Sometimes, students need more than academic help in college. Sometimes, they need help simply figuring out how college works, especially if they’re the first in their families to go.

That’s why universities have started offering programs that help students navigate college — how to take advantage of office hours, for example, or to speak up in class.

“They don’t know what they don’t know, and unfortunately, sometimes it’s vital,” said Marie Francois, interim director of undergraduate studies at CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo. “They don’t even know to ask the questions because it hasn’t been in their experience. If they’re eventually going to be part of the work community, we have to meet them where they are.”

Channel Islands and other local colleges offer classes, usually for incoming students, that answer those questions. Often, the classes are taught by a faculty member who focuses on academics and a peer adviser who can help students with everything else, from tutoring to dealing with roommates.

Or they may put freshmen in a learning community that takes a couple of classes together, so students have a built-in group of friends. And they make counselors as accessible as possible.

“We help students who don’t understand how to work the system, who need help maneuvering,” said Kathy Dean, a dean at Ventura College.

For Bayarmaa O’Connor, a student at Ventura College, that extra help has kept her in school.

O’Connor, 30, started at the community college last year insecure about her English and uneasy about speaking up in class. She had moved here from Mongolia, where she grew up, in 2009 after marrying her American husband. And then she spent the next four years at home, taking care of children.

She started taking classes to improve her English, realized she wanted to keep going — and was immediately overwhelmed.

She first went to Santa Barbara City College, got lost and went home. Then she tried Ventura College.

“I didn’t know how to go to college,” O’Connor said. “I went online, and it was so big, so confusing. I said, ‘I need a counselor.’ ”

She found one, and that counselor took her, step by step, through registration, even walking her to an office she needed to visit.

When she started classes, there was a tutor right there. That made it easier to ask questions, she said.

“I don’t want to look stupid,” O’Connor said. “For me, it’s easier to ask a student helper.”

Ventura College provides tutors in about 20 classes, particularly ones such as calculus or introductory biology that are gateways for more advanced courses. That way, students can ask questions and get extra help right away.

They also can meet with the tutor outside class in a large center housed in the college library. And because those tutors get to know students, they realize when they’re not understanding something, O’Connor said. That’s made all the difference for her, she said.

“I feel like I lost so many years, sitting in the house crying,” she said. “They’re not just teaching. They make you emotionally prepared. They know what people are dealing with.”

A program at Channel Islands encourages students to stay in the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math. The program offers tutoring for gateway classes but also provides peer mentors who encourage students to connect with professors.

The idea is to get students past dry introductory courses and into research that lets them apply what they’re learning, said Victor Moreno, student success coordinator.

“We want students to be noticed in class,” Moreno said. “We want them to do research as soon as possible. If they get to know the professor, they can ask, ‘What are you doing in your lab?’ Once they get to do research, everything makes sense after that.”

Moreno understands the difference that kind of attention can make. He moved to Fillmore from Mexico when he was 14. His father has no formal education; his mom only went through second grade. But Moreno, 31, has earned his master’s degree in mathematics from Channel Islands.

Still, he thinks he would have gone straight for his doctorate if he’d had some of the help schools are now offering.

“If I had had people willing to guide me through all these things, I would have been prepared,” he said. “Sometimes students just need one person to listen to them once in a while.”

Private colleges, which have more leeway in whom they admit, are offering similar programs.

California Lutheran University, in Thousand Oaks, has the First-Year Experience, essentially an introduction to CLU and college life. A professor teaches the class, working with a peer adviser who deals with nonacademic issues. At the end of each class, students can ask any question they want, whether it’s social, academic or personal. And they do, said Kristin Dees, associate director of student life at CLU.

Often the questions are about how to live at college. How do I fit in exercise? How do I eat a reasonably healthy diet when I can have whatever I want in the dining hall? Do a lot of people go to football games? The peer advisers also meet with students outside class, often in small groups or on outings.

The idea is to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning, Dees said.

“We’re having students own their education,” she said. “They need to navigate ‘When do I study? When do I socialize? When do I seek out my professors?’ It’s a huge academic and social transition for students coming into college.”

The key to all these programs is understanding that students may need personal as well as academic help, said Angela Naginey, senior director of student success at CLU. And it may take some time to figure out just what they need. A student may falter on her first major test, be afraid to ask for help, stop going to class because she’s embarrassed and eventually decide she doesn’t belong in college, Naginey said. And then she drops out, maybe in debt with college loans.

“You can’t assume what a student is going through,” Naginey said, “because you just don’t know.”


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