STEPing and prepping for college life

Summer Transition Enrichment Program prepares students to join Eagle community

STEPing and prepping for college life
STEP transitioned to a virtual platform during Summer 2020. Participants had the opportunity to meet guest speakers and engage with the D.C. community over Zoom.

Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition.

The transition from graduating high school to attending college can be a stressful time for everyone. American University’s Summer Transition Enrichment Program, better known as STEP, aims to ease that process by usually allowing participants to live on campus before the fall semester begins to get a feel for what college life will be like. 

Primarily relying on in-person interactions, the program changed in many ways this past summer to allow for an enriching experience, according to Shannon Smith, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion’s assistant director for student success & transition.

“We generally start putting some plans together in the fall before it starts that summer, so we’re already getting things together and with COVID-19 hitting, we ended up changing STEP into a completely online model,” Smith said. “It also really caused us to think outside the box as well, because a lot of our programming was with Zoom.” 

Although it took some time to get accustomed to virtual STEP, the advantages of the program and community-building opportunities created a welcoming environment as an incoming AU student, said School of Public Affairs freshman Aliciea Diaz. She related to other students in the program and received continuous support from staff members, which made her feel connected and excited for her years to come at AU, despite not being able to experience her first year on campus.

“In the beginning, it was a little bit difficult and it felt like summer school, but then once we were in the second or third week of classes, I definitely felt like I was a part of AU,” Diaz said. “It made me feel happy that I chose AU because it was able to give me a program where I felt there were other students like me coming from similar backgrounds and coming from a first-gen [college student family].” 

The program works with the AU Admissions team to include students who would likely benefit from what STEP has to offer. Whether the student is a first-generation college student is also considered. Students get acclimated to campus, take classes that count toward graduation and connect with STEP alumni and other students, according to Smith.

“In many cases in being selected for STEP, our admissions team does a great job of just looking at a number of factors. It may be based upon a combination of test scores, high school performance or something that just really stands out in their personal statement,” Smith said. 

Approximately 30 to 40 students are selected to participate in the program, which kicks off with a large family dinner. Orientation usually takes place after STEP students move onto campus, allowing them to meet face-to-face for the first time with the members of their cohort.

Along with opportunities to get adjusted to on-campus living, the program also took students on excursions to learn and explore their new environment.

“We were able to organize [pretty much every year now] a trip to the African American history museum, which has been amazing, where students are able to see the culture to engage,” Smith said. “D.C. is going to be their home for the next four years, so we really want to make sure that we can push people to get out into the community as well.”

Unable to convert these in-person excursions and experiences identically to an online version, Smith said they faced challenges this summer. However, they made sure to plan an engaging program as soon as classes transitioned online in spring 2020.

“[Our campus partners] were able to definitely utilize Zoom very heavily. We actually had someone come on Zoom and do a presentation about social movements throughout time as opposed to us going specifically to the museum,” Smith said.

College of Arts and Sciences junior Jackie Martinez participated in STEP in 2018 and became a STEP assistant the following year. Some of her responsibilities included planning events for the program, providing support to participants as a role-model and working closely with the CDI team to assess the program as a whole. 

Martinez said she still uses the resources she was exposed to as an incoming freshman in the program.

“I performed really well that summer, like academically, and I had a pretty good routine, so I think that made me super proud that it gave me more confidence going in,” Martinez said. “Also, getting to know my professors and kind of community-build with them was really memorable for me, and I still maintain in contact with them to this day.” 

Martinez also said that this process of community building allowed her to feel a sense of purpose at AU, and she believes that every college should have some sort of variation of STEP to allow for students of different backgrounds to feel valued in their institution. 

“STEP really makes you feel like you have a sense of belonging because they’re really investing in you,” Martinez said. “They’re investing their money and time on us because they believe that we have a lot of potential to succeed, despite maybe some of our identities or high school experiences and that sort of thing.”

With a hopeful outlook of this summer, Smith said the program may involve a mix of in-person and virtual opportunities depending on the state of the pandemic. 

“[We are looking] to do a type of hybrid model this summer, and of course we’re really keeping our eye on making sure that all the safety protocols are in place, how COVID[-19] is going to play a part,” Smith said. 

Smith said that being on campus provides all participants equal access to resources and is hopeful that he will be seeing the next cohort living on campus in summer 2021.

“Obviously, we want to make sure we go through all of the safety protocols and everything, dealing with COVID-19 and whatnot, but we are looking at if students can live on campus in a safe socially distant way that sort of allows students to all be in the area where, okay, we all have access to this resource, to the internet, to these different things,” Smith said.

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