Early orientation program opens doors for minority students

Hannah Shaffer

Project Early Start is searching for WKU volunteers to help prepare incoming freshmen from minority backgrounds for college.

In July 2015, Jackie Pillow, the retention coordinator for Student Affairs, took over as supervisor of the program.

Pillow said the program takes place every August on the weekend before M.A.S.T.E.R. Plan.

“The program aims to show students the differences between high school and college in terms of expectations for the students,” Pillow said. “The biggest goal of the program is for students to be prepared for what college really looks like.”

Pillow said the weekend is broken into workshops similar to M.A.S.T.E.R. Plan’s that cover a variety of topics.

The topics range from academic expectations for incoming freshmen to the rights and responsibilities of students. They cover life lessons and study skills that students might not learn otherwise in time to benefit from them.

Indianapolis native Josclynn Brandon, coordinator of Leadership and Volunteerism for Diversity, assists Pillow with the Project Early Start program. Brandon said the program tries to build trust and teamwork between workers and students by going to a challenge course at the University Farm.

Students also learn about financial aid, loans, budgeting money, maintaining mental health and studying.

“It is really important for students to understand the resources available to them on campus,” Brandon said.

The program uses student volunteers who meet certain criterion to lead many of the workshops and help the incoming freshmen get an idea of what student life is actually like in college.

“Incoming freshmen are always looking for the student perspective, so that’s what we’re looking for,” Brandon said of prospective volunteers.

Many volunteers are students who have gone through the program themselves. Pillow said they are really able to see the value of the program when they look back on their first year at WKU.

Chicago sophomore Christopher Wilborn attended Project Early Start as an incoming freshman and has returned as a volunteer to help other students who are in a situation similar to his when he attended.

“Without this program, I believe, I would have struggled seriously,” Willborn said.

The program works to show students there are people in their corner. It focuses a portion of its time on networking between the students and faculty who help the students succeed.

“A key factor is networking, which is a real big deal because you never know who might be able to help out with something. It could be a job or internship,” Wilborn said. “Also building a relationship with your peers. The students in this program seem to have the upper hand.”

Project Early Start began in 2010 when Howard Bailey, former vice president of Student Affairs, had a conversation with a member of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. Brandon said this program has helped significantly because retention at the college level has been an issue among minority students in the past.

“The students who complete the program leave with the knowledge that they have a number of people they can turn to,” Brandon said.

Last year, there were 80 students enrolled in the Project Early Start program, and there were 12 volunteers. This year, Brandon said, they are hoping for between 15 and 20 volunteers.

Project Early Start helps incoming freshmen figure out what they need to do to be successful. This, Wilborn said, is a big part of what makes the program successful.

“The Project Early Start program prepared me for my freshmen year by giving me and others the inside scoop on what type of things … goes on at [WKU],” Wilborn said. “I like to say it’s similar to having a blueprint for my whole four years here at Western Kentucky University. The Project Early Start volunteers that helped me out my freshmen year gave me different studying tips and advice on balancing my social life and schoolwork.”

Pillow said this program is important to the success of minority students both now and in the future at WKU.

“This is necessary in the sense that it helps to prepare these students to be successful, and I think we are giving them the resources and the tools to be able to do that,” Pillow said.

Ed. note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Joscylnn Brandon as a graduate student. Ms. Brandon is actually a full-time staff member. The Herald regrets the error.