As post-COVID retention rates for full-time students continue to drop nationwide, Fort Lewis College is implementing bold new programs to combat the national trend. The most extensive for-credit programs—Maymester and Skyhawk Summer Bridge—aim to prevent attrition by improving student confidence in the context of rigorous academics. Led by Michelle Bonanno, director of the Academic Hub, the programs emphasize community building. “We want them to find their home here,” Bonanno said. “More importantly, we want them to build the connections and confidence they’ll need to get through the tough transitions of higher education.”
While the end goal of these programs is the same, they serve different student populations. Maymester is a three-week program for rising sophomores who need to recover credits they lost in their first year at FLC. Skyhawk Summer Bridge, on the other hand, is a four-week program to help students transition from high school to college.
Both programs are free thanks to generous contributions from FLC Foundation executive committee member Candice Carson. “They’re both completely free, and for Bridge students, to ease the financial strain of moving early, we only brought in those who lived within a four-hour radius to campus,” Bonanno said. As it turns out, the programs were intentionally built to remedy the cost-prohibitive nature of recovering credits or transitioning into higher education. In addition, a full suite of perks for participants is offered, including employment with FLC (for Skyhawk Summer Bridge students), free food, and lodging.
These pilot programs are also deliberate in their course selection. The curriculum focuses on students passing the MATH 112 and COMP 150 courses, statistically significant retention markers. Students who do not pass these courses are unlikely to continue at FLC and earn a degree, so these programs offer students a chance to right their academic course or start off strong.
For instance, among the 20 students who enrolled for Maymester, 85% passed the course they chose. Here’s the best part: of those 20 students who attended Maymester, 19 are registered for Fall 2022 classes.
"This is one of the best programs I've worked with. There was a buzz in the classroom, which is what you look for as an educator."
Likewise, Skyhawk Summer Bridge students are finding their new home at FLC with the help of experienced peer educators. “The students come in with a great attitude toward the program,” said Joseph Rendon, a junior peer educator studying Economics. “They want to make friends and come in with a great work ethic. It’s been great for me because I never got a formal first year, so in a way, I get to live that out with them vicariously.”
Rendon is one of six peer educators selected to help run these summer programs. These Peer educators receive an additional 12 hours of training to become “program facilitators.” Peer mentorship is a hallmark of these summer programs, and the peer-to-peer connection is a key to the programs’ success. Facilitators provide academic support and mentorship inside and outside the classroom. They also take students to exciting locations near campus like the Old Fort Farm, Lake Nighthorse, and Purgatory Resort.
“It’s been like a really fun boot camp,” chuckled Erick Cuevas, an incoming first-year student attending the Skyhawk Summer Bridge program. “We work, we do workshops, and we also get to prepare by getting a class out of the way. It sounds pretty easy to fall behind on your stuff during the fall, so with one class out of the way, it’ll be easier next semester.”
Students aren’t the only ones enjoying themselves; instructors are also relishing the summer programming. “This is my 20th year at FLC, and I’ve taught many summer classes,” said Leslie Goldstein, a senior lecturer for the Mathematics Department. “This is one of the best programs I’ve worked with. There was a buzz in the classroom, which is what you look for as an educator.”
Bonanno and others envision expanded program versions that would serve more students and lengthen both by one week. The extra time would allow students more breathing room to settle in and focus on their studies. Given the positive reception to both programs, that dream doesn’t seem too far off.
“It has been super successful,” said Bonanno. “From the professors, I hear it’s been the best class they’ve ever taught. From the students, I’ve heard how fun it’s been, and I’ve seen them develop the metacognitive skills they need to succeed.”
Both programs reflect FLC’s commitment to guiding students from their first day of classes all the way to a cap and gown. Through targeted academic support, asset-based mentorship, and integration of FLC’s support network, these students are finding community and academic success.