Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SAAS Peer Advisor states, “There has to be a program like this at our school”

By: Jenna Benty

Kirsten Alonso is yet another student impacted by the extensive budge cuts implemented on the University of California campuses. I was able to sit down with Kirsten to ask her about her involvement in SAAS or the Student Academic Advancement Services, a unique university program that was cut during the recent budget crisis. We met under the shade of the humanities trees, where despite the beautiful and breezy day, it was undeniable the financial troubles that are currently affecting each and every student. Fewer classes, department cuts, and club cuts, are no longer hiding under the surface at UC Irvine and the entire state of California.

What is SAAS and what is your position in it?

SAAS stands for Student Academic Advancement Services, a branch of the program known as SSS, Student Support Services, a federal government organization. SAAS is partly federally funded and partly school funded. Once the school signs the SAAS contract, the money automatically becomes federal. The purpose of SAAS is to increase retention and graduation rates of first generation college students, low-income students, and students with disabilities, by providing a support system for them through college. Maybe their parents did not go to college, which leads to low graduation rates because of their lack of familiarity regarding the college system. I am personally a SAAS student, and later I became a peer advisor of the program. Every year SAAS hosts Summer Bridge, in which I was an RA of, as well as workshops for the students, counseling services, and academic advising. SAAS has been around for 30 years at our campus (UCI), and we have been named the most successful SAAS program. Some of the counselors have been working with SAAS, directing those students who have never been exposed to the college atmosphere, since the program started 30 years ago. SAAS provides services to more then 500 students each year, mainly from the freshman and sophomore class. There has to be a program like this at our school.

What is the summer bridge program?

Summer Bridge is a 5-week academic intensive program that helps incoming freshman, which will be in SAAS, get used to college. It creates a "bridge" between high school and college. Students go to class 5 days a week, for math, writing, computer skills, etc. they also receive workshops. In addition, they live in Middle Earth (a dorm facility on campus) and receive the dorming experience. While dorming, they have a team of RAs to help them transition and plan activities for the students. Furthermore, academic counselors come in to assist the students about once a week during Summer Bridge. It helps to familiarize incoming students with the array of activities, opportunities, and services offered at UC Irvine.

How did SAAS personally help you adjust to college?

SAAS helped me learn about the resources on campus such as UCDC (an interning program through Washington D.C.), EAP (a study abroad program through UC schools), etc. I had a peer mentor that has done all these programs on campus, and has inspired me to follow in those footsteps as well as to branch out beyond the classroom and become more involved on campus. Because of SAAS, I thought of going abroad, I am going to Spain in fall 2010, and I am also going to apply for UCDC internships for summer. The workshops that SAAS provided helped me answer questions about how to get involved on campus, I learned about how to ask a professor to do research for him or her. I also found a lot of help with planning my classes for quarter. Also there were workshops on student health as well as diversity workshops.

What were the student’s needs and how did SAAS meet them?

All the student’s needs differed, so it depends on the student. Most students wanted to know what classes to take as well as how to switch majors, so SAAS had many workshops on academic planning. Some needed a counselor to hear them out, some had some personal problems, conflicts etc. We were there for anything. Even if they needed a scantron of a test we provided them with that. Some students were confused about financial aid, and how to reapply for aid, so we held workshops regarding financial assistance. We also were available through AIM (a chat messaging system) and Facebook (a social networking website used among college students) so students could access the peer advisors and counselors through all technological facets. For sophomores, we provided them with more resources such as workshops to help them start them thinking about grad school. There is a class that was linked to SAAS, known as Social Science 187, which teaches everything the students need to know about going to grad school or higher education.

I am aware the school stated that SAAS was eliminated over budget cuts, but do you feel that was the real reason SAAS was cut?

In late July they (the department of undergraduate education run by Dean Salinger) told us that SAAS was going to be eliminated due to budget cuts. We are aware that there is a budget crisis, but we were still federally funded. If there was such an urgency, instead of shutting the program completely down, why didn’t they keep some of us, possibly two counselors, instead of five? Maybe restructured it but not eliminated it completely. And, if budgets were the case, we still had funding for one more year. In addition, the incoming freshmen of fall 2009 were notified that SAAS was going to be there. Again there was no easy transition, and August 31st was our last day. All the students I worked with are now lost.

You said previously that SAAS had funding for one more year, what happened to that money?

That is what we are asking, what happened to the money? That’s federal funding, and they can’t take federal funding. We don’t know where the funds are going.

Well seeing that SAAS offers so many wonderful programs to these qualifying students, I would think they would want to see SAAS stick around. Do you think the school did anything to help keep SAAS going?

We contacted the chancellor, the regents, and we started emailing everyone from administration, and the response we got was that there was nothing they could do. A lot of faculty know people in SAAS, and they weren’t notified, and the majority had no idea that it was closing. It really shows that they weren’t exactly trying to keep the program going when they weren’t letting anyone know about its closure.

Have you talked to any of the SAAS students that were in the program? What is their response?

They were really sad, every one of them. They’re first week was tough; they don’t know where to go or what to do now. A lot of them expected SAAS to be there and to go to these workshops that would help them get around campus, what classes to chose, career advice, and resources on campus. Now that SAAS is not there they are pretty mad, and lost. However they still go to the old peer advisors and counselors for help, and we are still there for them no matter what.

Do you think SAAS will ever be resurrected in the future?

I don’t know, I would like to see what happens in a year when the school doesn’t receive their grant, what will happen. They wont have funding for LARC (a tutoring program on campus that allowed special privileges for SAAS students such as free tutoring sessions), they wont have funding for workshops, or Summer Bridge. Who knows what is going to happen, hopefully you will see SAAS in the future!

How were you affected by the closure of SAAS?

I was definitely affected, I lost my job. My friends were affected, and mostly those incoming freshman were affected more so then we [the advisors] were. It is the students who lose out. All the advisors and counselors were personally SAAS members at some point. We understand what it is like to be a new student on a college campus; we all had the background, which is why we are sad to see these new students come in without a support system to back them up.

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