[Editor’s Note: The author, whose major is middle school education, is a member of USI.]
Lesley University has many groups and programs on campus that help students; one group that is very important to me is the Urban Scholars Initiative (USI). The Urban Scholars Initiative is a scholarship program which provides tutoring, tuition assistance, and mentoring to help its members to graduate from college with modest or no loan debt. But USI is more than that. With offices at 13 Mellen street on the Double campus, USI is like a second family and a home away from home. Director Maritsa Barros and her staff focus on making the adjustment to college a lot easier, by giving advice and making sure students feel acclimated to Lesley. For example, there is a common room which allows students to have a place to relax, or they can do work between classes.
The mission of USI is to close the education gap for the students it serves. In order to be considered, students must have been a part of, and recommended by, Lesley University’s partner organizations in the Greater Boston area, as well as maintaining at least a 2.5 GPA. Some of these partner programs include Bottom Line, Nativity Preparatory School, Breakthrough Greater Boston, The Stepping Stone Foundation Summer Search, and Let’s Get Ready.
USI was launched in 2013, with a pilot group of only five students who were already enrolled at Lesley University. Maritsa Barros led that pilot program and helped it to grow and expand into what it is today. Kayla Dias is one of the program’s Student Success Coach, and she spoke about why the program was designed to have a cohort each year. “The cohort model [has] 20 or more students; [that means they] have peers that they can bond with over the summer, and then come together and go through the experience together.”
The USI team consists of Maritsa, the director; Kayla, a student success coach; and her fellow student success coach Gregory Saint-Dick. The USI Student Success Coaches have weekly advising sessions with the first year scholars. As a student in the program, I found these weekly sessions to be helpful and fun. It gave me an outlet to talk about the week I’ve been having, and get advice when I had a problem. It also gave me someone to share the little accomplishments I had made so far.
I talked about the program with another USI first year student, Victoria Massey, and she agreed that USI makes a big difference. “They are supportive, and they understand what it’s like to be a part of a setting, full of people who don’t look like you, or who don’t identify with your struggles. So far, they have been an organization full of reliable people that walk with me throughout my first semester here at Lesley. I am able to lean on them for support.”
The USI program begins in August. Kayla Dias explained, “Summer transition week, we start with students living on campus for a week, getting acclimated to Lesley. You meet the dean of students, and sometimes the president, and you start to figure out how to navigate your experience here. We talk about jobs, we meet with the Center for Academic Achievement, we work with the career services office, and we have a week of boot camp style workshops, [where we] have a bunch of people from campus come and talk to [the new students] about services available to them. This summer we did Zumba to help students get used to waking up early, and getting moving, as well as having the opportunity to be able to bond with your peers. In the evening there were chats where you can talk about what it’s like to be a college student with upper-class USI students.”
During the school year, along with the weekly first year advising meetings, there are also monthly seminar sessions that the new USI students are required to attend. They meet on Friday’s in the evening on the Doble campus. Kayla says USI offers “…monthly seminars, or master classes, which were modeled after Oprah’s master class series (where she interviewed politicians, celebrities and gurus and asked them about their life experiences, and had them share their lessons learned and words of wisdom). We have folks from the Lesley community and beyond come to chat with our first-year cohort once a month; we have dinner, we break bread, we get together, we do announcements and then we have someone come and share their journey.”
USI students also host events that allow the community to come together and bond with one another. One of these events was the De-Stress Night that was hosted Monday, December 10th in 13 Mellen. It was a joint event hosted by both the Multicultual Student Association and USI. Held from 5-6:30 pm, there were games, food, and good conversation. I was able to meet and get to know more of the upper class students who are in both programs. It was a nice gathering, and it kept my mind off the up-coming finals week ahead. As the night continued there were a lot of laughs, and a game of Monopoly that had everyone’s competitive side showing. The event felt like family coming together to have fun, share in each other’s company, as well as get advice from the older students who have experienced what college final exams were like.
The Urban Scholars program is a very big factor in helping students transition into their first year of college. This is important because many students who are coming to college for the first time have a hard time adjusting and making friends. Thanks to USI, it takes some of those problems off your plate. They provide you with encouragement, as well as a space where you can meet students like you; you have a chance to bond and make friends, and you have familiar faces on campus when school starts. I can honestly say that USI has made my own transition from high school to college much easier.