Navigating the First Year in Community

Higher education holds the potential to transform the well-being of our students, communities, and society. But how can we live up to that potential, especially as colleges and universities around the country strive to serve our increasingly diverse population? The faculty, students, and staff who created the Gateways to Phoenix Success (GPS) Program at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay (UWGB) believe we must move beyond access and completion and take a more holistic approach to student success that focuses on well-being. We’ve learned that this perspective can improve student outcomes and lead to institutional change.

Intersectionality is one important framework for this work. GPS staff members seek to understand how students’ intersecting identities inform their experiences as well as how staff members’ own identities influence their teaching and mentoring. An intersectional framework helps GPS staff become more aware that students’ emotional and social lives are an important part of their educational experiences and that narratives—those students create and those others tell about them—play a key role in student success.

GPS creates a learning community where students explore their identities and college goals and where learning happens at the intersection of academic, personal, and social knowledge. By taking an asset-focused perspective, GPS helps students become stakeholders in their liberal education.

The GPS Program

Like many campuses across the country, UWGB recognized that our student body was significantly less racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse than our regional community. We saw equity gaps in outcomes for students from underrepresented groups, including first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color. We also recognized that, in the classroom and on campus, these students faced multiple challenges that were as much about the hidden curriculum (the unwritten expectations for how to engage in college culture) and feeling like outsiders as they were about academic skills.

In 2013, we created GPS, which references the UWGB mascot (the phoenix) and our objective to help students reach their college goals ( Faculty from disciplines including Human Development, Public Administration, and Human Biology, as well as staff in Academic Advising, Student Affairs, and Enrollment Services, collaborated to design the initial program. A steering committee—consisting of staff, GPS faculty, and past GPS students—reviews program elements and outcomes each year and makes recommendations. By involving all stakeholders, GPS has developed a broad base of campus support.

GPS is open to all first-year students but aims to serve students from underrepresented groups in particular. We place students in an intensive learning community in groups of twenty to twenty-five students; each group has a faculty mentor, a peer mentor, and an academic advisor. Over the course of the academic year, each group engages in challenging interdisciplinary coursework with a liberal arts focus; a service-learning project that students design and implement to address a real problem on campus or in the community; and purposeful exploration of college, career, and personal goals. Students gain the navigational social capital required to succeed and play an active role in college, including by cultivating academic skills, using campus resources, and developing an understanding of how colleges work. Mentors provide holistic, individualized support (e.g., guidance with study skills, social connections, financial challenges, and health issues) and help students think about their own and others’ identities and struggles. Students also form close, supportive peer relationships.

The Roles of GPS Staff Members

A key factor in GPS’s success is its team-based approach. All GPS staff—including faculty mentors, peer mentors, and academic advisors—build close relationships as they participate in training, construct program elements, and learn about issues of identity and well-being and methods to support student success. Faculty mentors and peer mentors meet weekly to discuss program elements, strategize about how to assist students, and process their experiences. They communicate with academic advisors, the dean of students, and representatives from other campus offices to provide individualized support for students. Through this collaborative process, GPS creates a community of practice that has a broad impact on our institution, making UWGB more focused on students and equity while also supporting the well-being of faculty mentors and peer mentors.

Faculty mentors’ work is intensive in terms of time and emotional labor, including summer training and planning sessions, weekly meetings with other faculty mentors and peer mentors during the academic year, and multiple one-on-one mentoring meetings with students—all on top of coursework. Faculty mentors find that they need to become more aware of their own identities and social locations, particularly as cross-cultural mentors. Our institution is predominantly white, and the GPS faculty reflect that. White faculty mentors need to understand what whiteness means in their work with students of color and how UWGB’s growing commitment to diversity demands that we transform how we “do college” instead of just stirring students into existing institutions.

Peer mentors have similar time commitments regarding training and meetings, and they also spend considerable time getting to know their mentees outside the classroom. As students themselves (typically juniors and seniors), peer mentors connect first-year students to their own networks. As these relationships grow, GPS students often confide in their peer mentors. Peer mentors may become overwhelmed by the challenges their mentees face, but mentors can provide crucial support by demonstrating compassion and being present in times of need.

Academic advisors provide guidance on choosing classes and majors and navigating the technical hurdles of the registration system. Besides meeting with each student at least once a semester, they co-lead course sessions on topics like general education or using electronic tools to map your degree path.

Effects on Students and Campus Culture

From its start in 2013 with 110 students, GPS has grown to enroll almost 250 students per year. Approximately 75 percent of GPS students each year are first generation, 40 percent are from low-income backgrounds, 16 percent are students of color, and 15 percent face one or more challenges such as physical disabilities or mental health issues. (By comparison, approximately 56 percent of all UWGB students are first generation, 34 percent are from low-income backgrounds, and 10 percent are students of color.) Students from these underrepresented groups who participate in GPS are 18 percent more likely to be retained through year four and 12 percent more likely to graduate in four years than their peers from similar backgrounds who are not enrolled in GPS. They also earn higher GPAs, participate in more high-impact practices (, and are more likely to serve in leadership roles on campus. At the end of year four, GPS students report that their entire educational experience involved more engagement in higher-order thinking and reflective and integrative learning, a more supportive campus environment, and better-quality student-faculty interactions.

Reflecting on her experience as a GPS student in 2016–17, Alyssa Yang explains the impact of the program:

Without the GPS program, I wouldn’t have stayed in college. GPS wasn’t just an academic program but a safe community where we could discuss our experiences, express our thoughts, and empower each other. We learned about the opportunities that college provides to learn and experience new things. We developed relationships with professors and peer mentors who supported and guided us through our academic and other struggles. Being a first-generation college student there were a lot of expectations but little to no guidance or support. Through the relationships I’ve built in GPS I was able to overcome family pressures to pursue a career I didn’t want. GPS is not just about preparing you to be a great student but also learning how to take charge of your education.

We set out to design a program that would change outcomes for our students and ended up creating an experience that also empowered us to be change agents at our institution. GPS staff members become advocates for taking a more intersectional approach to student success, influencing policy and practice. Over the last five years, our campus has become more focused on building equity and supporting student success in a holistic way, an achievement that is largely due to GPS. The most important payoff is seeing how current and former GPS students become stakeholders in their education—thus becoming active members of the university and local community.

Denise Bartell is Director of Student Success and Engagement and Gateways to Phoenix Success (GPS) Program Director at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay (UWGB); Alison Staudinger is Assistant Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies, Political Science, and Women’s and Gender Studies and GPS Faculty Mentor at UWGB; David Voelker is Associate Professor of Humanities and History and GPS Faculty Mentor at UWGB; Sandra Graybill is a 2017 graduate of UWGB and GPS Peer Mentor and graduate student in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Western Michigan University; and Alyssa Yang is a UWGB student.

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