Three women standing in front of a wall covered in vines with white letters that spell out \"V C U\"
Kristal Parada (left), a declared-majors adviser in University Academic Advising; Dina Garcia, Ph.D. (center), an assistant professor of health behavior and policy in the VCU School of Medicine; and Ruth Bravo-Anez, (right) a career counselor focusing on pre-professional health and STEM in VCU Career Services, created and led ¡Adelante! The Path to Success, a course that will be offered for the second time in the fall 2023 semester. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

First Year Student Success course offers a step forward for Latinx newcomers at VCU

After a successful debut this past fall, ¡Adelante! helps build skills and a sense of community during their adjustment to college.

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As a first-generation Latina student, Dianne Aguilar-Zurita wanted guidance on how to navigate college. In her freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University, she followed a path that was new for the school, too.

VCU offers about 30 First Year Student Success courses, which are one-credit classes that meet weekly to support and connect new students. The fall 2022 roster featured the debut of ¡Adelante! The Path to Success at VCU – the first course geared toward students who identify at Latinx/Hispanic, as well as their allies. It will be offered again in the upcoming fall semester.

Adelante means forward in Spanish, and Aguilar-Zurita considers the course title to be fitting. This past fall, she was among roughly 2,800 VCU students who identified as Latinx/Hispanic, which is just under 10% of the student population. The numbers continue to grow at VCU and throughout Virginia.

“Having that class, and it being a Hispanic class, made me feel more welcomed and more excited to go” and learn with classmates, said Aguilar-Zurita, who is from Stafford County and is studying health services. “I looked forward to seeing them every week.”

First Year Student Success classes are not required but are highly recommended to help students adjust to the independent learning and living challenges of a college environment. Facilitated by VCU’s Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success unit, the courses focus on academic majors, career and professional studies, college skills and personal success, as well as making connections to VCU and Richmond. ¡Adelante! is among a handful of classes built around identity, community and belonging.

Alondra Zubiate, a rising second-year student from Los Angeles who is studying social work with a minor in Spanish, took the course to connect with fellow Latinx students at VCU.

“It was a class that helped me,” she said. “I really liked being able to hear everyone's different perspectives. It was cool being able to be in a setting where you can relate to people, but then, there's also people that are like you, but they do things differently as well.”

Through discussions, guest speakers and group projects, students learn to build skills for college success, set goals and create a culture of collaboration “in order to become the leaders they were destined to be,” according to the ¡Adelante! syllabus. The course focuses on study, writing and test-taking skills, as well as career exploration.

A targeted approach

¡Adelante! came about through the efforts of VCU staff and faculty, including Kristal Parada, a declared-majors adviser in University Academic Advising; Ruth Bravo-Anez, a career counselor focusing on pre-professional health and STEM in VCU Career Services; Anita Nadal, an assistant professor of Spanish in the School of World Studies; and Dina Garcia, Ph.D., an assistant professor of health behavior and policy in the VCU School of Medicine.

The trio credit Maggie Tolan, Ed.D., senior associate vice president for student success, with bringing them together to collaborate on the course, and then providing support and the go-ahead.

Two women standing in front of a door poitning at a sign that says \"Office of Multicultural Affairs\"
Students in the ¬°Adelante! The Path to Success class, Jasmin Quiroga (left) and Alondra Zubiate (right) document a group scavenger hunt assignment at various offices around campus that will help students understand and utilize services and support their timely degree completion with minimal debt. (Photo credit: Alondra Zubiate)

“Through the Men of Color Initiative, there was a lot of talk about how we could better support Latinx men at VCU,” Garcia said. “And there were a wide range of different things that happened, like focus groups and talks with different faculty members that, at the end of the day, all came with the same idea – that we need to enhance visibility of our Latine students, staff and faculty, and we also have to offer more curricular offerings, particularly for these students.

“Critical to this piece was having the senior administrator at VCU that was bringing people together to say, ‘There's all this need. Let's cut from talking to actual action and make it happen.’”

Tolan said ¡Adelante! reflects VCU’s targeted approach to supporting first-year students. She launched the success courses seven years ago, under the premise that students stop their studies or leave VCU either because they were not motivated to stay and engage, or they hit a barrier that needed to be removed. The distinct First Year Student Success courses acknowledge that everyone's journey and needs are different. 

“Each year we expand and change topics based on the demographics and noncognitive variables reflected in our students and their lived experiences,” said Tolan, who spent years living in Colombia in South America and working at universities in Arizona. “We were noting that we have had tremendous success with some of our other identity success courses … and after significant focus group work with our Men of Color, the message was clear that the barriers and motivators that impact our Latinx community are quite dissimilar from our other underrepresented student groups.”

Tolan said she has seen the value of embracing Latinx family members, mentors, culture and social opportunities to help students feel welcomed, engaged and seen.

Content borne of wisdom

In the debut of ¡Adelante! this past fall, Parada’s class had 16 students, and Bravo-Anez’s class enrolled 13. Garcia facilitated guest faculty, student organizations and staff, and she led an activity focused on mentor mapping. Nadal helped create the curriculum and find community speakers and served as a guest speaker in each class section.

"It was empowering to participate in a class of Latinx students and share similar experiences," Nadal said. 

The organizers developed a recruitment video for the course, and the class content reflects what Garcia, Parada and Bravo-Anez would have welcomed for their own student experiences, as well as their wisdom from serving as faculty, staff and mentors.

“That brought to light the need to focus on topics related to identity, forming community and fostering reflection among students, because a lot of first-year students coming to college are trying to identify different aspects of their identities,” Garcia said.

Class activities – discussions, speakers and group outings at VCU and around Richmond – are meant to build community among Latinx students, mentors and professionals on campus and beyond.

“We definitely wanted to make sure we foster that sense of belonging and connecting students from the very beginning to the resources that VCU offers,” Bravo-Anez said.

“There was another big component that we wanted to add to this course, which was wellness and how to have healthy relationships,” she added. “It is very well-known that in the Latino community, there's a big stigma as far as mental health, how to take care of yourself and what a healthy relationship may look like.”

Building community and a path forward

Bravo-Anez said ¡Adelante! helped students develop friendships that, along with the tools gained in the class, helped them navigate the stressful first-year transition, and they connected with presenters who inspired them.

A portrait of a woman from the waist up
Dianne Aguilar-Zurita, a student majoring in health services with a pre-professional track focusing on a physician assistant career, took the ¬°Adelante! The Path to Success course in the fall 2023 semester to get better acclimated to university life, connect with fellow Latinx students and explore identity. (Photo credit: Dianne Aguilar-Zurita)

Parada was touched during end-of-semester presentations when students reflected on their growth.

“It was a new challenge for them,” she said. “They were being very vulnerable with everyone. They were going through all kinds of different things that happened to them throughout the semester and sharing that with everyone. When they presented, some of them cried up in front of everyone, and everyone clapped for them. That community at the end of the semester was really incredible.”

Parada added that the course has already laid a promising foundation. She noted the students’ academic accomplishments in their first year and their involvement in campus organizations such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, as well as the Latinx Student Association.

Zubiate was pleasantly surprised at the diversity in her class. She met fellow Latinx students from numerous countries, including Bolivia, Brazil and El Salvador.

“It was cool to be able to see the different cultures because I'm only really familiar with the Mexican or Venezuelan culture,” Zubiate said. “So, it was really interesting to see all the different diversity within the Latinx community as well, because yeah – we're all similar in a way, but we also all have different backgrounds, and we all do things differently.”

Aguilar-Zurita said ¡Adelante! boosted her sense of independence and confidence.

“I learned a lot from that class, like how to study, how to manage your time wisely and how to network with people. I've found resources to help with my stress and self-care,” Aguilar-Zurita said. “I learned a lot about career resources. I really enjoyed that one.”