Fulfilling Their Potential
Faced with demanding coursework and a competitive campus climate, wise students see need to utilize academic support services.
By Pamela Burdman
Most of them came here as “A” students, earning grade-point averages of 4.0 or above and high SAT scores. They are the finest of the state’s high school graduates: Only those who finish in the top one-eighth of students around the state qualify to attend the University of California, and the Berkeley campus takes only a fraction of them. This year’s Berkeley freshmen were selected from a record 36,000 applications.
But getting in is only part of the battle. The competition continues after students are admitted. The coursework is demanding — especially for students whose high schools didn’t prepare them for rigorous coursework and for those whose parents didn’t attend college.
As the top tier in California’s higher education system, UC’s eight undergraduate campuses eschew remedial education, leaving that job to community colleges and to California State University, the state’s other four-year institution. Nevertheless, each UC campus offers a wealth of programs for students who need extra help with their coursework. The programs range from one-on-one tutoring to labs and workshops that complement lecture classes.
“The pedagogy of our programs is to work with students not on surviving, but on excelling,” says Adolfo Bermeo, associate vice provost for student diversity at UCLA.
“We don’t use the word ‘underprepared,’ ” says Dr. Barbara Davis, Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor for student life and educational development. “We have a philosophy of recognizing that students come in with a wide variety of needs and we have a wide array of services to meet those needs.”
At Berkeley, many of those services are concentrated at the Student Learning Center, a unit born in 1973 primarily to serve minority and low-income students during affirmative action’s heyday. Similar centers exist on other campuses, including the ones in Davis and Riverside.
Though not styled as a retention program, SLC Assistant Director Luisa Giulianetti says, “I definitely think it works to that end — both because of the academic services and the more effective aspect of the center. People come here to study because they’ve made friends here. This university can be really impersonal. We shrink the size of the university for a lot of students. We try to create a community of scholars.”
That may explain why the centers are so popular among students. Consider UC Riverside, where the Learning Center is funded by student fees doled out by a student committee. Students were so supportive of the center that a few years ago they dedicated more than $3 million to add a third floor to a structure the university was building already. The new structure replaced run-down trailers that the Riverside center had been using for years.
The centers have grown since their early days. At UC Davis, Learning Skills Center director Virginia Martucci says her center has quadrupled in the 24 years she has been running it. They have expanded their offerings as well as their audience — particularly since UC abolished affirmative action and enrollment patterns changed.
Under the race-blind regime, the proportion of African American and Latino students, groups considered underrepresented within the UC system, has held steady on some campuses, such as Riverside, where they make up about 29 percent of students. Their numbers, however, have plummeted at the more selective Berkeley campus, where they constitute less than 15 percent of entering freshmen.
The centers tend to reach out to the entire campus community, though they are particularly concerned with attracting at-risk students, such as those “first generation” students whose parents didn’t attend college.
Without affirmative action, certain programs within the centers have witnessed large demographic changes. UC Davis’ summer bridge program, for example, serves about 225 students a year. That group used to be a combination of affirmative action students and low-income students who qualified through the Educational Opportunity Program.
Martucci says the last three years (1998-2000) showed big changes from the previous three (1995-1997), now that EOP is the only criterion:
• The proportion of African American students fell from 25 percent to 15 percent;
• The proportion of Mexican American students dropped from 37 percent to 31 percent;
• The proportion of Asian American students rose from 7 percent to 29 percent; and
• The proportion of students who speak English as a second language climbed from 7 percent to 29 percent.
“We do outreach for students at risk, and they are disproportionately students of color,” says Susan Allen Ortega, director of the Riverside center. Riverside enrolls a high number of minority students, overall: Caucasians make up just 27 percent of current freshmen, with 6 percent African Americans, 23 percent Latinos, and 46 percent Asian Americans.
Surviving vs. Excelling
Only UCLA explicitly targets underrepresented students for assistance through its four-year academic advancement program. Bermeo says underrepresented students make up 70 percent of the 5,400 students in the program.
Meanwhile, Berkeley not only doesn’t specifically target minorities, its center does not even track the ethnicity of the more than 8,000 students who use its wide array of services each year. But the ethnic mix of center clientele has changed along with the campus, Giulianetti says.
On a recent school day, the center’s atrium — a cavernous room overlooking the campus’ Strawberry Creek — was abuzz with activity. A hundred or so students filled the room, and a constant stream of them were coming and going.
Senior Cesar Moreno sat near a bulletin board advertising “Drop-In Writing Tutors.” Moreno says he comes to the Learning Center “sporadically at the last minute” to seek assistance from a writing tutor as he finishes a paper. He showed up during the lunch hour with a paper about women in Latin America for his history class.
“The paper’s due today. I’m a little bit shaky about my argument,” says Moreno, waiting his turn for a tutor.
A double major in political science and history, Moreno has aspirations of attending law school. He first used the Learning Center during his freshman year, to help prepare for exams in his ethnic studies class. He says he found Berkeley intimidating, after attending high school in a Central Valley community that was 98 percent Latino.
After completing the class with an A+, he became a tutor for ethnic studies. “I really enjoyed the class, and I wanted to help somebody else,” he recalls. He has been coming to the center ever since.
The center employs more than 400 tutors per year. Like Moreno, they must have earned an A- or better in the particular class and undergo regular training by center staff.
Around the atrium, other corners of the room were designated for other subject areas. In addition to writing, the center’s offerings are focused on helping students with the large “gateway” lecture courses — including math, economics and the sciences — where the professors can’t provide individual attention.
All over the room, students were working through math problems on their own, while others were talking with tutors. Still others were gathered in groups, either to study or just to chat. Some students say they find the environment a friendlier place to come in between classes than the campus library.
“You can come here to meet friends, have a conversation, eat, study together, get help,” says Stella Obi, a sophomore from San Francisco.
In addition to drop-in tutoring, students can take courses to assist them with their coursework — “adjunct” courses for which they can earn credit — as well as writing workshops.
Obi says she has taken several writing workshops. “The tactics I learned really helped my papers,” she says. When she first came to the center, she was earning C and C+ grades on her papers. Since getting assistance, she hasn’t scored below an A-.
While overall success of the centers is hard to measure, Giulianetti says stories such as Obi’s are more the rule than the exception. She cites a five-year study of the center’s math adjunct courses: While the average pass rate in introductory math classes was 70 percent over the period, students taking adjunct courses through the center passed at a rate of 88 percent.
The learning centers are a decentralized function of the university, and therefore are not coordinated through the system president’s office. Nevertheless, the campuses have found the resources from student fees and state funds to keep the centers’ budgets steady.
Both Berkeley and Davis have annual budgets of more than $1 million. The smaller — but growing — Riverside campus supports its center with $500,000 in student fee money.
Another way Berkeley supports the learning center concept is by allowing the centers to offer course credit. When students take an adjunct course to accompany their economics or biology class, for example, they can earn an additional credit for the adjunct course, which Giulianetti says offers more depth in the subject matter — not simply a review of the material from the main course.
Few of the other campuses offer full credit. Davis, for example, assigns “workload units” for its classes. These count toward a student’s study load and financial aid eligibility, but they don’t count toward graduation, Martucci says.
Just as the centers have adapted from their initial focus on affirmative action students, they will continue to evolve to respond to changes in state demographics and UC policy.
For example, UC is about to begin a new admissions program that will guarantee slots in the freshman class for all students graduating in the top 4 percent of their high school class and completing a designated course pattern.
There has been some speculation that a number of the “4 percent” students who attended low-performing high schools may not be as ready for college work as their peers.
“We’re anticipating that they might be our clients,” says Ortega of Riverside.
But despite changes in university policy and in clientele, the role of the centers has remained fairly constant according to Martucci, who has watched them evolve in her 24 years at UC Davis.
“How many students would go by the wayside if we didn’t have these services? That’s very hard to tell,” she says. “But in the kind of institution we’re in, and the level of competition that the students face, I really feel that this kind of service is necessary if they’re going to fulfill their potential.”
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