ACES: One Thunderbird At A Time

Photo courtesy of Morgan Breese.

Graduating high school and moving on to college is an event in which none of us were truly prepared. Excitement and anxiousness envelop you as you make decisions and realize your life will never be the same. Graduation hits and you come to the conclusion that you have absolutely no clue what you are doing. What is college? What should I expect? Is this something I even want to do?

At Southern Utah University, we have recognized incoming freshmen do not know what to expect and are terrified to figure things out on their own. Because of this, the ACES program was created in the Fall of 2015 in hopes of helping to increase retention and mentor first-year students. With retention rates declining for five consecutive years, the thought of a peer mentor program came into play. As the ACES program has developed and evolved, retention rates at SUU have gradually increased to an institutional high of 71%.

Assistant Coaches for Excellence and Success (ACES) ensure incoming students receive relevant and timely information, help guide students through their first year of college and relieve some of the stress these new high school graduates may be feeling. With each of these initiatives and various campaigns, the Student Affairs Department is hopeful retention rates will continue to rise, and students will feel better prepared and supported in college.

A junior at Syracuse High School, Sage Hopkins, is beginning to feel some of these anxieties. When asked what scares her most about college and the transition from high school, she said, “What scares me is starting a new chapter in life on my own without relying on my parents so much. I am also scared to leave high school and all of the people I have grown up with and the people I have gotten to know.”

The fears expressed by Hopkins are feelings most incoming college students experience. With the help of an ACE, however, students feel as though they have someone to ask questions, someone who will help them and someone who supports them and their goals. Beginning the summer before they enter their first semester, students know they can truly rely on their ACE.

Let’s break it down.

As soon as a student pays his/her enrollment deposit to SUU, he or she is randomly assigned to an ACE and sent a survey called the “T-Bird Takeoff Questionnaire,” or TTQ. The ACE does not contact the student quite yet, but students are encouraged to complete the questionnaire. This survey allows ACES, as well as other faculty and staff, to better know and understand each student. The questionnaire includes questions such as:
What are your educational goals?
What is your dream job?
Are you worried about finances?

There is also a section for students to explain any concerns or fears they may be feeling. This survey is essential not only in connecting with students and helping them with their specific needs, but also creating their first semester class schedule.

At SUU, students do not register on their own for their first semester. Because college is so new and unknown, Student Success Advisors read each student’s T-Bird Takeoff Questionnaire and create a schedule that fits their wants and needs. Student Success Advisors work very closely with ACES to ensure each student is comfortable, happy and has the tools needed to be successful.

When asked what benefits she has seen working alongside ACES, Student Success Advisor, Lauren Barker, replied, “The ACES program has helped by putting things on the students level. Students are comfortable with ACES and value their opinions because they are students themselves.” As ACES work with Student Success Advisors, a support system for each student begins to develop and connections are made before students even step foot on campus.

Toward the beginning of May, ACES are then given their cohort of incoming students. This group of students grows throughout the summer as more people pay their enrollment deposit, however, it is the job of an ACE to begin making connections with each of them. These connections are built by sending welcome emails and postcards, connecting students to various resources on campus, giving personalized tours of campus throughout the summer months and aiding students with absolutely any question or concern.

Nearing the end of the summer, most incoming students have already made a connection with one person on campus, their ACE. ACES want to be a student’s first friend at SUU and that is usually the case. By this time, students have received their schedules from a Student Success Advisor and are preparing to attend orientation and their first day at Southern Utah University.

Although students are still nervous at this time, it is the goal of the ACES to hopefully have helped calm some of their nerves. Students are given their ACE’s cell phone number in order to ask questions and ensure they have everything in order. The first day of college is scary, but students know they can turn to their ACE at any time.

With the help of the Nest, or Student Help Center, the ACES are able to help students throughout the entire year. Focused mainly on their cohort of new students, ACES meet with each of their students one-on-one to ensure everything is running smoothly. ACES will also help any student who comes into the Nest with questions or concerns.

First-Year Experience coordinator, Heather Garcia, has seen the effects the Student Help Center and the ACES have made on calming students’ fears. With her office directly in the Nest, she sees interactions between students and ACES on a daily basis. When asked how the ACES and the Nest have been beneficial to students, she answered, “It gives students a one-stop place for information instead of asking around or getting transferred somewhere else. ACES educate students on topics they had never thought about and allow students to find answers to their questions.”

The goal of the ACES is to put students first. Whatever need someone has, it becomes the need of the ACE. With the new Student Help Center, all students, whether it is their first year or not, have a safe place to ask questions and hang out. As ACES staff this office, students are in and out of the Nest throughout the entire day. When asked what he feels is his biggest role in helping students succeed at SUU, ACE, Ryan Conti, felt being their friend was his role. As students enter the Nest, a friendly face welcomes them and becomes an instant friend.

Similar to Conti’s opinion, Kelsey MacFarlane, who has been an ACE for most of her time at SUU, believes her job is to fulfill whatever role a student needs. Sometimes students need a mother figure, others need a best friend, and that is what she wants to be for all students. Although she recognizes she cannot do it perfectly, she does the best of her ability and puts her whole heart into doing so.

For the ACES, their role is more than just a job. It is an opportunity to connect with students and create meaningful relationships. With these connections and friendships, they are truly hoping to make a difference not only in retention, but in the lives of each and every student, one Thunderbird at a time.

Story by:
Morgan Breese