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When Audrey Ruiz first came to Arizona State University, she was terrified.
“I was so intimidated by this huge public university,” she said.
“I had heard horror stories about how stressful and time-consuming college would be. But I wanted to make friends and go to football games and I wanted the whole experience.
“I was really nervous I wouldn’t be able to handle it all.”
Ruiz was assigned a peer coach at ASU’s First Year Success Center, and the one-on-one support made a huge difference. Her coach helped her break down her goals into manageable steps. Her main goal was to achieve a 4.0 grade point average.
“As the semester continued, I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ And I did get a 4.0 and I still have a 4.0,” Ruiz said.
“And that motivation my coach gave me stuck with me and that’s why I wanted to be a success coach.”
Ruiz, now a senior political science major, is herself a peer coach in the First Year Success Center, helping first-year students find their footing. Students who are the first in their family to go to college, like Ruiz, are offered workshops and other supports. That coaching is just one way that ASU helps students who are new to campus — a philosophy reflected in the university’s ranking as No. 9 in the nation for “first-year experience” by U.S. News and World Report.
The “first-year experience” category is new this year and is based on peer surveys by the magazine, whose rankings were released Monday. The top 10 on the list are: Agnes Scott College, Elon University, University of South Carolina, Berea College, Georgia State University, Appalachian State University, Amherst College, Baylor University, and Arizona State University, which tied with Abilene Christian University for ninth place. Among public schools, ASU ranked fourth.
U.S. News and World Report has also named ASU as the most innovative university all five years the category has existed. The widely publicized annual rankings compare more than 1,500 institutions on a variety of metrics.
That innovation translates directly to the first-year experience of ASU students.
Before they even arrive on campus, incoming students meet Sunny, the ASU chat bot. Sunny was created to answer questions from newly admitted Sun Devils via text messaging, and then was expanded to interact with first-year students too. It is one of many examples of the supportive community students encounter, one designed to make sure they are able to balance academics with what Ruiz describes as “the whole experience.”
Sunny’s text messages “nudge” students, particularly in the early weeks of a semester. For example, a student who has missed classes might get a text from Sunny that says: “I’m checking in to see how it’s going because your professor let me know you haven’t been attending class. … I know the first few weeks can be overwhelming but I also know that you can do this.” Then students are prompted to respond whether they plan to attend the next class, and if not, they receive a prompt to contact their adviser.
Sunny also connects students to other resources, such as Sun Devil Fitness and ASU Counseling Services.
In their first days on campus, the students’ experience kicks off with ASU’s welcome week, a universitywide celebration that immerses students in the spirit, pride and tradition unique to ASU. An integral component of that week is Sun Devil Welcome, the only time the entire class will be together before graduation. The pep rally-style event allows incoming students to hear directly from Michael Crow, ASU’s president, and begin to experience all that student groups have to offer.
First-year Sun Devils also are enrolled in a seminar course called ASU 101. Students learn time-management and academic integrity, but are also introduced to the values of the university, including its focus on sustainability and entrepreneurship. ASU 101 teaches all entering freshmen best practices to be academically successful in college.
The university has created residential communities in which students in individual schools live together. Administrators say this allows college staff, some of whom live in the halls themselves, to know where their students are and help keep them on target if their grades start to slip.
The residential communities have communal study areas, creating an atmosphere of academic support close to home. Some also have exercise facilities and digitally enhanced classrooms.
“Our goal is to have every student become part of a smaller community,” said Frederick Corey, vice provost for undergraduate education. “We provide ample opportunities for them to do so.”
The first-year peer coaching program that was so beneficial to Ruiz is available to freshmen, sophomores and transfer students. It is done face to face, but also is offered by phone or on a Zoom video chat; allowing students the option to use their devices is critical to providing support.
"Today’s college students are growing up in a digitally connected world, which interestingly creates increased feelings of isolation,” said Lisa McIntyre, executive director for Student Success Innovation in the Office of the University Provost.
“In response to this growing trend, ASU is looking for new ways to create digital experiences that encourage engagement and foster feelings of belonging to the ASU community. Early evaluation suggests that our efforts are having a positive impact on students’ first year experience,” she said.
ASU builds connections through technology in other ways as well. The ASU Mobile App provides relevant, personalized content, such as reminders of important deadlines and tips on how to thrive in the first year.
ASU Adulting 101 is a blog and Instagram handle (@ASUAdulting101) where first-year students glean advice from peers and campus experts. The blog offers real-world tips on topics like how to use a credit card, how to make friends and what, exactly, “adulting” is.
ASU also supports first-year students in the classroom. Project LEAD is a curriculum that uses project-based learning to build skills such as teamwork, self-care and communication that students will need to succeed in college. Cohorts of 20 to 40 selected students study together as a community and get advice from peer mentors.
Some first-year students make connections even before classes start. Summer programs ease adjustment to campus life and build relationships with friends and mentors. The university offers bridge programs for American Indian students as well as for young people who have experienced foster care.
Djuan Porter, a junior majoring in theater in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, also is a peer coach, and said that his own first-year coach taught him to give himself a break.
“I was terrified because I set so many expectations for myself,” he said.
“But he helped me get to the root problem of how I was being a lot harder on myself than I needed to be.”
Porter said that the coaches are taught that it’s natural for overwhelmed students to jump to the worst-case scenario.
“But you have to challenge that, and we help you leverage what you are truly afraid of,” he said. “What are the things you can do and what are the things you don’t have control over?”
Both Ruiz and Porter said that joining organizations were helpful in making them feel at home during their first year. Porter was able to represent his housing community in the Residential Housing Association and helped to organize a successful end-of-semester event.
“It was a great moment for me because for so long I was worried about not fitting in or not being accepted because with being an open LGBT individual, there was always that fear,” he said. “It sparked a wave where the people around me made a support system and I wanted to do that for other people.”