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UNC Charlotte freshman transition program builds diversity through summer support

UTOP class.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
UTOP students talk about what they've learned in Professor Bert Wray's summer writing class at UNC Charlotte.

More than 4,000 freshmen start classes at UNC Charlotte this week, and 49 of them arrive with a six-week head start. It's part of a growing recognition in higher education that equal opportunity requires more than just diverse admissions.

The university launched its University Transition Opportunities Program, known as UTOP, for Black freshmen in 1986. Regena Brown, Director of the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusion, says Black students are still part of the program.

UTOP Regena Brown.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Regena Brown, director of UNC Charlotte's Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusion

"But we also recognized that we have a lot more Latinx students," she said. "We also have more low-income students of all races, as well as we have students that are coming from rural communities, that their high schools may simply have not had some of the opportunities like AP or IB curriculum." 

Those students have the ability to succeed, Brown says, but they may lack confidence, knowledge or support systems. Transition programs like UTOP are designed to provide support that levels the playing field regardless of family background.

This year’s UTOP students moved into residence halls on July 1. Learning about dorm life and dining options was one part of helping them feel ready to join a university with more than 30,000 students.

They also took college courses, including Bert Wray’s writing class. Near the end of the program UTOP students took turns voicing what they’d learned about citing sources, the value of feedback and the importance of rewriting.

"Like, not all writing starts off good. It’s a process," one student told the class. "You’ve got the crappy first draft ... which kind of boosts the confidence and stuff because I kind of feel a lot of pressure to write good the first time around but I don’t have to anymore."

Wray told the class why these lessons are crucial to college success: "Whether it’s answering questions on tests, whether it’s speaking your mind in class like this, whether it’s recording research and trying to write about it … these are the things that are going to help you."

Learning how to study

They ended their summer stretch with seven credit hours. Taking college courses compressed into six weeks requires hard work, which is why there was a two-hour study hall required five days a week.

Harshil Faldu UTOP.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Harshil Faldu

As a student at Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell High School, Harshil Faldu says he tended to procrastinate.

"So this study hall really helps me manage my time wisely," he said near the end of the UTOP program. "Like 7 to 9 we’re all in one big room, just quiet and working together. … If we need help there’s always a mentor, like, 'How do you do this, how do you do this task?' "

Brown says the presence of peer mentors embeds a crucial lesson about college survival: "We make sure that we create the culture that working with a tutor or someone who’s more knowledgeable in a subject is not from a deficit standpoint. It’s to make sure you have a support network whenever you’re learning a new subject."

UTOP Grace Lumbu.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Grace Lumbu

Of course, the six weeks of summer preparation weren't all about academics. There were field trips, pancake breakfasts, water balloon battles and unstructured time in the dorm to make friends.

"We already have plans, like starting fall semester we’re going to start hanging out, on the weekends, like study halls," Faldu said.

Grace Lumbu, who graduated from UNC Charlotte this month, says that makes a big difference. She did UTOP in 2019. The credits she earned helped her graduate early, she says, but the big thing was feeling at home from the start.

"I was able to get acclimated with the campus  and not feel like one of the new kids on campus," she said. "Knowing where everything was practically, knowing my schedule, it just felt like home and I was comfortable."

Plans to expand

This summer Bank of America gave the university $2.5 million to expand UTOP. In coming years there will be up to 190 students each summer.

This year a change in program directors during the peak of recruitment season led to a smaller-than-usual group, Brown said. So the university used the extra money to cover all student expenses for the six-week session. In the past there’s been financial aid, but students had to pay for tuition, room and board.

"This is the first year that everyone has not had to worry about OK, how do I pay for the housing? You know, how far is my money going to go as far as a meal plan for the summer?" Brown said.

After a one-week break, the UTOP crew returned to campus this week to join about 4,200 other freshmen. They’ll continue to get advice, support and guidance from university staff and fellow UTOP alumni. If the program succeeds, they’ll have the knowledge and support to weather the challenges of college.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.