Need: Community colleges are a vital entrance point for students seeking careers in STEM, but the process of transferring from two-year to four-year programs is rife with challenges and can be alienating for students entering an environment with unclear social and academic norms. While much of the onus for preparing students for transfer has been placed on community colleges, the four-year institutions to which students transfer have critical roles to play. To fulfill this need, we established the PRIMER program to support students transferring into the biology department at our university. Through a weekly academic skills course, peer mentoring, and informal academic and social supports, our goals were for students to increase their involvement in the campus community and to increase their capitalization through access to resources. Guiding Questions: Our core goal was to assess the efficacy of the PRIMER program, asking two questions: 1. Are we building sufficient support networks for students to increase their sense of community? 2. Are we providing students with a framework of strategies needed to be successful in college, in biology, and beyond? Outcomes: To assess these outcomes, we administered a Sense of Community (SoC) instrument and the Learning and Study Strategies Instrument (LASSI) to students in the PRIMER course at the beginning and end of the semester. We also administered these surveys to comparison groups that included transfer students not in PRIMER and non-transfer students. Students in the PRIMER course also submitted written reflections on challenges they experienced as transfer students, and on their sense of community in our department and university. PRIMER students showed a significant increase in their SoC score on the end-of-semester survey (median pre-test score = 5.56, median post-test score = 6.11, p = 0.007, Wilcoxon signed rank test), but neither group of non-PRIMER students showed a significant change. In their written reflections, PRIMER students agreed that the mentorship program and course helped increase their connections to the campus community, but there were still significant barriers. Challenges due to distance education were common during semesters most impacted by COVID-19, and several students reported feeling alienated due to key aspects of their identities (especially race, age, and veteran status). On the LASSI, we observed no difference in improvement between PRIMER and non-PRIMER students, and neither group saw significant improvement in the subscale most relevant to student capitalization (Using Academic Resources). Broader Impacts: This work presents a model for a program that could benefit students who transfer to STEM programs at four-year colleges. We found evidence to suggest we were successful in fostering a sense of community through mentorship and creating connections among peers, and we gained insight into the kinds of barriers to belonging that students express. Program areas, like improving capitalization through utilization of campus resources, where the program can still be improved were identified. This result was somewhat unexpected, as other peer mentoring programs have focused on their success in increasing students’ resource usage. These insights should be valuable for others striving to support transfer students.
Jennifer Teshera-Levye, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC; Thomas Gould, Pitt Community College, Winterville, NC; Jean-Luc Scemama, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC; John Stiller, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC