August 27, 2018

When Richard Fink, the former CEO of G&K Services, met with then-Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, he wanted to know what he could do to help strengthen Minnesota’s workforce.

Fink learned that students who are required to take developmental classes upon entering college are, unsurprisingly, far less likely to graduate or transfer than students who enter with college-level skills

From this conversation emerged the idea for an intensive summer-program that would bring below college-level students up to speed before beginning college.

With a donation of over $1 million from Fink and his wife, Beverly, Summer Scholars Academy (SSA) was born.

“It’s like a summer boot camp for students,” says Century College faculty member Chris Weyandt, who is the reading and writing instructor at SSA. “With this program, students have the opportunity to move up a step and get a jump on their fall college experience.”

How the Program Works

SSA is a free program for incoming students who tested one class below college-level on the ACCUPLACER. The program, which recently wrapped up its second year, is made up of 16-hour courses in math, reading, and/or writing.

The program includes mandatory tutoring, supplemental workshops, access to resource centers, study skills help, a financial literacy seminar, and an orientation to campus technology.

According to Ed Dillon, the coordinator of SSA at Century College, student success is based on grit, not grades. This is measured by attendance, completing the homework, and using the Cornell method to take notes.

“The most important question for me is, ‘are they passionate?’” said Dillon, who is the math instructor at SSA, “If they show they have passion, we’ll move them on to college level.”

Beyond saving money on developmental courses, students who complete the program receive a $150 scholarship and a $50 gas card. 

Giving First-Generation College Students a Leg Up

Many of the participants in SSA are first-generation college students who may not fully understand yet what it takes to succeed in college, according to Dillon. The program presents a great opportunity for these students to get acquainted with college culture.

The struggles first-generation students face hold personal significance for Dillon, who was himself the first in his family to attend college. When Dillon made the decision to attend the University of Iowa, he didn’t receive much financial or emotional support.

“My parents accused me of being lazy. They wanted me to go right to work,” said Dillon. “I really struggled when I started college, because I didn’t have anyone to serve as a mentor.”

Now, Dillon hopes to become the mentor that he never had for the students at SSA.

“I tell them that I’m going to be with them the rest of the way,” said Dillon. “I’m going to hold them accountable. When I see them in the hallway, I’m going to make sure they’re doing what they need to succeed.”

Another key component of the SSA support system is the cohort model. By engaging a small group of students together in the same courses, the cohort model creates an intimate sense of community between the students and the instructor.

“We’ve found that students really connect with the cohort model,” said Weyandt. “They learn to support one another, and it gives them a sense of belonging.”

Forging a Path Forward with Teamvantage

The SSA program culminates with a field trip to Teamvantage, a manufacturing company in Forest Lake. The company engineers equipment for the medical device, electronics, defense, and industrial markets.

During the trip, students break up into several groups based on their career interests. Each group meets with a worker who explains how they got to where they are in their career.

“It’s a great way to expose students to what the end goal is,” said Weyandt. “These jobs are highly-skilled, well-paying jobs in an environment that’s incredibly energetic and innovative. It’s really cool for them to see what their education can lead to.”

Students, in turn, become further motivated to succeed.

“Overall, I really liked this experience because it reminded me why I am choosing to go back to school,” said participant Spencer Engman, in a letter to Human Resource Manager Shelly Bruno at Teamvantage. “I want a job that I like going into every day. Seeing that you are passionate about your job made me want it even more.”

To help more students like Engman, SSA needs more instructors. From the first year to the second, SSA grew from eight participants to 52. Growing even further, Dillon believes, requires the support of the greater college.

“It can’t just be me running this program from my office,” said Dillon. “We need everyone to buy in.”