Program provides support for first-generation WSU students

WSU’s young program, titled Smart Start Program (SSP), was created to facilitate the successful transition and retention of students whom are first in their family to attend and graduate from a four-year university.

“We help students to get off to a great start their first year and get them on their way towards graduation,” Stephen Bischoff, associate director for the Office of Multicultural Student Services (MSS), said.

The program, currently a branch of the MSS, is headed into its third year of existence. It continues to grow larger as the target demographic accelerates in number of attendance each semester.

“It’s definitely an increasing population not just here, but nationwide,” said Bischoff.

With the increasing population, the goal of all SSP staff is for the first-generation students they help to be informed, confident, motivated, and engaged in their performance at WSU.

“It’s a pleasure to see that we can be partially involved in student success,” said Eric Skipper, retention counselor.

For Bischoff, this means the program and its leaders enjoy working with people on a variety of issues that can be troublesome for first year Cougs.

“We work holistically with students,” he said. “Meaning we’re working with financial aid issues. We work with registration. We’re advising, talking about academics and some more specific stuff such as how to write a research paper, navigating a campus, how to build your network or how to get involved.”

Bischoff said the program also helps students develop relationships with faculty and explore potential interests in majors. This is achieved through one-on-one mentorship.

One-on-one mentorship makes it possible for people like James Bledsoe, lead retention counselor at SSP, to understand what problem areas are in the program. Financial aid is the most common struggle, but confidence boosting is a significantly increasing need.

 “We help them go through a positive personal identity process where they discover who they are,” he said. “If by the end of their first year here I don’t have to tell students to go find their department’s academic adviser, how to make an appointment, or how to add or drop classes … if I don’t have to tell them all of these things I can mark growth.”

The SSP is going against the grain of what national expectations are, according to staff.

“If I can show that this student has had some growth, that they are understanding the process after two semesters, a student that might have been labeled a high-risk for not making it is actually showing growth in areas that pretty much ensure that they will make it the next two years,” Bledsoe said.

Students who stay active in the SSP for one full academic year are eligible for a partial scholarship, special activities and priority registration for classes.

While the SSP program is only three years old, the program is already seeing students benefit from full membership. It’s proving beneficial. 

 “Some are coming in with little support from home, some come with a lot, some are coming in with a great financial package and others are not so we tailor our individual work toward individual needs,” Bischoff said.

Some are not even students the SSP would expect to reach out to them.

While the SSP is located beside the various offices affiliated with the MSS, the staff offers its assistance to anyone who may need it.

“Sometimes the proximity of where we are leads people to believe that we have some type of ethnic target,” Bischoff said. “I want people to know it’s a program that can and will help anyone regardless of their ethnic background. If someone really feels they need help, I’m not turning my back on anybody.”

Smart Start staff explained that they would like to expand their services to the entire WSU freshman class. Additionally, they would like to expand their services to first year transfer students as well.

It is the program’s desire to see some type of service offered to sophomores, juniors, and seniors once they leave the Smart Start Program.

But until that desire becomes a reality, the program is focusing on tangible changes that are taking place right now.

“We are constantly evolving,” Bischoff said.