SummerStart Goes Virtual This Year to Support 100 Incoming Students

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SummerStart Virtual Residence Hall 3rd Floor Friday Lounge with HEOP and SSS students Symphony Hylton, Mamadou Samba Jr., and Bryan Hernandez with SSS Associate Director Amy Messersmith and 3rd Floor College Mentor Karen DeVose, Assistant Director of Academic Advising in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Like many other educators and student support professionals, the staff of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Program (HEOP) and Student Support Services (SSS) faced unique challenges this summer of 2020. All incoming HEOP and SSS students typically attend a mandatory, six-week residential summer bridge program, SummerStart, and this year the hallmark transition program had to be adapted to an online format.

HEOP and SSS are opportunity programs that developed out of the social justice movements of the 1960s and 70s. Both programs serve primarily first-generation college students from underrepresented populations. HEOP and SSS are about maximizing potential; with academic and other wrap-around supports, at-risk students perform as well or better than their peers who may have had more opportunities to prepare for college and career. One of the key contributors to their success is participation in SummerStart.

SummerStart offers many benefits to HEOP and SSS students. By taking two required classes, students get a head start on earning credits prior to fall semester. They also take a college readiness seminar that builds their study skills and introduces them to campus resources. Because SummerStart is typically a residential program, students experience what it’s like to live in a residence hall and how to manage their new lives on campus, including study, sleep, diet and socializing. They become comfortable on campus and make important connections with staff and fellow students. When HEOP and SSS seniors reflect on the years they’ve spent at Syracuse University, SummerStart almost always tops the list of favorite memories.

When COVID-19 caused many summer programs to cancel or re-calibrate to new formats, the staff of HEOP and SSS rose to the challenge to make sure incoming students would have a top-notch experience, even if they could not physically be on campus.

The HEOP and SSS staff created a comprehensive virtual SummerStart program that upholds the primary objectives of the original summer bridge program, ensuring safety while building the community that HEOP and SSS are known for. This year’s eight-week SummerStart program began at the end of June with 100 new Syracuse University students onboard. University College provided support, establishing students in their online platform so they could take two classes and participate in the college readiness seminar. To help students adjust to distance learning, HEOP and SSS enlisted the Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS), which leads weekly table sessions in maximizing online learning and guided study. Students also have access to academic advisors and writing and math consultants.

To build community and foster supportive peer relationships, SummerStart students have been sorted into virtual residence halls. Students are divided into 10 “floors” with approximately 10 students per floor. The floors are broken up by school/college so that students can get to know other students who are in the same school or college. Each floor also has two to three upperclasss HEOP/SSS student mentors who provide support to help the new students acclimate to the program. Additionally, each floor has an academic advisor that acts as a college mentor as well as an upper level administrator who is the floor’s University mentor.

A week in SummerStart begins with a mandatory Monday floor meeting. HEOP/SSS staff facilitate the weekly check-in and review the coming week’s programming, including topics for what’s called “Friday Lounge.”  “Friday Lounge” virtual events are student driven and can range from movies and TV shows to discussions on current events to identity exploration. Each week, the floor selects two to three student leaders to facilitate the discussion. Students can choose to stay in their floor’s lounge or they can opt to visit the lounges of other floors if there are other topics that interest them, just as they could in a real residence hall. HEOP/SSS staff feel the model has been successful and find that students have made connections based on common interests. “The lounge and the floor plan give you an opportunity to branch out and meet people,” one student says.

Additional programming by HEOP/SSS staff is offered to SummerStart students on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Wednesday programming is related to the content of the college readiness seminar, and Friday activities are designed to be more fun, with some life skills mixed in. Activities have included a virtual scavenger hunt, a virtual escape room and a communication skills workshop.

Craig Tucker, director of HEOP and SSS, commends his staff for adapting the SummerStart experience so successfully.

“The efforts of the HEOP and SSS staffs have been nothing short of extraordinary,” he says. “Engaging the students in the virtual programming came with some challenges. However, we committed ourselves to the tasks and creativity is facilitating the cultivation of healthy bonds amongst our students, our programs and the Syracuse University campus community.”

Tucker adds, “There are many challenges in moving a residential education program to a virtual setting, especially on a tight timeline. HEOP and SSS thank University College, the school and college advising units, School of Education IT Services and the many offices and staff members whose support and collaboration was immeasurable in launching Virtual SummerStart 2020.”