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ASU's First-Year Success Center is ready to support students in the new normal

Peer coaches, now available by text, are trained in helping students thrive with ASU Sync learning environment

July 31, 2020

The start of the fall 2020 semester at Arizona State University will look very different from previous years, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the university has shifted all of its support services, including the First-Year Success Center, to accommodate the new normal.

The center, which nurtures freshmen with peer coaching and other programs, was already providing a lot of support remotely when ASU went fully virtual last spring. Besides phone calls and online interactions, the coaches added Zoom sessions after the spring pivot.

This fall, the center has expanded its remote options, according to Kevin Correa, director of the center.

“It’s extending how we support students in general and applying that to this context,” he said.

The First-Year Success Center also includes Game Changers, a program specifically for first-generation freshmen. Besides coaching, these students get one-on-one counseling from older peer coaches, many of whom also are first-generation students, along with group events and advice on building practical skills, like time management.

“Our coaches serve three roles: connectors, cheerleaders and catalysts,” Correa said. “So it’s still those three roles but applied in this new situation.”

As connectors, the coaches provide information, resources and tips on how to successfully work in ASU Sync, the hybrid learning environment that combines live Zoom lectures with in-the-classroom instruction.

“The cheerleader piece is the emotional aspect, and that’s where encouragement comes into play,” Correa said.

“So it’s, ‘Yes, you can be successful this way.’ ‘Yes, it will be difficult, but we’re adaptable and we’re resilient.’

“We’ll be reminding the students of who they are and what they’re capable of and how they got to ASU in the first place. It’s all those successes they have already had and how they will leverage those in this new situation.”

The “catalyst” role involves goal setting.

“It’s identifying action plans to be successful. How will they manage time? ‘What are some roadblocks you anticipate, and how can you proactively plan to deal with them?’” he said.

The First-Year Success Center has added some new support services as well:

Videos: “We’ve been working to expand our YouTube library and adding more coaching videos to our channel,” Correa said. “We have a video of our coaches sharing tips and giving encouragement, so (first-year students) can hear the coaches’ personal experience with Sync during the spring.”

Digital community: “We’re also creating digital coaching communities through Slack that students can join based on areas of interest. For example, first-generation students would be one, and our first-generation coaches would lead that,” he said.

The Slack channel has the benefit for students of not only being able to get tips and encouragement from the peer coaches but also from each other.

“We see multiple communities based on identity, such as first-generation students, but also topic areas, such as how to succeed with ASU Sync.”

Texting: “For the first time, coaches will be able to engage in two-way texting with students,” Correa said. “We piloted this at the end of the spring semester and were happy with it.”

Texting, which is not done directly between phones but instead through SalesForce, is not meant to replace a coaching appointment, Correa said.

“It makes coaches more accessible to students than ever before, and a lot of students prefer texting,” he said.

“It’s for quick communication and outreach, and from there they can set up a coaching appointment.”

One-on-one coaching remains the bedrock of the center’s support. During the sudden switch to remote learning in the spring, the center’s peer coaches worked closely with their first-year students on the unprecedented issues they faced. They connected students to technology and financial resources, made sure they had enough to eat, answered questions about how to attend class from a bedroom and encouraged everyone to express their emotions about what was happening.

For the fall, the 87 peer coaches received extra training on frequently asked questions about ASU Sync.

“We were very successful in the spring semester pivoting to Zoom coaching as our primary offering,” Correa said.

“Zoom will still be our default, but we'll have the ability to coach students on Zoom, on the phone or in person.”

Limited in-person appointments will be available on every campus, with social distancing or barriers, plus face coverings, he said. The number of people in the space will be restricted.

“We want to honor student preferences, and we know every student is different,” he said. “We focus on student needs, goals and strengths, and we meet them where they’re at.”

The center is also planning some virtual events, including the annual First-Generation Fall Welcome, at 3 p.m. on Sept. 8.

“We’ll celebrate that first-gen identity and congratulate them on being a first-gen student because it’s an amazing accomplishment,” Correa said.

“There’s education about how to be a successful first-generation student, and we’ll have staff and faculty who were first-gen themselves when they attended school and they’ll share stories and advice and offer encouragement.”

Later in September, the center will hold virtual sessions on managing finances and applying for scholarships.

“We know that one of the barriers to retention is finances, and I think this year that concern will even be higher,” Correa said.

“So we have a nice sequence of events on something that a lot of students are concerned about.”

Top image: Kevin Correa, director of the First-Year Success Center, said that the 87 peer coaches have received special training on how to answer questions about ASU Sync. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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