University of Vermont

University Communications


An Enriching Experience

By Jon Reidel Article published July 16, 2008

Darrion Willis (L) and Reggie Carter are among 17 incoming freshmen spending six weeks at the Summer Enrichment Scholars Program aimed at familiarizing students with campus before they start in the fall. (Photo: Sally McCay)

The streets of Southeast Washington, D.C., where Darrion Willis grew up, aren’t unlike the ones Reggie Carter experienced as a kid in Baltimore. The crime rates are high, poverty is an unfortunate reality for many residents and the chances of attending college are slim.

Willis and Carter, academically accomplished students who beat the odds and are attending UVM in the fall, know they can rely on each other and their shared life experiences if they need someone to talk to while adjusting to their new surroundings. Their bond is one of many that have already been forged during the first few weeks of the six-week Summer Enrichment Scholars Program (SESP) that includes 15 other students from various ethnic, racial, and multi-racial backgrounds, first-generation college-bound students and students from families with limited income.

These are the kinds of connections that SESP was designed to help facilitate for reasons that are best explained by its attendees.

“I’ve met about 50 friends so far,” says Carter. “It makes thinking about coming here a lot easier. I can’t wait to start in the fall.” Willis was encouraged to apply to UVM by James Abbatiello, a 1997 UVM graduate and co-director of student affairs at Thurgood Marshall Academy. After his first week at SESP, Willis, the first in his family to attend college, knew he’d made the right choice.

“I wanted to get away from the city and break all stereotypes by coming here,” said Willis at a July luncheon sponsored by the McNair Scholars Program, which also helps students of color, first-generation college-bound, and students from families with limited income enroll in Ph.D programs. “I knew UVM was going to push me and support me. Everyone is so liberal and open here. I feel very accepted and wanted. It’s like a dream come true. My family is very proud of me and I don’t intend to let them down.”

Connecting with peers, campus, community
The goal of SESP, sponsored by the ALANA Student Center, is to improve retention by helping students form relationships, introducing them to the campus and surrounding community, acclimating them to a rigorous academic environment, and preparing them for the cultural and climate challenges they’ll confront in the fall. First generation Vermonters, who face their own kinds of challenges at UVM, are also a target group of the program.

Students take a three-credit (usually math or English) course and a one-credit psychology course. They also work at the university in various areas such as the Department of Residential Life or the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Maria Dykema Erb, director of SESP, says participants will seek each other out in the fall and eventually grow their network of friends across campus. “A lot of students come to the ALANA Student Center and hang out, study or cook foods from back home. Last year’s cohort is very tight and helped bring other students into their group. They formed some really close friendships.”

The program has changed somewhat since Wanda Heading-Grant, associate provost for multicultural affairs and academic initiatives, was a first-generation student from Trenton, N.J., and the only female African American student in the inaugural SESP class of 1982. A service learning element, for example, was added this year that has participants work at local non-profits and businesses such as Boys & Girls Club and Recycle North in an effort to create a connection to the surrounding community and forge relationships outside of the university.

“Relationships were very important to me, so there’s a possibility I would have left UVM if I hadn’t made those connections over the summer,” says Heading-Grant. “I learned where to find people who looked like me for support, but I also learned that people who didn’t look like me, cared about me and were there to help. If I didn’t have that I’m not sure how it would have worked out for me. I might have called my mother to come get me.”