A WUSA welcome: Yearlong peer mentors make transition easier for incoming students

By Deb Parker

Joe Angeles

Traditionally, on the morning of new student move-in, WUSAs get ready for the day's activities with a WUSA cheer. WUSAs (Washington University Student Associates) are upperclass student volunteers who are paired with incoming students for the first year. They help students get settled into their new home and continue to meet with them weekly. The WUSA program is viewed as a model program nationally.

Tomorrow, when more than 1,700 new students move onto campus, they will have many questions about college life and their new home. Bear Beginnings, a robust five-day orientation program, is designed to assist them.

But, what about after those first five days — when students actually begin navigating the campus for themselves?

At Washington University in St. Louis, there is a program designed to extend the orientation experience throughout the first full year. It can be summed up in an acronym: WUSA.

WUSAs, officially known as Washington University Student Associates, are upperclass students who are paired with incoming students (freshmen, exchange and transfer) for one year.

Coordinated through WUSTL’s First Year Center, the program is uncommon among universities. “We know that, when it comes to new students, the first several weeks profoundly influence transition and retention,” says Sharon Stahl, PhD, vice chancellor for students and dean of the First Year Center.

“Our First Year Center is a bridge between academics and campus life,” Stahl adds. “While most every university has some kind of first-year center or orientation, our WUSA program is unique in that we maintain peer support all year. We want a smooth transition for every student new to our community and the WUSAs make that happen, not just in the first few weeks, but throughout the entire first year.”

Building strong bonds

Research suggests it’s working. Timothy J. Bono, PhD, assistant dean and lecturer in psychology in Arts & Sciences, conducted a series of longitudinal assessments last fall. A group of freshmen were asked to give weekly reports of their academic, social and psychological experiences during their transition and the WUSAs were asked to give weekly reports of their perceptions of the freshman experiences.

“What we found is that the WUSAs were remarkably accurate in gauging the highs and lows of the freshman transition,” Bono says. “This demonstrates that our WUSAs have a strong — and accurate — sense of how the freshmen are faring and what kinds of support they most need during these important first months of college.”

Freshmen also gave weekly ratings of their relationships with the WUSAs. “On weeks when they felt closest with their WUSAs, they also were most optimistic about remaining at the university and successfully completing their course of study,” Bono says. “This underscores the importance of the WUSA-freshman relationship, which clearly is related to the outlook freshmen have about their college careers.”

Reggie Gacad, now a junior in Arts & Sciences majoring in psychology and minoring in public health, characterizes his own transition to WUSTL as a “little bit difficult.” Gacad graduated from an all-male high school and says he had never been away from his Cleveland, Ohio, home for more than one day.

“My own WUSAs, Jon Merrill and Molly McGregor, definitely allayed both my fears and the fears of my parents,” Gacad says. “I was very unsure of how Wash U works. They were so welcoming and helpful — doing everything from baking after my first college exam to helping with housing and class registration. Molly was a huge part of my transition and definitely offered just a calming presence on the floor.”

‘By name and by story’

Danielle Bristow, director of First Year Center programs at WUSTL and vice president of the National Orientation Directors Association, began shaping the WUSA program five years ago, collaborating with campus partners and, specifically, Mary Laurita, assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences. Delores Kennedy, a now-retired associate dean of freshmen in A&S, also was instrumental in the program’s creation.

Bristow has outlined the WUSA program at national meetings, where it is viewed as a model program.

The WUSA program is just one more way the university strives to achieve its mission of knowing every student “by name and by story,” a constant urging by the late James E. McLeod, who was vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the time of his death in September 2011.

Obviously, with so many students, this can be a lofty goal. The WUSA program helps undergird this mission by giving incoming students one more point of contact.

WUSA competition is tough; this year, 300 upperclass students from a variety of disciplines vied for 85 positions.

The WUSAs serve a 14-month term and do it as volunteers. They train in the spring and return before the next academic year starts to help run the Bear Beginnings orientation program. After orientation, the WUSAs meet weekly with the new students and with each other for the remainder of the academic year.

Two WUSAs, one female and one male, are assigned to each freshman floor in the residential colleges. WUSAs also work with the transfer and exchange student populations.

WUSAs help new students find their niche, both academically and socially. They offer advice on budgeting time, selecting classes, studying effectively and joining student groups. For questions they can’t answer, they make appropriate resource referrals.

WUSAs are there on move-in day, helping to carry boxes, and are ready when new students want to venture off campus, ride the MetroLink for the first time or explore the St. Louis community.

“We can’t tell them everything they need to know in five days of orientation,” says Katharine Pei, assistant director of First Year Center programs. “We support students at every stage, whether helping answer questions about internships, Greek life or undergraduate research opportunities. It’s all part of a vision created by the First Year Center and many of its cross-campus partners.”

A 12-member First Year Executive Board (FYX) comprising upperclass students who formerly served as WUSAs oversee the current crop of WUSAs. Board members serve 18-month volunteer positions, and along with First Year Center staff, plan an entire year of programs that start with Bear Beginnings and end with the Freshman Finale in April.

The idea is that students themselves often are the best equipped to design the most effective programs for their peers.

“This is about students generously giving back, sacrificing hours and hours of time,” says Lindsay Wang, a former WUSA who graduated in May and now works as an intern at the center. “The most innovative things we do come from the board members. The really cool stuff? They thought of it.”

Bear Beginnings alone offers more than 150 unique events for incoming students and their families. First Year Center staff and board members partner with academic and non-academic departments to create a fun and comprehensive introduction to the university.

“There is simply no way we could do that with just the four of us (First Year Center staff members),” Pei says. “Executive Board members and several WUSAs go to every event. Our campus partners run many of the orientation programs, but the WUSAs support the events, helping to troubleshoot and make sure things are running smoothly.”

Inspiring excellence

Gacad now is a member of the First Year Executive Board, coordinating a wide range of special events. This fall, he plans to pilot a program he helped develop: Service by the Dozen, which encourages faculty to lead small groups of students in community service projects. Through his experiences as a WUSA and Executive Board member, he has developed skills as a leader and role model.

“The opportunity to work with and lead a team of WUSAs has allowed me the chance to learn how to best lead, to gain the interpersonal skills for inspiring excellence and to be a mentor and friend to a group of individuals who will in turn mentor and inspire others,” Gacad says.

“The WUSA Program has not only allowed me to make a mark upon the lives of my 40 students, but it has also allowed me to explore and discover new parts of myself,” he adds. “This school has given me so many opportunities for self-discovery and growth, and I feel that it is my turn to give back to such a remarkable institution. Never before have I encountered an institution, as well as an office, that invests so much into new students.”

Today’s students have a plethora of connections — WUSAs and Executive Board members, residential advisers on each freshman floor, a residential college director, a faculty associate, a faculty adviser, four-year academic advisers and career advisers.

“Legitimately, by the end of orientation, new students should have 10 people they can connect to,” Pei says. “That’s our goal: that students have a peer member, a staff member and a faculty member they feel comfortable approaching. All those people know our students by name and story and help build a supportive environment.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bbhUqLemyo&feature=relatedThis year’s Lien 2 WUSAs Dani Kristal and Matt Burkhardt sing their own version of the hit song "Call Me Maybe" as part of a welcome message.

Deb Parker
Record Editor/Senior News Writer
(314) 935-5202