Transitioning to life at a major university can seem daunting. This is especially true for incoming University California, Irvine (UCI) freshmen and transfer students who aren’t sure what to expect. To ease this transition, units such as Student Success Initiatives (SSI) host a variety of summer programs that offer new students a chance to jumpstart their college experience.
For instance, SSI’s Summer Edge encompasses several programs that help incoming UCI students adjust to university life. The Freshman Edge program serves incoming freshmen, both domestic and international, and the Transfer Edge program serves incoming transfer students. Under normal circumstances, Summer Edge provides the opportunity for new students to live in UCI’s dorms, enroll in Summer Session courses and attend events that introduce various campus resources and offer chances to meet and socialize.
However, as UCI transitioned to a remote setting amidst the pandemic, summer programming also needed to move to an online format. Program coordinators responded strategically by developing online versions of Summer Edge programs that offered the same advantages as the usual in-person programming.
Summer Edge Goes Remote
A major goal of this year’s Edge programs was to inform students about available resources and prepare them to face the challenges of a remote learning environment. To accomplish this, Edge coordinators organized workshops and events to cover relevant topics.
“We took into account what was happening and asked ourselves how we could support the students,” Edge Programs Student Affairs Specialist Arturo Razo explains. “So instead of presenting workshops on how to best study for classes, we presented on how to study in a Zoom class or how to focus on a Zoom call. We wanted to give them advice that will help them right away but that will also help them throughout their journey at UCI.”
While updating program workshops was easy enough, the main challenge of going remote was finding ways to keep students engaged and connected.
“We worried that the programs wouldn’t be appealing to people because the physical connection to campus is such a huge draw,” says Rocco Fragomeni, Edge Programs Manager. “We had to ask ourselves how we could create spaces for meaningful connections between students but also with our mentors and of course the faculty and staff.”
Summer Edge Peer Mentors
To facilitate connections and create a welcoming space for social interactions, the Edge team relied heavily on Peer Mentors—students who had previously participated in Summer Edge programs and received special training to engage students and host events. This year, Edge Peer Mentors played an especially important role in the program as they helped connect students.
We broke our Edge students into smaller groups and assigned a Peer Mentor to each one. Peer Mentors held events that are educational in the sense that they were sharing their knowledge and the resources they have around campus. However, a large part of what they were trying to do is bring people together and make them comfortable with one another.
Arturo adds that while they encouraged students to meet with program coordinators and counselors, students usually chose to meet with their Peer Mentors.
“Peer Mentors met with students one-on-one but also offered group meetings like Coffee Meetups,” he says. “They sent weekly newsletters to their group of mentees to share what events are happening and any other information that may be useful for them. This included invitations like ‘Hey, if you want to set up a meeting, let me know!’”
Lead Peer Mentor and 2019 Transfer Edge alumna Olivia Hom explains that she met with students to answer the many questions they had about UCI. In addition to explaining how to add a second major, get involved with clubs and how to best succeed in the quarter system, Olivia offered support to students who were struggling and feeling overwhelmed with classes, work and other time commitments.
For Olivia, getting involved with Summer Edge was important because she knows how it feels to be in their shoes. “I wanted to help students with the transition to UCI because I know that it was difficult for me to adjust,” she says. “I wanted to provide them with a welcoming environment as their first UCI experience and give tips and advice that I’ve learned.”
While she acknowledges that the remote nature of this year’s program made it harder for students to get comfortable with campus, Olivia believes that students still benefitted from participating in Summer Edge.
“This year’s students gained experience with the pace and difficulty of university-level courses,” she explains. “Additionally, they will find familiar faces in their classes and got a head start on their degrees, research and building relationships with professors.”
Operating within the Freshman Edge program is a special scholarship program called Summer Bridge. This program serves first-generation students, low-income students and other underrepresented student populations and offers them a scholarship to participate in Freshman Edge. Summer Bridge students attend Summer Session courses like their Freshman Edge counterparts, but they also participate in a variety of workshops and other events specific to Summer Bridge. Once the academic year begins, students who receive Summer Bridge scholarships commit to scheduling at least one meeting per quarter with the Summer Bridge staff. These meetings offer students the chance to receive additional academic or personal support. Summer Bridge Scholars also enjoy benefits throughout the year such as tutoring scholarships, priority registration, peer mentorship and much more.
According to program coordinator and counselor Kathy Dong, the transition to online shifted Summer Bridge’s focus to personal wellness and community building. With this change, Kathy relied on volunteers who previously participated in the Bridge program to help this year’s group of students connect.
2019 Bridge alumna Rubi Tapia Rayo explains that volunteering with Bridge was important because it was a way for her to give back to a community that means so much to her.
“I really love the community that we build. No matter how much time passes, I know that I can reach out to my fellow Bridgers and Kathy—and this reassures me that I’m not alone,” she says. “I wanted to come back because I know how big support systems can be for one’s self-esteem and self-growth.”
Community Care Opportunities
Many of this year’s Bridge volunteers interacted with students during the program’s new Community Care Opportunities. Kathy says, “We added the Community Care component this year because encouraging student engagement is hard when everything is virtual. It can be overwhelming. Therefore, we wanted to put the students in settings where they had the ability to think about their self-care, mental health and holistic development and had the ability to mingle despite the virtual platform.”
One of the Community Care Opportunities that Kathy arranged this year was a series of Major and Interest Panels where Bridge alumni from different academic schools and majors shared their experiences, answered questions and offered advice. “They also allowed students within the same major to interact and see that they will have similar classes in the Fall,” Kathy explains. “This ensures that students don’t feel alone when they need to study or get help, and it makes it easier for them to reach out and form communities.”
Cynthia Le, a returning 2019 Bridge participant, planned and facilitated a panel for students interested in the School of Biological Sciences, School of Physical Sciences, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Public Health, and Nursing. “I think everyone had a good time,” she reflects. “It seemed like everyone took something away from it, whether it was major-related or just life-related.”
For Cynthia, interacting and sharing her personal experiences with this year’s Bridge students was something she valued greatly. “I love talking to people who’ve already experienced something that I’m going through. So my favorite part about coming back was sharing the knowledge that I’ve gained. I really think it’s important to share what you know so people can make more informed decisions.”
Supporting Student Success
While going remote changed how Summer Edge and Bridge looked and operated, program volunteers remain positive that students walked away with new connections, a stronger understanding of campus and a feeling of preparedness for the coming year.
“I think that this year’s students had these outcomes,” says Chloe Low, 2019 Bridge alumna. “We provided many diverse workshops and panels and other resources that give students the tools to transition to college life successfully. Also, this year’s students will have practice in lectures and classes in an online format, which I think is really important and helpful.”
Rubi adds, “During these difficult times, there’s only so much we can do. But I have confidence in the program. We still can make the same impact as we would have made in person.”