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"A high school isn't a university"

Shelly Kawaja (left) and Dr. Valerie Burton

By Janet Harron

Dr. Valerie Burton and Shelly Kawaja, directors of the First Year Success Program, are ready for liftoff.

Launching this fall, the new program is aimed at incoming students on the St. John's campus who have entrance averages between 70-75 per cent.

"We are recognizing that times have changed at Memorial and we are encouraging awareness among incoming students that a high school isn't a university," said Dr. Burton, academic director of the program and an award-winning teacher in the Department of History. She explains that students who have achieved satisfactory marks at high school with minimal effort often find that at university the same effort won't achieve a similar satisfactory result.

Housed in the Faculty of Arts with classroom and office space in the Education building, the program, according to Dr. Burton, will "teach students the skills they need to succeed at university and make them sufficiently curious to access new skills as their coursework becomes more demanding and involved."

Students will join a network of instructors and advisers and have regularly scheduled appointments with academic advising and career development. The entire cohort will also attend University 1010, what Dr. Burton calls a
"socializing for university" course. A large component of their studies will deal with information literacy: how to choose a topic, how to do a search, where to start and where to go. They will also take other regular classes.

The two-year pilot program emerged from a study conducted by Dr. David Philpott, Faculty of Education, and Susan Cleyle, Queen Elizabeth II Library. The study was initiated when an internal review determined that students' whose entrance averages fall between 70-75 per cent are especially vulnerable to academic distress that could impact their entire post-secondary experience.
Dr. Burton welcomes the opportunity to make a difference for students.

"In this role I can carry on doing the teaching I enjoy, albeit a slightly different way of teaching," she said. "I like the idea of being a communicator and making my work more immediately accessible beyond the cycles of academics and publishers – for me this is a way of keeping momentum going."

Overseeing the support side of the program is administrative director Shelly Kawaja, formerly manager of domestic recruitment in Memorial's Office of Student Recruitment.

"I was one of these students," said Ms. Kawaja, who began her university career at Grenfell Campus. "I got on the right track only because a professor took the time to steer me in the right direction. I didn't think that I needed the help. These students are exactly like I was – they need the help but they don't realize it."

In addition to her career in advancement, Ms. Kawaja is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of History, examining changing attitudes towards higher education in rural Newfoundland.

She explains that between regular visits with career development and academic advising and instruction during University 1010, information will be shared between instructors and advisers as to what each student is doing at what point. The program will include a large input from Distance Education, Learning and Teaching Support (DELTS) and the Queen Elizabeth II Library. It is ultimately designed to enrich students' experience of what's available on campus in terms of learning and facilities such as the Writing Centre and the Math Help Centre, both of which support learning.

The program is also a great example of co-operation across the university, according to Dr. Lynne Phillips, the new dean of arts.

"There is an amazing level of support across the university for this program," said Dr. Phillips. "Strong research was undertaken to ensure that we have the right ingredients in place – from in-depth student advising to excellent teaching. As a result, the First Year Success Program will provide a high calibre support system for students. We firmly believe that student success can be achieved at the first year when students are given the right tools for learning how to learn."

The First Year Success Program is the first pilot project of the Teaching and Learning Framework. It will run for two years beginning this fall. More info can be found at