to college especially stressful.Fortunately, a student survey required as part of her First Year Experience (FYE101) course, combined with the wise counsel of her instructor, and Vartenisian’s personal initiative, created a positive outcome over the short-term, and a surprising long-term benefit, as well.

Vartenisian’s story unfolds within the context of her FYE101 class. The required course is intended to offer a positive first-semester experience for students who are new to Penn College by facilitating engagement in the academic and social cultures of the college. By easing the transition to college life and expectations, the course is designed to enhance the likelihood of student persistence and ultimate academic and social success. In our last survey to current FYE students, 82 percent point to the course as providing an accurate portrayal of academic expectations at Penn College, and 75 percent point to FYE playing an important role in adjusting to college life.

As part of the course, students are asked to take two “Mapworks” surveys during their first semester. Mapworks is an online early-alert and retention tool that has become an integral part of the retention strategy at Penn College. A transition survey is administered at approximately the third week of the semester. This survey focuses on a wide variety of factors that are keys to student success – motivation, self-management, study skills, homesickness and other stressors, financial resources, peer connections, campus involvement, and many other considerations. The FYE101 instructor is asked to review survey results with the students, with an eye toward connecting them with resources to help address any areas of concern. A checkup survey is administered at approximately the 11th week of the semester to gauge how these factors may have changed over time.

Upon completion of her transition survey, Vartenisian met with her FYE101 instructor, Sara H. Ousby, to review her results. Ousby, who was also the college’s director of diversity and community engagement, offered several valuable suggestions, many of which were related to the issue of time management. In addition to discussing time management strategies and related campus resources, Ousby suggested that Vartenisian apply for work on campus to reduce Vartenisian’s commute time, allow her to continue to earn money in a way that was more in sync with her class schedule, and help to alleviate some of her stress.

Following her instructor’s advice, Vartenisian applied for, and secured, a part-time job as a student photographer with the Public Relations and Marketing Office at Penn College. The result was transformative.

"In the end, her giving me the feedback from the results from Mapworks changed my life," Vartenisian said in a subsequent testimonial. "I now have a job ... that I absolutely love that continues to push me and do my best academically, as well. I am now a Dean’s List student while working and being a commuter at the same time. "


While this is certainly a positive outcome, the story doesn’t end here. Upon completing her first year at Penn College, Vartenisian entered a national scholarship contest sponsored by Skyfactor, the company that owns and operates the Mapworks program. The Mapworks Scholarship is a national essay contest for first- and second-year college students who have participated in the Mapworks program. It highlights student experiences and achievements in the context of their exposure to Mapworks.

Upon sharing her testimonial, Vartenisian was chosen as one of five scholarship winners nationwide – and one of only two who received the highest award of $1,500. She continued in the student photographer position for 19 months.

Commitment to Student Success

Penn College seeks to continuously improve the overall college experience for students. In 2009, the college participated in a yearlong self-study as part of a program called Foundations of Excellence. The program was developed by the Policy Center on the First Year of College, and the goal was to improve the student’s first year at Penn College and make it a foundation for excellence in every year thereafter. The introduction of the First Year Experience class was one of several key outcomes of this study.

In Fall 2011, Penn College began to use the Mapworks early-alert and retention program. By tracking the profile information of incoming students, along with student survey responses and grade information, Mapworks identifies at-risk students early in the academic year and provides tools to coordinate and manage support and interventions for these students.

The program also enables faculty and staff to submit a referral for any student who is in need of outreach and support. Whether the need is for academic assistance, financial advice, personal guidance, help with homesickness or other support, Mapworks can be used as a conduit for connecting students with the resources needed to be successful.

All referrals are channeled through the Academic Success Center, where staff members begin outreach efforts and make contacts with other campus resources as needed. This information is also tracked for a running record of each student’s performance as the academic year unfolds.

Internal tracking data show that those students who are referred for assistance and have meaningful contact with support staff are significantly more likely to pass the class for which they were referred than those without meaningful intervention. During the 2013-14 academic year, 41.8 percent of referred students passed their class if they responded to outreach and had meaningful interaction with staff. Conversely, only 26.7 percent of referred students passed the class for which they were referred in the absence of meaningful contact with support staff. Data for the 2014-15 academic year yielded similar results with 41.5 percent passing their class with meaningful staff contact and only 32.2 percent passing without meaningful contact.

Faculty/staff referral submissions have increased by 22 percent over the past academic year, as well, with 222 unduplicated staff referrals during the 2013-14 academic year and 271 unduplicated faculty/staff referrals during the 2014-15 academic year.

The Mapworks program has proven indispensable in helping to conduct timely and effective interventions with our at-risk students, and assisting all of our students in developing meaningful plans and goals that lead to academic success.