UTurn gives participants one more shot
Alfonso Vasquez came to The University of Texas at Austin like any other freshman, thrilled at the opportunities that lay before him. Originally from Karnes City, a small town in South Texas, the excitement of the city soon began to coax him away from the library. He made new friends, and found that he preferred hanging out with them to attending class.
After that first semester, his grade point average sat at 2.0. After his second semester, he was placed on scholastic probation. After his third semester, he was dismissed for six months. Six months turned into 13 years.
Alfonso Vasquez returned this spring, as a 32-year-old history major.
“I was very nervous. I was worried my past disappointments had nothing to do with my partying habits,” says Vasquez. “Maybe it was me; maybe I just couldn’t handle it.”
So when Vasquez received an email inviting him to join UTurn, an innovative program that assists students on scholastic probation in order to avoid academic dismissal, he jumped at the opportunity.
UTurn was created by Associate Dean Marc Musick, after he began offering weekly meetings and direct contact to one student with academic struggles. That student greatly improved her GPA, working her way off probation and toward graduation. In the spring of 2009, that success evolved into UTurn, a program that offers students individual attention and the resources needed to succeed academically.
“When developing all of the components to UTurn, it was really in looking at how to create the widest support network,” says Ben Burnett, an academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts and coordinator of the program.
This support for students includes being assigned an advisor, attending monthly group meetings and presentations, and receiving a student handbook of resources and supplemental resources from the Sanger Learning and Career Center, which offers academic and career counseling and advice.
“UTurn is a way of looking at the population of students who are on academic probation and how we can give them more time and more access to resources within the college,” Burnett says. “And then even outside the college, in partnering with the Sanger Learning Center.”
A student is placed on scholastic probation when his or her cumulative grade point average falls below a 2.0. Typically, 300 to 500 students within the College of Liberal Arts are placed on academic probation each semester. Conditions for scholastic dismissal are driven by the total college hours a student has completed; the more hours a student has completed, the higher the minimum GPA required to stay in school.
When Musick and Burnett started the program, they found that many students who hadn’t yet declared their majors were struggling. They opened the program to those undeclared students who were in jeopardy of dismissal. The program now extends to several other majors within the College of Liberal Arts, as well as students who were previously dismissed for a first or second time and students recommended by their academic counselors.
Two-thirds of students in UTurn avoid academic dismissal, compared to about half of students who decline the program’s invitation. About 165 students have participated in the program.
That success caught the attention of Provost Steven Leslie last year during a meeting that was part of the Dean/Provost Academic Core (DPAC) planning process.
“We got to the end of the presentation, and it was his chance to ask whatever questions he had. And his one question was about UTurn. He wanted to know more about that program because he thought that this was a great idea,” Musick says. “So this is something the Tower has noticed and they want to be successful.”
The program’s cost–effectiveness has helped it attract attention as well. The program has no dedicated budget and is operated within existing College resources.
“It is a successful program, and yet, we do it on a shoestring budget,” Musick says.
The financial benefit of the program goes beyond the small budget. UTurn ensures that the university’s resources provide students with a complete education.
“Our big problem is getting people to participate,” Musick says. “We want higher participation rates and we know we can get those participation rates up if we were to provide incentives.”
Musick is considering providing a $300 scholarship to students who participate in the program and are removed from probation. Ultimately, he wants to extend the program to all majors within the College of Liberal Arts and hire UTurn-specific advisors, academic coaches, and students who
successfully completed the program to serve as mentors.
Vasquez is enthusiastic about what UTurn means for his future.
“Through its individual attention and constant support, the UTurn program opened many doors for me that would have never been there,” says Vasquez, who is considering a career in education. “It has given me opportunities I never thought possible.”