Heading off to college is a significant—and often stressful—transition in the lives of new students. Moving into a new home away from home, starting courses at an academically rigorous institution and creating new relationships on an unfamiliar campus can make the first fall term a tricky landscape to navigate.
However, preparing for that all- important first college term should start well before students’ first days in the fall, particularly for students who may be the first in their family to attend college. Despite being well prepared academically, many students struggle with the transition to a new, unfamiliar environment, often battling mental hurdles such as imposter syndrome, stereotype threat, the weight of expectations from family and more. Establishing a sense of belonging on campus is key to the success of a first-year student, and it is critical to build those connections early.
At Berea College, we want to make sure students joining us each fall have a clear picture of what the experience will be like long before they ever set foot on campus, and a lot of that work takes place in the summer. One of the most exciting events incoming students can engage in during the summer is one of our longest running flagship programs, Summer Connections. Each summer, we invite members of the incoming class to campus for an opportunity to build the foundation necessary to make a smooth and successful transition into the college environment. Letters, brochures and virtual meetings are all valuable ways of communicating with new students, but nothing replaces being on campus, walking from building to building and engaging in the community they’ll call home in the fall.
The goal of Summer Connections is exactly what its title implies: to connect incoming students with the community, culture, values and resources of Berea College. Students and their families meet faculty who outline classroom expectations and ways students can prepare for a new, academically rigorous educational environment. They meet with members of the Labor program team to begin understanding what it means to attend a work college and how to incorporate their labor position into their educational journey. Members of the Student Life team introduce them to the concept of residence life and help prepare them for the living-learning style experience they will engage with on campus. And throughout their visit, we begin introducing them to the culture of Berea College, a unique, mission-driven institution that attempts to educate students’ head, heart and hands.
Perhaps most importantly, students can meet fellow incoming students. The entire Summer Connections experience is designed to create formal and informal opportunities for students to talk with each other, learn about one another and become more comfortable with the peers with whom they will be living and learning when they move to campus full time for the fall term. Many students find their first roommate at Summer Connections and begin building relationships with other students that create a sense of excitement about returning to campus and beginning their educational experience.
When a student leaves campus after their Summer Connections experience, our hope is they will be able to envision themselves walking around campus going from class to class, moving from their work assignment to the dining hall where they’ll meet their friends for dinner and then heading back to the residence hall or library for a night of studying (and, we hope, getting some sleep). It’s these experiences that begin establishing the all-important sense of belonging on campus that will lead to a successful transition, and ultimately a four-year experience ending with a degree from Berea College. Because we’re not just preparing the way for new students, we’re preparing future graduates, future alumni and future lifelong Bereans.