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Building success

MSU program helps motivate students to succeed during their college years

February 26, 2008

Communication sophomores Rachel Wiedemann, left, and Constance Garnes display the number of the bachelor that should be selected during ‘The Dating Game’ played Feb. 19 during an Advantage session in the McDonel Hall Kiva. The Advantage, a student-driven organization, aims to empower students to make the most out of their college experience. The group meets every week to discuss different issues that affect college students.

Photo by Karen Cassidy | The State News

When Eric Thomas began his freshman year at Oakwood University in Alabama, college life was foreign territory. Being a first-generation college student, he didn’t know the codes, the language or the rules that come with transitioning into university life. “I wasn’t familiar with them because my parents didn’t go to college, so they couldn’t prepare me for college,” he said. “They couldn’t prepare me for that world.”

Thomas, now 37, spent the next 12 years working toward a four-year degree at Oakwood and graduated in 2001.

“I felt that if I had a mentor or a program that would’ve helped address some of the needs that I had … I would have done better.

“As I got older and more mature, I learned how to find those resources on my own,” he said.

“As an 18-year-old, I wasn’t aware, I didn’t have the skills to grasp the things I needed.”

In fall 2005, Thomas’ last year of graduate studies in MSU’s College of Education, Thomas took what he learned from his experiences and channeled it into the Advantage, an organization on campus to help students — many of whom are first-generation college students — adjust to life at MSU.

Through weekly programs and study groups, students in the Advantage learn how to network, get motivated and find the resources they need to be successful both academically and socially.

C.J. Quinney, the Advantage’s graduate adviser, said he also faced problems when he started as an undergraduate student at MSU in 2001.

Quinney, now a first-year family community services graduate student, said because he wasn’t good at math, he almost couldn’t take another class until passing the math course he had failed twice.

“I considered dropping out of the university — maybe (MSU) wasn’t for me,” the 25-year-old said. “It took that last time to get focused and seek a mentor to really just blaze through it, and I was able to blaze through with a successful (grade-point average).”

Quinney said many first-generation college students come into college “blind.”

“We have no idea of what to expect, no idea of what’s going on,” he said. “And that’s what the Advantage really provides for that first-generation college student: that support, that network.”

Hungry for success

Thomas said when he planned the Advantage’s first meeting in fall 2005, no one came.

Today, the group attracts 40-180 students into McDonel Hall Kiva every Tuesday night.

The Advantage is housed and funded through MSU’s Office of Supportive Services, or OSS.

It has an office in Bessey Hall, which Candis McCastle, president of the Advantage, said always is busy with students coming and going.

OSS Director Aurles Wiggins said she has seen growth in the number of students, faculty and staff aware of the program, and she sees it expanding.

“I think it has a lot of potential for reaching a broader audience of students at the university,” Wiggins said.

“I think it has a lot of capacity for including more faculty who can work with students in more of a mentoring and supporting way.”

McCastle said she doesn’t think she’s missed a meeting since her freshman year at MSU.

“It was a group of people who wanted to succeed, who wanted to make the right decisions while they’re up here at (MSU),” the accounting junior said. “They wanted to be successful.”

McCastle said during her freshman year, she didn’t feel connected to the university and didn’t identify with a group of students.

“I wanted to leave,” she said. “I was gonna transfer, but being part of the Advantage actually helped me to stay.”

Other students, such as Devin Butts, heard about the Advantage before starting at MSU.

The general business management freshman said Thomas and Quinney spoke when he was at the Maximizing Academic Growth in College program last summer.

“(Thomas) was saying when you want something, you should want it as much as you want to breathe, so just put your all to it so you can make things happen,” he said.

“He’s very enthusiastic in his speech, so that really caught my attention.”

Butts said coming to the program helps him stay motivated every week and has helped him make friends at MSU.

McCastle said the Advantage is not only about one’s own success, but also bringing others along for the ride.

“Our program is a retention program and it’s designed to make sure that we are retaining students at (MSU),” McCastle said.

“And our biggest thing is if a student is connected to the academic community and also the social community, they will stay.”

A new way to learn

On Feb. 19, about 60 students filtered into McDonel Hall Kiva while hip-hop music played in the background.

Shortly after 8 p.m., the lights dimmed and the program opened with a game to get everyone’s attention before Quinney talked to the group about the importance of voting in the upcoming presidential election.

“We call it ‘edutainment,’” Thomas said. “We give them entertainment and education at the same time.”

Most Tuesday sessions of the Advantage start with some kind of game, then feature a motivational speaker and end with an installment of “1825,” a student-created, soap-opera-like skit.

Brittany Banks, writer and director for “1825,” said the skit stays up-to-date with the time of the school year and includes scenarios common to college life.

“They want us to … keep in mind to teach a lesson to the audience,” the interdisciplinary humanities freshman said.

Advantage sessions also have regular discussions on current issues in politics and media, such as a discussion about a controversial YouTube.com video called “Read a Book.”

“It’s like a forum to voice your opinion, not just about academic things but about things that go on in the world,” Quinney said.

Spreading the movement

Quinney said he’d like to implement an Advantage program at every college in the country if possible.

“Right now, we’re only graduating three out of 10 black males from (MSU), and so we’re having a slight problem in our retention,” he said.

In mid-February, about 15 Advantage members visited Indiana University to give an Advantage session and hold a focus group with university leaders.

“The problem we’re having as far as retention among first-generation college students isn’t just an MSU problem — it’s a problem that all the universities face,” Quinney said.

He said Indiana’s response was positive. “They want us to come back and do more work,” he said.

McCastle said she hopes the Advantage will become a culture and that people will know that because she’s involved in the group, it means she’s got it together academically and is socially aware.

“I see the Advantage turning into almost a movement, that it will be a social force around campus,” she said. “One of … our quotes that we use is ‘Changing the culture of college life,’ of traditional college life as we know it.”

All of the group’s leaders said they have seen changes in the students involved.

“Watching some of them come to me when they get 4.0s on their math assignments or they get 3.5s and just looking at their faces when they see ‘Wow, I can really do this. I can get through this university,’” Quinney said. “It’s kind of like when the lightbulb goes on in their head and … I just see it click for them — that’s probably what makes me the happiest.”

Thomas said he’s seen students step up and become leaders themselves.

“They’ve kinda taken this program hostage, and it’s their program now,” he said. “They’re taking ownership of their academic success and the academic success of others. Most students, they’re here for themselves. They’re not really here to help other students, and these guys have taken it upon themselves to almost be an academic movement, and I’m just so proud of them.”

Some of the younger members of the Advantage, such as Aiesha Bowie, plan to continue in the Advantage and become a leader in the coming years.

“I’m looking forward to being one of those big names that everybody knows something about,” the preveterinary medicine freshman said.

McCastle also is hopeful about the future of the organization.

“It’s only three years old. It’s a baby, but it’s come a long way,” McCastle said. “We’re not just at (MSU) anymore, and we’re trying to help students because the retention problem and people dropping out of school is beyond MSU.

We’re trying to impact the whole country with what we do.”

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