Al Okere, a native of Nigeria, had a burning desire to go to college. But his admission index was below the typical requirement for admission to CWU. Even so, Okere just finished his first year of study at CWU.
“Normally, I wouldn’t have been accepted here, but STAR [Student Transitions and Academic Resources] gave me the chance to come to Central,” Okere said.
In terms of his first-year academic progress, he noted, with a hint of pride, “I’m doing great; I’m getting As.” In fact, he recorded a perfect 4.0 grade point average through his first year at Central.
STAR serves academically high-risk students who show academic potential and an accompanying need for intensive, individualized attention and support. The students come from a wide variety of—and, often, difficult—backgrounds. For example, some have had to cope with a gravely ill family member; others come from backgrounds of drug and alcohol abuse. What they all have in common are obstacles and challenges that prevented them from performing well in high school. But, like Okere, they all want to come to college and be successful.
Through STAR, they’re given the chance to form personal relationships with mentors as one way to transition into college, succeed academically, and graduate. “STAR is not only CWU’s conditional admit support program for at-risk students; it’s a program with a heart,” said its director, Carolyn Thurston. A two-time CWU graduate (1994 English, 1996 MA English), Thurston launched the STAR program in 2007. A year later, Sam Blazina joined her as program coordinator. Since its inception, the program has grown to serve more than 100 students during the last academic year, including its largest freshman group to date—more than thirty-five students, with Okere among them. Increased enrollments are anticipated in future years.
“It is a challenge, but we’re excited,” Thurston added. “What we do for these students, and being able to watch them succeed, is incredibly rewarding.”
Getting students enrolled is only half the battle. STAR students are at a higher risk of struggling in their courses, so ongoing support is vital. Thurston describes herself as “the whip cracker” in the program—often calling students into her office to help get them on track academically. “I ask them what they need, what problems they might be having, and then we try to get those problems taken care of,” she said.
STAR also offers peer mentoring, under Blazina’s direction. STAR students who have successfully completed their freshman year have the opportunity to mentor new STAR students and show them the ropes. Okere will be among these peer mentors next fall. They guide new STARs around campus, introduce them to various student offices and services, and sometimes simply build relationships by going to the recreation center or out for coffee.
“The experience benefits both the mentor and the mentee,” said Thurston. “Students involved in mentoring perform better academically and have the opportunity to develop leadership skills they didn’t even know they had. It’s connection and friendship—really a transformative experience.”
Thurston notes that, along with the individualized attention and support offered, STAR students are also often referred to other Central services, such as Student Health and Counseling Services or the Center for Disability Services.
“We really couldn’t do this without the support of other campus departments,” Thurston pointed out. “We also couldn’t do it without the support of Dr. [Charlotte] Tullos [vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management]. Without her vision and direction, our [STAR] students wouldn’t be here.”
Part of Blazina’s expertise in working with STAR students stems from her personal experience as a non-traditional undergraduate. A long-time Ellensburg community member, Blazina, who graduated from CWU in 2008 with a degree in community health, admits to struggling in school until she was exposed to the kind of support she now helps provide through STAR.
“At first, I didn’t get rooted on campus, feel connected, or get the advice that I needed,” she said. “I left for one year. When I came back, I connected with Carolyn [who served as her advisor] and learned of student services that were available. I attribute my success to that.”
Like Okere, many of the students Blazina helps just need the opportunity to prove themselves. Thurston notes that although some STARs struggle and need extra guidance to succeed, many more are now excelling.
Or, in other words, STAR gives many Central students, and future alumni, a chance to shine.