PULLMAN, Wash. – Midway through its two-year pilot period, the Cougar TOPS program is helping transfer students acclimate to Washington State University and plan for success once they graduate.
 
The Cougar Transfer Orientation and Professional Success (TOPS) program was created in the University College to address the needs of transfer students who come from low-income families and who are the first in their families to attend college, said Sharon Ericsson, program coordinator.
 
“This first year was about finding how we can help these students succeed,” she said. “We’re learning some of the best practices for supporting transfer students.”
 
No role models for transition
The program focuses on students who already have earned their associate’s degree, said Ericsson, an advisor in the Center for Advising and Career Development. In her experience, they often have a hard time completing their four-year degree once they transfer.
 
“These students are getting used to a new university and a new education system,” she said. “They have very similar needs to incoming freshmen but, unlike freshmen, they are pressured to finish their degree in two years.”
 
The students can have trouble engaging in campus life and overcoming financial boundaries, she said. As the first generation of their families to attend college, they have no role models to help them through the transition.
 
Connecting and progressing
 
Offering workshops, classes and social events, the two-year Cougar TOPS program focuses first on helping students certify into their majors and complete their degrees.
 
Students in the program take courses like UColl 304, a seminar that helps second-year, third-year and transfer students become familiar with the community; UColl 497, a leadership seminar, and UColl 303, a writing and composition course. These courses, though open to anyone, are designed to support transfer students.
 
During the program’s second year, students prepare for “after college.”
 
“The student’s first priority is always graduating,” Ericsson said. “And then May comes around and they realize they haven’t thought about how to start a career. This program helps them make the most of their time at the university.”
 
Jamie Kwiatkowski, one of 16 Cougar TOPS scholars, said she feels more connected to the campus and more capable of reaching her goals. In her first year she has created friendships, become more involved in the university and seen personal improvements.
 
“There is a great deal of effort put into making strong bonds with other students,” she said.
 
Another aspect of the program, she said, is the resources and incentives to encourage students to move forward. Students receive scholarships if they maintain satisfactory progress. They also receive $1,000 for every completed year.
 
Kwiatkowski has been awarded two scholarships.
 
Program’s future uncertain
 
She said she feels more prepared for life after college after completing her first year of the program, and she is excited to start the second year.
 
“The Cougar TOPS program has definitely helped me advance toward my career goals,” Kwiatkowski said. “The program gave me an overall better understanding of what I need to be preparing for upon graduation.
 
As of May, the Cougar TOPS program completed its first year as a pilot program. The 16 students will continue with the program through 2011-12. Ericsson said she is looking into ways to continue supporting first generation transfer students. Meanwhile, all students can take advantage of career development opportunities similar to this program through the CACD, she said.