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Student Transitions and Academic Resources

CWU program gives promising students a second chance

STAR -- An overview

By ERIN SNELGROVE
YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC

 STAR OverviewELLENSBURG, Wash. -- Carolyn Thurston has met many unforgettable students at Central Washington University.

There was a North African refugee who didn't learn English until he attended an American high school. There were students who lived out of their cars, and an undocumented migrant worker who spoke three languages.

Without Thurston's help, these students and dozens of others never would have been accepted at Central.

Thurston is the director of Student Transitions & Academic Resources, or STAR, a program that gives people who don't meet Central's admissions criteria a second chance.

"The most rewarding part is working with students, helping them learn there are no mistakes, only lessons," said Thurston, who helped develop the program about three years ago. "The circumstances of their lives do not have to predict where they're going or who they will be."

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Each year, thousands of people apply to Central. Among them are applicants who did poorly in high school due to hardships such as extreme poverty, personal illness or injury, or the death of a family member. Others ruined their academic standings with drug and alcohol abuse, but have since cleaned up.

When such applicants show promise, they are considered for the STAR program.

It's hard to define promise, but most accepted into the program have shown a willingness to overcome adversity and a determination to improve their lives.

"It's almost a sixth sense," Interim Admissions Director Kathy Gaer-Carlton said of the review process. "When you read these students' files, you know there's a story there."

Still in its infancy, the STAR program is run by Thurston and program coordinator Sam Blazina. It's run on a $100,000 annual budget, which includes salaries for both.

About 60 students are accepted into STAR each year, but because of problems securing financing or housing, typically only about 30 to 35 actually reach class. The most veteran STAR students are now in their junior year.

STAR students get intensive, even intrusive, academic support. Thurston initially meets with students at least three times a quarter to discuss classes and grades.

Because many never learned time management and studying techniques in high school, students are taught these skills at the university. And through a peer mentoring program, they're exposed to lectures, concerts and other activities that may be routine for most students but can seem foreign to them.

The mentoring program -- which pairs incoming and veteran STAR students -- helps them connect to campus life and better understand what resources are available, be it one-on-one tutoring or help with picking classes.

The mentoring component is coordinated by Blazina, who, as a former older-than-average student, quit school because she felt isolated. She later returned to Central, where Thurston became her academic counselor, and graduated in 2008.

"If I had a program like this, that I connected with, I may not have quit," she said. "We will help the students and walk with them as far as we possibly can. Essentially, it's up to them on if it'll work or not."

Students receive career and financial counseling, tutoring and referrals to other services, such as therapy for depression and anxiety.

In return, students must attend school full time and maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.0.

STAR is modeled after federal TRIO programs that provide help to first-generation and low-income college students. The programs are offered across the nation and are funded through competitive grants.

"You get involved beyond the academic advising," Thurston said about STAR. "You get to know their personalities, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. You really get to know that person beyond the academics."

So far, retention averages 76 percent at Central. Nationally, it's 50 percent for similar high-risk students.

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Thurston knows not everyone will complete the program and graduate.

Some students will choose partying over their studies. Others won't get the help they need, be it tutoring or mental-health counseling. Sometimes, the family problems that plagued them earlier follow them to college.

When Thurston sees troubling signs, she calls students into her office for a frank conversation.

"I'm not magical, but what I can do is hold up a mirror and show them what they are doing," Thurston said. "Sometimes I'm soft and fuzzy, sometimes I give students the whip."

Thurston said she wants the program to continue growing. She wants to hire additional staff to see to the students' needs, and she wants to help students transition into choosing a major and selecting a career.

Thurston and Blazina agree they've already learned a lot from STAR. They've learned students can't be labeled and put into a box. They know the program's success depends on giving students individualized attention, and they're aware that without STAR, many of these amazing people would never have attended college.

"Every time a student walks in our office, we watch them cry and share," Blazina said. "It's always rewarding. ... We are just here for them."

* Erin Snelgrove can be reached at 509-577-7684 or esnelgrove@yakimaherald.com.

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