UF programs give students running start toward degrees


Students of the University of Florida STEPUP and Engineering Freshmen Transition Program view diagrams on a monitor during an engineering and design lecture on July 11.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, July 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 5:01 p.m.

Charlotte Yanes was thrilled when she got the letter telling her she'd been accepted to the University of Florida. "UF was my dream school," said the rising sophomore who plans to major in agricultural communications.

She knew the odds were against her, coming from South Dade High School in rural Homestead — a school with a reputation for drug- and gang-related problems and fighting.

She also knew she was a borderline admissions case because her math scores on her SAT were just below the university's admission standards.

But on the strength of her GPA, community service hours and extracurricular activities, she was accepted via a program called AIM, short for "Assisting students Improving skills Maximizing potential," which gives academically at-risk students from low-income neighborhoods extra support during their first year at UF. Yanes and two other South Dade classmates went through the program last year.

"Everybody that got accepted from my school was in the AIM program unless they were in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program," Yanes said.

AIM's goal is to recruit and retain students from low-income, underrepresented backgrounds who may not meet all the criteria for admissions but show talent and promise. The College of Engineering has two similar programs to recruit and retain underrepresented students — STEPUP, short for "Successful Transition through Enhanced Preparation for Undergraduates Program," and the Engineering Freshman Transition Program, or EFTP.

As UF drives toward top 10 status, retention of the freshman class is a benchmark. UF has seen an overall retention rate of around 96 percent. The retention rate for AIM students has consistently been around 90 percent, while the STEPUP and EFTP programs have a retention rate of around 88 percent.

Begun in 1997, AIM accepts about 300 students a year, or 5 percent of the entering freshman class. AIM had 339 students in 2012, and has less than 320 this year. The program starts students off during the six-week Summer B term and continues to provide mentoring, academic advising and tutoring throughout their freshman year.

The program is not race-based, but about 75 to 80 percent of the students have historically been from minority communities, said Angeleah Browdy, director of the Office of Academic Support (OAS) at UF, which oversees AIM.

"We have a very diverse group of students," Browdy said.

The students in AIM may not have met all the academic criteria for entry to UF but met other academic qualifications. They also generally come from single-parent homes, and are often the first generation of their families to go to a university, she said.

Browdy said she can identify with the AIM students because she herself was the first in her family to go to college.

"My parents always told me I was going to college. But they didn't know how to tell me what to expect," she said.

AIM gives students that experience by offering what Browdy calls a holistic approach to learning — one that goes beyond academics.

The first six weeks is considered a transition period, Browdy said. During that period, AIM students are encouraged to room together in the same residence hall, and take courses recommended by the OAS.

Some students are offered developmental education in areas where they are seen to need more help, such as reading and math.

They also have peer mentors and tutors at their disposal, services that are offered to all students throughout their careers at UF.

Yanes said she stayed in Beaty Towers with the other students in AIM. Most took the same classes and socialized with each other, she said. Yanes said her classes last summer included First Year Florida, math and an organizational skills class that didn't count toward her credit hours but she found very helpful.

And she found the support throughout the year useful as well.

"We had to attend workshops during the academic year, from organizational skills to stress management during exams," she said. "Those were helpful."

AIM has six academic advisers who work with the students to create a year-long learning program with smaller class sizes, peer mentors to help them with questions they might not be able to ask a professor, and tutors to help build math and communication skills.

The same services are available to all students at UF through the OAS, Browdy said. She estimated about 1,000 students visit her office each year, and about half the students who seek out OAS for tutoring are not in AIM.

The challenges AIM students faced to get here are not unique, Browdy said. Many of their peers on campus are from low-income families, were raised by single parents, or went to a high school that didn't have the kind of academic opportunities that prepare kids for college.

"If we had unlimited resources, we'd have more AIM students," she said.

The STEPUP and EFTP programs also target underrepresented groups, said Stephen Roberts, the director of retention and transition programs in the College of Engineering. They all begin during Summer B, just as the AIM students do, and take a specially designed, intensive curriculum to give them a feel for what lies ahead as engineering majors.

Roberts calls it the "reality check."

The college began with the STEPUP program almost 20 years ago, but the program is limited to about 30 students whose expenses are covered by corporate sponsorships.

The EFTP program was started 10 years ago to extend the benefits of STEPUP to more students. About 100 students are enrolled in EFTP and have to pay some of their expenses, Roberts said.

Last year, about 30 percent of the students in STEPUP were black, 24 percent were Hispanic and 24 percent were female. The EFTP student makeup was 14 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black.

Chris Charters, a UF freshman from Coral Reef High School in Miami who is considering a career in aerospace, said he is getting a lot out of the experience of the STEPUP program.

"We don't have much free time, and I'm losing a lot of sleep, but it really prepares you," he said.

It's providing him with a good review of the courses he'll be taking as an engineering major, and it's helping him brush up on his math and science skills so he can enter the fall term fresh.

And Charters also is making friends. "I'll be with them the rest of my college life and maybe even further."

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