Rene Diaz can relate to the anticipation and uncertainty shared by some of the students he’s met in Iowa Edge, an orientation program for minority and first-generation college students held the week before University of Iowa classes started in August.
“I came to Iowa from a culturally diverse place, and one of my fears was that I wasn’t going to have any Latino friends,” says Diaz, a senior finance major from Elgin, Ill., and an Iowa Edge peer leader. “This program gives students a chance to make friends and feel at home before school starts.”
In its second year on campus, Iowa Edge aims to build community among minority students and those who are the first in their families to attend college. The program’s objective is closely tied to a University strategic plan goal—to make Iowa a more welcoming place for students of color and first-generation college students.
“Studies show that students who engage in campus activities and connect with a caring faculty or staff member early in their first year are more likely to return and to graduate,” says Todd Parks, assistant director of the Undergraduate Program Office in the Tippie College of Business and a member of the Iowa Edge executive committee. “Iowa Edge shows students that they’re valued and have a place here.”
More than 60 first-year students signed up for the five-day program in August, which offered students a chance to move into the residence halls early. Activities included a team-building challenge course on campus; a progressive dinner at the four campus cultural centers; and presentations on leadership, academics, and college life. Events will continue throughout the school year.
Gabriela Rivera, multicultural coordinator for the Center for Diversity and Enrichment and a member of the Iowa Edge executive committee, says a critical component of the activities is smaller group interaction led by peer leaders. The leaders, who include 10 current students chosen from across campus, serve as mentors to the new students, she says.
Organizers hope Iowa Edge will give students the foundation and confidence to get involved in the larger campus community, such as joining student organizations when the school year begins. When students thrive at Iowa, the entire University benefits, says Peter Middleton, an academic advisor in the Academic Advising Center and a member of the Iowa Edge executive committee.
“Anytime a student finds success, it makes us a better university,” he says. “This program, like a lot of others, creates a sense of place and a feeling of belonging. It results in happier, more productive students.”
Though Iowa Edge is in its infancy, organizers say there are signs of success. The average grade-point average of Iowa Edge participants last year was higher than the first-year class as a whole. The retention rate also was high; of the 36 students who participated in the first year, just one did not return for the second year. The program also doubled in size in its second year, with online registration filling in one week.
“It was a great way to meet people,” says Michelle Gin, an international studies major from Eden Prairie, Minn., who participated the first year. “The connections I made helped me find an on-campus job and get involved in student groups. Plus, it was a lot of fun.”
Diaz says the program’s goal is commendable. Though he came to Iowa with four other minority students from his high school, Diaz says he’s the only one who remained at Iowa until senior year. A program like Iowa Edge could have provided the link that the students needed to feel comfortable at Iowa, he says.
“They told me they left because they didn’t feel at home here,” Diaz says. “That’s what this program does—it gives you a network of friends and support, and then you can go out and make the most of your college experience.”
by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith